Chiun-Kai Shih’s discovery and love of photography is synonymous with his journey to America. After buying his first point-and-shoot camera during a layover on flight from Taiwan to America, he began using the camera to document daily life in America for his father and other family members who remained in Taiwan. Following his passion to the High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and then at the School of Visual Arts, Chiun-Kai had the chance to learn from the masters. He is now based in NYC and has had his work published in various Conde Nast Publications including Vogue Germany, Taiwan, Korea and Mexico, GQ Germany, Taiwan, China, as well as InStyle, Entertainment Weekly, Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Times and VIBE.
Q: What camera and equipment do you use?
A: I use Leica S System, Canon 5D & Hasselblad H40 from time to time with selective assignments; for lighting I use mostly ProPhoto and HMI, of course.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: My work is focused on a lot of people’s energy mixed with fashion, I enjoy unexpected moment with my subject to create sparks and excitements and I think my work is very cinematic and somewhat intense.
Q: What made you decide to go pro?
A: Looking back, it was my first shoot offered by the launch of Conde Nast China – GQ Taiwan in 1998, after I’ve got a taste of the 16 page exclusive fall preview fashion spread from GQ Taiwan, I knew I was no longer an amateur photographer, I’d been published. Also because all eyes were on me after, wondering, “What is Chiun-Kai Shih doing for the next issue and his future?” It takes a lot of hard work to keep it up that’s for sure. I think the expectation of the unknown excitements in the industry of fashion & art photography is what drives me to still have fun with what I do every day in the business.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, a profession?
A: I got my first camera while traveling with my mother and sister coming to America from Taiwan with a stop in Japan’s Narita Airport, it was a Fuji 35mm point-and-shoot film camera, and my subjects were my mom and my sister. Then once I arrived in the US, I didn’t speak a word of English. I started to take photos at school and everything around me so I can send them back home to my grandparents, father and the rest of my family for them to see what America looks like and our living condition. I also wrote captions to all the images. At the time, I think I had no idea I was documenting my life though the camera lens. Later on it was in high school, at the High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts that I started my first B/W photography class. I had learned everything and discovered the magic of the dark room and fell even more in love with photography. Then my high school photography senior portfolio successfully got me accepted into one of the best art colleges in the U.S., School of Visual Arts. I was in for the full scholarship program and completed my BFA in fine art photography. While in college I realized I am drawn more to portraiture and people photography, from then on I decided to photograph people.
Q: Tell us more about your formal education in photography. Did you have any mentors? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: As I mentioned, I received my BFA in fine art photography from the School of Visual Arts. I’ve been in the class room with Richard Avedon, Tom Roma, and the one that really changed my life and opened my vision about life and art, is the world famous fashion photographer Bob Richardson. Bob Richardson was my mentor for two terms in my senior year in SVA. Bob opened my eyes with the fashion industry and fashion photography and he had lead me into the right direction to get me on the map. I was a fan of Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber and Annie Leibovitz, Irving Penn and Mario Sorrenti.
Q: What unique photographic challenges does the fashion industry pose and what draws you to the fashion industry?
A: I enjoy being in the fashion industry because of the people and of course the clothes. I think there is an unique magic between the clothes and the person that is wearing them. I like the refreshes and fun challenges coming from every season’s magazine assignments. The idea can be similar but the images will never be the same. Fashion is a industry for the art and commerce. What I like about the fashion industry is that it still brings me excitement and surprises. I do enjoy sitting in the fashion shows and letting the clothes inspire me with visions. It’s a very interesting combination between the designers and the photographers for fashion. The inspiration is mutual I think.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: I first laid my eyes on a Leica camera back in high school. I just love the body design and the feel of the camera in your hands, the view finder, just beautiful and sexy. I always wanted a Leica camera. Maybe one day I will own a Leica. My eye is set on the Leica M9 at the moment.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography and what does photography mean to you?
A: Photography to me is like a language; you have to learn how to speak to the world though the image or images. I think photographers need to be responsible for all their works and express their mind and soul though the camera. I personally try to take images that makes me smile. It’s like a photo therapy. I think photography brings me happiness and awareness what is around me.
-Leica Internet Team