Leslie Zhang has spent the last few years crafting a body of work spanning fashion, portraiture and still life. A vital part of his practice is contributing to the dialogue around contemporary Chinese visual culture. Informed by Eastern iconography of the 80s and 90s, he captures moments of beauty, nostalgia and surrealism. “More and more I’ve realised the things I have the deepest emotional connection to are my memories of growing up in China,” he explains, “I now try to recreate these ambiences and moods in the images I create.”
Zhang is part of a growing range of voices urging us to open our minds to cultural identity. The 26 year-old grew up in Yangzhou and Nanjing in Eastern China. He discovered photography while studying film editing at university. Social media has enabled him to reach a global audience in just a few years. “The biggest exposure for my work is on Instagram and Weibo. There, I have a like-minded community that has given support and opportunities. My first commissions came from fashion editors who had seen my works online; the rest is history,” he says.
His vision is both seductive and serene, exploring ideas of power, fantasy and identity. He has conceived a beautiful world where Asian bodies, lives and narratives can be celebrated, filtered through his millennial influences. “In China, the iconography of the 80s and 90s is often ignored regarding aesthetic relevance. But they remain in the collective memory of my generation. There is great beauty in this hybrid of modernist, communist and traditional Chinese influences, punctuated by waves of postmodernism from Hong Kong and the West,” he says.
“It is a time when China has experienced great economic development coupled with an influx of western influences, all building upon a socialist foundation. It’s difficult to pin this to an exact style or movement, it could be as simple as the design of the school uniform we wore, or the typeface used in blackboard propaganda, or noughties music videos from Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is exciting for me because it was my reality. I lived through all these references,” says Zhang.
Shooting exquisite editorials for Vogue China, Nylon China and A Magazine Curated By has helped establish his presence in fashion. His stories question attitudes on beauty, the body and sensuality. His models are of this time, while simultaneously suspended in an odd, futuristic space, heightened by vibrancy of colour, and a note of romance and nostalgia.
He blends elements of fashion with fiction, yet grounding them in reality. Unusual details or bizarre moments lend the images a surrealist air. “High fashion has always centred in Europe and the US,” Zhang states. “But in China, and across Asia, the landscape looks a whole lot different, we can bring something new.”
Little Flexes, a personal body of work exploring young athletes training is his most well-known project to date. The images sit in a more documentary realm, unified by graphic compositions, offbeat poses and playful use of colour. “Gymnastics as a sports culture has a distinct mark in my memory, as in many others who grew up at the same time in China. I think the state-run gymnastics training programme is the epitome of the beauty distilled from the collective memories of my generation,” he tells us.
When we discuss his creative approach, Zhang reveals his very focused, diligent nature. “I plan a lot before every shoot. Too much uncertainty and spontaneity makes me nervous,” he says. “However, I try not to be completely rigid as I think surprises can be even more beautiful. Teamwork is not easy, and managing expectations and convincing collaborators of a vision is a constant compromise.”
A sense of serenity fills Zhang’s frame. While his subjects range from regal fantasy to real people, there is a sense of magic and wonder, transforming ordinary moments with disarming beauty. Beyond aesthetics, he is deftly adding to the voice and vision of the next generation of Chinese creatives, broadening the conversation and representation from his unique point of view.