Photographer Chiun-Kai Shih makes mobile fashionable
Many mobile photography enthusiasts may have already heard of fashion photographer extraordinaire Chiun-Kai Shih, or have at least tried out the two lenses from the popular Hipstamatic app that the photographer had a hand in co-creating: The Americana lens, which debuted earlier this year, and the popular lens from last year with the funny name: Chunky -- Shih’s nickname. But Shih’s involvement with mobile photography extends beyond his collaboration with Hipstamatic.
As they say in the fashion business, you’re either “in,” or you’re “out.” And it’s certainly not easy staying in, as it requires always being one step ahead of trends. Perhaps it’s that forward-thinking approach, though, that has led the fashion world to embrace the concept of mobile photography so quickly and seamlessly.
There are many fashion photographers known for who they collaborate with. Others are known for a particular style or mood in their photos. And some are known for their incredible work ethic. And then there’s Chiun-Kai Shih -- or “Chunky,” as most people call him -- who’s recognized for all of the above, but is perhaps best known for his fun, energetic presence and super infectious personality.
The Taiwanese-born Shih, who is good looking, with a slim but muscular build on a small frame, is actually anything but chunky. Though perhaps his larger-than-life personality adds weight to the nickname. To anyone who knows him in the fashion world, he’s one of the most sought-after photographers in the business, desired for the creative environment he brings to his sets, his keen intuition, a knack for bringing out storytelling and emotion in his photos, and his gracious talent for collaboration.
As a creative director and photographer, Shih’s work has focused on editorials, as well as some advertising projects and lookbooks. A large portion of his work so far has been based in Asia/Southeast Asia with Conde Nast China. But because of his ever-growing popularity fostered by his collaborations with Hipstamatic, an appearance on MTV’s “Super Made,” and his upcoming appearance on “Fashion Hunters,” a TV show on Bravo, Shih’s reach has been extending further into the U.S. market. His work has appeared in Vogue, GQ, and Details in America, as well as Malaysian magazines August Man and JMen, and the Hong Kong publication Jessica, to name just a few. But next year his projects will tackle more of Hollywood, where he plans to do a new spin on fashion editorials involving well-known actors.
Shih’s already impressive client list ranges from some of the top supermodels of the fashion industry to rising superstars, as well as celebrities from film, TV and music. Just a small selection of the people he’s photographed include Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Noah Mills, Novak Djokovic, David Gandy, Theophilus London, Selita Enabks, Alicia Keys, Cindy Crawford and many, many others.
Shih’s enthusiastic energy and big heart help him form lasting bonds with these celebrities, that often extends beyond their working relationship. But Shih admits that sometimes his bubbly and outgoing personality can be too much to take for more reserved types.
“People either love Chunky or they hate Chunky,” he says. “But mostly they love me if they get to know me!”
Fashion and photography become one
Shih himself was given his very first camera -- a Fuji 35mm point-and-shoot -- at the tender age of 10, just as he, his mother, and his sister were moving from Taiwan to live permanently in the United States. A natural photojournalist, he would use the camera to take a bunch of photos and then write essays on the back of them (for his grandparents back home) explaining where he was, who he was with and why the photo was taken.
His mom, meanwhile, was intensely devoted to clothes and fashion, and according to Chunky she was always shopping.
“She would constantly take me to Macy’s!” Shih recalled. “I still have pics of me when I was like 12 and standing in Harold’s Square in front of the world’s largest department store. We went to Macy’s every single day. Not even once a week, but literally every day! I’m serious."
Shih would often be told by his mother to sit in just one spot by the window while she went shopping. From there, he would watch the salespeople changing the clothes on the mannequins. After a while, these workers would ask the young Shih to give them a hand because they were used to seeing the young lad.
“I was constantly handling the latest fashions,” he recalled, “and so I kind of got fascinated with this world because of that. I just discovered I really liked clothes. I found it really funny that we had to dress the mannequins a certain way first, and then that’s how people shopping would end up dressing like."
Shih attended the famous LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, where he was an art major and learned about painting, sculpture, drawing and other artistic mediums. But photography opportunities were limited.
“Back then, photography was more of a rich person’s game,” Shih recalls. “The camera, the lenses, the film -- everything cost so much money! I was working really hard in my family’s restaurant to save up for gear and film.”
Shih was fascinated by darkroom, where he learned to develop both black and white and cross-processed film.
“I was never that great in sciences like chemistry, but I learned to master the chemistry in photography by using all kinds of different developers, like D-76 or HC-110 -- all these different chemicals, where it depended on the warming of the temperature, or how long you developed a particular film. It wasn’t always consistent, and often experimental, but there was a surprising element to it all!”
Shih’s interest in fashion increased even more when he studied with the late, great fashion photographer Bob Richardson (father of Terry Richardson) in college. Richardson brought a visceral street aesthetic to fashion photography that has influenced major magazines ever since -- and as Shih’s professor for over two years, he pushed his student to develop a creative style and vision that he could make his own, and to finally marry his love for photography and fashion into a new career.
From that point on, fashion photography became Shih’s obsession.
"It’s almost like a drug," he described. "The excitement is always so high, because there’s always different seasons with new designers and new ideas I can play off of with photography.”
Falling in love with the iPhone
Shih’s love affair with the iPhone began more than three years ago when his previous cellphone broke, and he needed a replacement.
“My boyfriend was like ‘No, no, no … we’re not going to get you the same, crappy flip-phone again. Come with me, I’m going to change your life!’ And he dragged me -- at 11:30 p.m. at night, mind you -- to the famous Fifth Avenue Apple Store [in New York City], which is open 24 hours. On my birthday!”
It was an iPhone 3GS, and it turned out to be one of the best birthday gifts the photographer ever received.
From that point on, Shih’s taken his iPhone to almost every set or project that he works on. At first, Shih snapped iPhone shots on set for just himself. But as the camera advanced with every new model, and the megapixel size of the photos increased, he began incorporating some of these photos into the work that ended up being published. To Shih, the gear he uses is not as important as getting “the right moment” -- and he finds the iPhone allows for more opportunities to capture those moments.
“The camera technology on the iPhone is just so accessible,” says Shih. “I work with some of the highest brands of cameras, from Leica, to Canon, to Sony -- many of them are small, and even pocket-sized. But somehow, I have all of them sitting on my desk right now! I still have the passion to collect the newest models...but I just don’t even want to pick them up and bring them with me anymore. Why bother when the iPhone can do just as good? The iPhone just has all these incredible apps, and I can incorporate them into my daily life, from private to professional -- it’s great both ways.”
Now when Shih does a photo shoot, like a cover, he may use a Leica or Canon for the actual finished image, but he also always uses his iPhone to capture all of the behind-the-scenes, spontaneous moments. It’s the latter he often finds most interesting, and many of them have been published in magazines like GQ, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. The demand for higher-resolution images has become less common in our modern digital world, while the cameras in phones keep getting better and better. Recent issues of GQ China ran some images that Shih took using Hipstamatic on his iPhone.
“I also have a lot of teasers coming out,” he said. “Almost all of them exclusively using Hipstamatic.”
Being hip to Hipstamatic
Shih’s involvement with one of the most popular photo apps on the iPhone happened so naturally, it was like it was always meant to be.
Shih met the Hipstamatic team in 2010 when Mario Estrada, VP of Special Projects and “Director of Fun,” and app creators, Lucas Buick and Ryan Dorhorst, got to see him in action at an exhibition-style photo shoot for Levi’s. Impressed with the photographer’s energy, they ended up chatting with him about potential future projects, at which point Shih proposed that Hipstamatic make its foray into the fashion world via New York Fashion Week.
“I told them it would be an amazing opportunity to gear themselves towards glamour and fashion portraiture. That it would be a great way to break in to that world,” Shih said.
While everyone involved seemed to be excited about a possible collaboration, no one quite knew what direction it would take at first. For the next month, Buick and Shih chatted via Skype, and artistic vision met technological possibility. Buick began to conceive a specially-made lens based around Shih and his particular fashion style -- a filter that would be a little on the reddish side, to evoke Shih’s warm outlook and give a happy feel, but also add a little “spice.” The lens would also have unpredictable light-leak flares, to reflect Shih’s fiery personality.
“Chiun-Kai embodied everything we loved about pro Hipstamatic users,” said Estrada. “A true love for storytelling and the energy to keep you entertained. And so we decided we needed to ‘bottle’ his passion into a new HipstaPak and that’s how the Chunky lens was born a couple months later with a release for New York Fashion Week.”
The Chunky lens, which came with the SoHo HipstaPak, proved to be one of Hipstamatic’s most successful in-app purchases. The following year, Shih teamed up with Hipstamatic again for the Americana lens. This time, the lens would take on a cooler tone and more classic look. Hipstamatic promoted the Made in America HipstaPak by providing an advance preview of the lens and two accompanying films to 11 designers -- including Steven Alan, Robert Geller, Phil Russo (Cole Haan), and Andrew Buckler (Converse) – inviting them to document a visual diary of their process and their American Dream, which ultimately turned into a gallery show in NYC.
Since co-creating the two lenses with Hipstamatic, Shih is now a faithful, excited and very optimistic iPhone photographer.
“I do believe that people who hold the iPhone have a lot of power, in that they don’t have to compete with all of these big, clunky cameras,” Shih said. “Their vision is in that phone, and all they need to do is point, shoot and share.”
The iPhone is always in fashion
Shih noticed a wider use of the iPhone as a camera in the fashion world overall, from fellow photographers, to models and designers.
“It’s such a great design,” he explained, “and the apps are so brilliant and easy to use. Everything you need is right there, and the results always look so good.”
“A celebrity will sometimes go into certain environments, and they don’t want anyone taking their photos, but they want to take beautiful photos themselves -- of what they’re doing -- and keep it private. The iPhone is perfect for that. Meanwhile, supermodels -- who want to keep a diary of their lives -- they can use something like the iPhone and do it all themselves. They don’t need a professional photographer like myself to always follow them around taking all their photos.”
Shih believes that a lot of the appeal of the iPhone in the fashion world is its accessibility, as well as its aesthetics.
“It’s just so lovable! It’s so small, cute and easy to use,” Shih said citing the ease with which you can upload images to social media networks. “The fashion world moves quickly, and people don’t want to waste time with unnecessary things that suck up a lot of time. The fashion world is youth-focused too, and young people are attracted to whatever’s hip, fresh and new. And well, there’s nothing cooler than the iPhone!”
Anton Kawasaki (@anton_in_nyc), has become known for his intimate and candid street portraits, which capture the people of New York in "moments" that express love, despair, humor, and the multitude of emotions that make up daily life. His images have been featured in several magazines and in exhibitions in various cities around the world. He co-teaches a series of online workshops on mobile photography, and is a visual storyteller/mobile photographer for hire. He is also a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group. He currently resides in Brooklyn with his husband Sion Fullana -- a pioneer in the mobile photography movement.