In Conversation With Crystal Chen

Crystal Chen is an Auckland-based artist. Her practice is diverse and is constantly expanding. Crystal's ability to actualise her ideas through creative mediums enables her to create a rich, portfolio of work that is both tender and energetic. Through photography, film and music, Crystal gives herself space to grow and move through each season of life.

We stopped by Crystal’s photography studio and discussed her creative practices, the life-changing impact of her Mum’s Sony Walkman, and how she curates a successful photoshoot.

Kia ora Crystal, tell us about yourself and what you do.

Kia ora! I am a Chiwi (Chinese-Kiwi) artist born and bred here in Aotearoa. I am a multi-disciplinary artist so I guess I don't confine myself to just one form of art but currently, I am making and performing music, taking photos, directing films, and trying to get better at pottery.

Can you remember the first camera you ever owned?

Yes, of course! I will always remember her and still use her to this day. She was a lovely little Pentax MG 35mm from the 80s that always has its issues but she has been very good to me. I've taken some of my favourite photos on her. That camera allowed me to turn my passion into a career, which is mad that such an old piece of technology could inspire me that way. I became obsessed and have been a camera nerd since. I used to wear her every day, it became a part of my outfit and the main thing I would automatically reach for when something catches my eye.

What drew you to film photography and why is it your preferred medium to create images with?

Probably that feeling of getting your scans back from the lab. It's this indescribable feeling of eagerness, surprise, nostalgia, nervousness, and knowing that your photos are now immortalised in a physical form forever. It's such an adrenaline rush, to the point where you just want to do it more and more, which is what drew me to the process. I worked as a lab technician and film processing is indeed a long and tedious process which is why every frame is important to me since it requires intent. The medium itself is quite sacred to me, recently I've been reflecting upon just how special it is to be able to capture a split second within a minute/hour/day, then forget about it and revisit those memories when you get your scans back. It's such an honour to be able to do that, even when 10 photographers are shooting the same show - there won't be one photo that is exactly the same.

How were you introduced to music and what prompted you to start writing and releasing your own?

I was introduced to music in the womb. My Mum would put a Sony Walkman on her belly and play me songs when I was kicking and apparently, I would calm down. So I guess I've always had a physical reaction to music. When I was young, I would pretend I was in music videos whilst listening to music. I would paint my own world, imagine the shots and even the details like what I would wear and the makeup I would have on. I am heavily inspired by Jazz, Blues, and their influences on other genres, especially live Jazz and the way it makes you feel, I was prompted to write music as a form of expression. Sometimes it's easier to write songs than explain my feelings. Originally, I was in choirs and was a classically trained soprano one, it was pretty intense and there wasn't much creative freedom so I jumped ship and quit! That was one of the best decisions I've ever made because I started making my own music.

What relationship do you have with your creative practises and do you feel that they inform each other?

Yes. My creative practices allow me to grow naturally (which I'm so grateful for) because I have so many, I'm not constantly looking for the next thing. Ideas and opportunities have made their way to me in random ways, I never really force myself to write music, I just do it when I feel like it. When I don't pick up my camera for a week though, my hands get itchy. Personally, I have an intimate connection with my creative practices, ideas often become inspired by aspects of my life in terms of intrusive thoughts and visuals that are very personal to me. All of my creative practices link with each other. When I'm writing music, I often visualise scenes in my mind. An example could be seeing colours that may resonate with chords, or shot changes that correlate with the rhythm. I work with a lot of musicians for their visual assets, and being able to understand their style sonically helps me to capture them accurately.

One of our favorite things about your photography work is your ability to connect with and bring out a very genuine side of your subjects. What is your approach to photographing a person and how do you curate a successful shoot?

Awh thank you, I'm grateful that you can notice that. I think the basis of it all is that the subject must feel comfortable with the photographer and with being in front of the camera, then everything builds from that. It can be a daunting and vulnerable thing, but it can also feel empowering and the subject can be left feeling confident. A lot of the time it's about how you approach the situation. Before a shoot - I like to allow myself to be vulnerable in front of my subject too. I also leave room to let that person become my muse by looking for traits that I find admirable about that person. My approach is by understanding what their art is, what they/we are trying to create with the visual, their style and getting to know the person. I know a shoot is successful when I'm left feeling really good and eager to see the scans, it's similar to how you may feel after a good workout. It's not the case all the time though, and that's fine.

What art have you been enjoying recently?

I've been enjoying pottery and local jazz rap a lot recently. For me, playing with mud has connected with my inner child, not being afraid of getting dirty and making a mess. The cool thing about clay is that it's all reusable, its source is the earth and you can return it to the earth or you can rehydrate it, chuck it on a plasterboard to dry out, then wedge it back together and start over. I just started learning how to throw on the wheel recently and it's quite challenging and is a real test of patience. There's also something so special about eating out of a bowl you made yourself.

We heard you speak about the importance of surrounding yourself with muses, what does this mean to you and who are your muses?

Muses are people who can be the subject of your admiration. For me, I've discovered that not through seeing somebody's beauty necessarily, but more so noticing people in natural/unposed ways in spaces that they inhabit. Muses usually end up being the subject of my photographs. It would consist of moments that cause me to feel a certain way that desires to make a frame. An obvious example could be taking a photo of an artist at a concert, simply because you admire their music and how they may look in the moment that urges you to capture it. It goes from something you notice to something that ends up sticking. Recently, a lot of people around me have been doing just that, except they're not on a stage, they are in my life. They are people who I admire, who I have a great deal of respect for, and people who inspire me. I am also my own muse, I have been getting into self-portraits and sometimes I feel inspired by the way I behave and my thoughts or it could even be as simple as the way I dress.

Where can we find you and your work?

You can find me on Instagram @ccrystal.chen. If you wanna listen to my music, it's on most streaming services but if you really wanna listen to my music, go to my Bandcamp hehe. You can find my visual work on my website however I am thinking of releasing some prints and am in the process of creating a book.


Crystal wears the Charcoal Brooklyn Oversized Shirt and Austin Pant from our March Womenswear Collection. Available Now.

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