A sweltering sun in a blue sky beats down on the yellow earth. It’s a scene bursting with pure, vibrant colors, the kind of scene that Hailun Ma, a photographer from in Ürümqi, regularly captures. The landscape sets off the figures in her photos, forming a composition that shows her idiosyncratic take both on her hometown and on traditional beauty standards. “There are two sides to my work,” she says. “One side is an in-your-face femininity, the other side is more relaxed and natural, and closer to everyday life. But where the two sides meet is in my focus on color. I’m drawn to vivid tones and ordinary people.”
Ma’s earliest sense for art came during childhood. She and her family often took nature outings, and as she looked out on green mountain ranges and majestic wildlife, an idea sprouted in her mind: she wanted to be an explorer and an artist. When she got her first camera, she’d put together all sorts of getups and dress up for her self-portraits. That’s how she developed a love for capturing the human element. At age 18, Ma moved to New York to study fashion photography and photography theory at the School of Visual Arts. The eight years she spent in the city, she says, were the most formative time in her life.
On the streets of New York, she saw people sporting all kinds of outfits. They had the courage to express their individuality, the courage to accept their true selves. Ma learned that beauty takes on a wealth of different forms, and she began to turn a critical eye to the beauty standards of China and the rest of Asia. “When I was young, I was never a pretty girl, according to most people’s ideas of beauty. But in New York you can see people of skin tones, ethnicities, and different body shapes,” she says. “You experience a more diverse beauty that takes on a range of forms. I began to reexamine the overly unified, fixed, superficial ideas of beauty I’d had before.“
马海伦对艺术最开始的嗅觉来自童年，小时候的她经常与家人一起游玩在自然风光中，那些青葱的山脉与可爱的动物，萌发了她成为探险和艺术家的想法。获得自己第一台相机之后，她时常在镜头前将自己打扮成各种造型，从此便与人物摄影结缘。十八岁的海伦带着成为专业摄影师的梦想，来到纽约视觉艺术学院（School of Visual Arts）进行摄影理论和时尚摄影的学习，在她看来，呆在纽约的八年是人生中最重要的时光。
Ma integrates this critical thought into her works. From the woman incongruously wearing a floatation device in her Pink Bikini series, to the portraits that look like Renaissance oil paintings, her works give a sense of what’s distinctive about her subjects—whether herself or another person—while blending and exploring Asian and Western cultures. Some even call to mind yishuzhao, the goofy costume photos many Chinese youth remember from their childhood.
Out of love for the land where she grew up, Ma blends traditional Xinjiang customs into her own personal style and seeks to use her camera to show faces from her hometown with a wider audience and in a novel angle. She often returns to Ürümqi, capturing the visual contrast of traditional dress combined with modern aesthetics. She sees fashion photography as a highly personal medium, one she can use to share the distant lands and cultures familiar to her. “Even setting aside the fact that it’s my home, I think Xinjiang is the subject I’ve always wanted to shoot. More importantly, it’s a very interesting place—I think there’s nowhere more diverse within China.” she says. “Maybe it’s because I grew up in a place like Xinjiang, but ‘high fashion’ has always felt very foreign to me. I think the people and styles I’m drawn to are more unaffected. But I also really like doing fashion shoots.”
马海伦将这种批判性思考融入进自己的作品当中，从 Pink Bikini 系列作品中格格不入的游泳圈女生，再到受文艺复兴时期油画影响的肖像作品，从个人再到他人，你会感受每个主角身上明显的个人色彩，以及东西方文化的交融与思辨。一些照片还会让人联想到中国传统的艺术照，贴近生活同时又颇具幽默感。
出于对家乡的喜爱，马海伦将新疆当地的风土人情与个人风格联系在一起，希望用相机对家乡人 “面” 貌进行重塑。她多次往返于故乡，在那里记录下传统服饰与现代审美交融下的视觉冲击。在她的眼中，时尚是一个自陈其说的故事，讲述着那些不为人知的地域和文化，“我觉得新疆会是我一直想要拍的主题，抛开这是我的家乡。 更重要的是，新疆真的是个很有意思的地方。在国内，没有比新疆更让我觉得多元化的地方了。因为可能从小在新疆长大，那种所谓的 high fashion 其实对我来说是很陌生的。我觉得真实的人和风格更吸引我，不过我也很享受拍时尚照片的过程。”
Ma now lives in Shanghai, and her unstinting pursuit of beauty and character has paved the way for her success in the fashion and art worlds. “I really like Shanghai. I think in some ways it’s similar to New York,” she says. Her photography subjects have always included people from different backgrounds, from Japanese model Keisuke Asano to Chinese teen idol Fan Chengcheng, from underground musicians like Chacha and Scintii to the Xinjiang women’s soccer team. “When I take portraits, I start by doing some research, then I come up with an image of the subject in my mind.”
如今的马海伦居住在上海，那些往日里对美和个性化的不断追求，促成了她在时尚和艺术领域的成就，“我很喜欢上海，觉得某种程度和纽约很像”。她的摄影对象也不断涵盖着不同文化背景的人群：日本都市男生浅野启介、中国青春偶像范丞丞、地下音乐女侠客 Chacha 和 Scintii 以及我行我素的新疆足球女孩…… “我在拍摄人物时，会先去做调研，然后将我脑海中他们的样子呈现出来。”
It’s an approach she adheres to on even commercial projects. Ma’s recent Burberry shoot may lack the vibrant backdrops of her other works, but her pared-down palette of cool tones heightens the emotions in her subjects’ faces and captures a youthfulness rooted in the present. “Focusing on youth culture is a pillar of my work,” she says. “What I want to show is the diversity of these young people, along with the diversity of beauty and the diversity of identity.”
在马海伦最近为 Burberry 拍摄的一组照片中，没有以往丰富的背景色，单一的冷色系反而令人物的面部深情更加出神，生动地再现年轻人当下的状态，“关注年轻人和青年文化也是我作品中很重要的部分，我想要表达的，是年轻人多元化的状态，以及对美的多元化，对自己身份认同的多元化”。
For the subject, the image is a candid moment frozen in time; for the photographer, it’s an exploration of artistic concepts. Through her photography, Ma is redefining traditional Chinese beauty standards, even as she’s preserving a moment in China’s youth culture, and it’s this duality that makes her portraits so compelling.
让片刻永存，是被照相者真诚的流露，也是摄影者用艺术打造观念的途径。在她的镜头里，中国传统中关于 “美” 的标准被重新定义。当快门按下，温暖的高光、艳丽的色彩调度、当下青年视角一涌而出；灯光一闪而过，镜头里每一位肖像都楚楚动人。
Exhibition Dates: September 20 to 22, 2019
Shanghai Exhibition Center
Yan’an Middle Road., No. 1000
Jing’an District, Shanghai
Exhibition Dates: Opens September 7, 2019
Yuanling Xincun, Bldg. No. 74
Futian District, Shenzhen
Contributor: Pete Zhang
English Translation: Allen Young