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Photography Inspiration from Chiun-Kai Shih: Closed Set with Julie Bensman

Chiun-Kai ShihMy family is the worst at taking pictures. My mother will be the first to admit this. It’s not that we don’t WANT to remember the birthdays, vacations, and monumental moments of our past; rather, we’re just having too much fun to remember the little black box stowed deep inside Mom’s suitcase. She put it there with genuine intention that THIS would be the vacation where she was snap, snap, snapping away, catching candid moments we’d look back on later to laugh uproariously, cry whole-heartedly, or smile with sweet nostalgia. And then…she forgot.

Like mother, like daughter; I received a beautiful camera a few years back and literally cannot tell you where it’s stored in my room. Fortunately for people like the Bensmans, the latest apps let you download camera phone lenses that make anyone look like my dear friend and uber-talented photographer, Chiun-Kai Shih. In fact, Chiun-Kai has an eponymous Hipstamatic fashion lens called Chunky (his commonly-used nickname), which has become one of the most popular lens apps of all time. “I’m inspired by people, relationships, and the energy of life, not trends,” he told me over a coffee date in Chelsea last week. “I think people sometimes see me as this wild child, running around like a chicken without a head, but it’s what I do — I’m a portraiture photographer inspired by personalities."

Whether through photos or in person, it’s not unusual for Chunky to be inspiring people. He’s a Conde Nast China Contributing Creative Director and has also shot for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar China, InStyle, The New York Times and, yes, a few of the magazines I work for (Ocean Drive’s Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 fashion editorials, as well as one of my all-time favorites, our "It Kids" shoot for the Spring 2010 issue of Gotham). The Gotham shoot was the first one we’d ever worked on together and it was during the pre-production stage when Chunky told me he already booked a DJ because “good music was imperative to the success of the shoot” that I knew I loved him.

Last year, Leica tapped him as an ambassador for its Leica S2, a camera which Chunky now uses exclusively — check him out in action shooting Nic Roldan for GQ Taiwan. “I think fashion photography is so underrated in our world today — there’s so much more substance there than people sometimes give it credit for,” he says. “Photography is evidence of a feeling and an experience. It makes us confront our fears and desires.”

Fear and desire: two appropriate words for my photographic experiences. But for those of you who aspire to one day enter the world of fashion photography, Chunky has this piece of advice: “Figure out what turns you on and not be afraid to go after it. The best photographers are not the most technical — they are the ones who can tap into their instinct and, in that, find inspiration.”

xoxo, Julie