As a photo director, I don’t usually talk about favorite photographers. It seems reductive and crass. But today it seems right to admit that Ren Hang is my favorite photographer. He died today at the age of 29.
Ren transformed photography by transforming the human body — no part was safe from his subversion. Testicles stretched, breasts morphed, mouths filled with smoke, disembodied heads floated in bathtubs. The resulting images were the closest we humans get to pure magic. In fact, I have spent most of my career trying — and failing — to rip him off.
Ren’s work picked up where Guy Bourdin, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Jimmy De Sana left off. He understood that metaphor and beauty can be found in the simple surreality of the human body. I never found Ren’s work to be all that sensual even though his models were always naked, often shaved, straddled, or adorned with snakes, flowers, smoke, fish, peacocks, or fruit. Instead, each image was like a boiled down elixir of creative joy and extreme intimacy — a playful rethinking of sex and the human form. Unlike us mere humans, Ren was never limited by the physicality of skin and bone. He transformed the body into magical vessels for art and quirk. His images were declarations of love.
In the photography community we talk a lot about magic. Photography is magic. The stopping of time is magic. The capturing of light is magic. The flattening of the world into two dimensions is magic. And in a world full of magicians, Ren Hang was Houdini.