Featured Artist Lisa Powers

Artist Lisa Powers presents a photographic series based on a tragic life, titled WanRong: The Last Chinese Empress. See more of her work by visiting her website.


Photograph of a Chinese woman in imperial garb by Lisa Powers

“The Forbidden Stitch” Giclée print on Archival Museum Matte Paper, 20” x 20”


WanRong’s story: The last Empress of China was the beautiful and highly educated WanRong who was selected (against her will) to marry Emperor PuYi when she was just 16. WanRong was trapped between her sophisticated modern Western education which she embraced and the confinement of Chinese Imperialist culture in the Forbidden City. After only a couple of years of marriage, PuYi and WanRong were forced out of the Forbidden City by the Japanese invasion and installed as puppet Emperor and Empress of the Japanese state Manchukuo in Manchuria.


Vintage Photos of the real Empress WanRong

Vintage Photos of the real Empress WanRong


WanRong had no love for her husband PuYi and had affairs with his aides. She even gave birth to a daughter but the whereabouts of the child are unknown. It’s clear that WanRong was not permitted to raise her baby girl as PuYi was enraged at her infidelity. There were rumours that PuYi killed the child, and other rumours that the child was given away. WanRong was in such despair that she started using opium as a sedative.

In 1945 (around the end of WWII) the Soviets invaded Manchuria, where Manchukuo was located. PuYi fled for his life, leaving his wife behind. She was captured by the Chinese Communist guards and lived in different internment camps. In 1946, she died of opium withdrawal and malnutrition in prison. She was just 39 years old. To this day, her remains were never found. She vanished completely.


Photograph of a Chinese Empress with two chairs by Lisa Powers

“The Empress with Two Chairs” Giclée print on Archival Museum Paper, 20” x 20”


I don’t “capture” photographs—I create them, building from nothing, in my studio.


Photograph of a Chinese empress in imperial embroidered silk by Lisa Powers

“The Empress in Imperial Embroidered Silk” Giclée print on Archival Museum Paper, 18” x 24”


My fascination with the last Imperials of China began when I was working as a freelance commercial photographer based in New York. One of my favourite clients was Chris Leoni, Art Director at Art & Antiques magazine. While we were discussing ideas for subsequent issues, I suggested a feature on PuYi, the last Chinese Emperor whose exile also marked the end of the Qing Dynasty (1912).


Photograph of a Chinese empress in imperial Yellow by Lisa Powers

“The Empress in Imperial Yellow” Giclée print on Archival Museum Paper, 18” x 24”


Chris was a magician about getting anything we wanted with just a few well-placed phone calls. Soon my studio was filling up with Qing Dynasty garments, furnishings, sculptures, ceramics, jewellery and even an ornate carved wooden door frame from The Forbidden City! I couldn’t believe it. Every day, it seemed more antiquities would arrive. The heavily embroidered garments had been made for Emperor PuYi but I was unable to find a suitable Chinese male model. I told Chris I would shoot the garments on a Chinese female model and perhaps slant the article toward the Empress instead.


Photograph of a Chinese empress in profile by Lisa Powers

“The Empress in Profile” Giclée print on Archival Museum Paper, 18” x 24”


I visited my favourite lions, Patience and Fortitude, at the New York Public Library to research. “Was PuYi ever married?” I wondered. Yes, PuYi had been married, but the library had almost no information on PuYi’s wife, other than her name was WanRong and she died in 1946 at age 39. This was before Wikipedia and Google searches. It was also before digital cameras. I was shooting film with my Pentax 6×7 medium format camera. Adobe Photoshop was still a few years away, but as soon as it became available I bought a Mac computer and immersed myself in learning digital manipulation. By the time I relocated from New York to New Zealand, I had shifted from commercial photographer to photographic artist.


Photograph of a Chinese empress in white by Lisa Powers

“The Empress in the Snow” Giclée print on Archival Museum Paper, 18” x 24”


Recently, I Google-searched WanRong and learned much more about her. What had begun years ago, as a feature article in Art & Antiques magazine had new meaning for me. I had photographed the Emperor’s garments on a woman, imagining a beautiful Empress, and finally found her!


Black and white photograph of a Chinese Empress by Lisa Powers

“Empress in Silver” Giclée print on Archival Museum Paper, 18” x 24”


My photographic art typically starts with a theme or an idea I want to develop into a series. Next, I audition models, discuss direction with make-up artists and hair stylists and find wardrobe (which was much easier in New York than in New Zealand). I prefer shooting in my studio where I can have complete control of the lighting and no distractions from onlookers.


photograph of a Chinese empress with a silk fan by Lisa Powers

“The Empress with Silk Fan” Giclée print on Archival Museum Paper, 18” x 24”


If I’m shooting analogue (film), which I actually still love, then the slides or negatives need to be scanned into digital. For scanning, I use my Hasselblad Imacon which gives me the sharpest and clearest scans. At that point, I’m ready to create my photographic art by blending analogue with digital in my computer with Photoshop. I have an extensive library of film images that I’ve taken over my many years as a commercial photographer and I delve into them for compositing, if needed.


Artist Lisa Powers

Artist Lisa Powers


My photographic art has won many prestigious awards and I’ve exhibited in New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and New Zealand. I’ve also been awarded Distinction Honours by The Royal Photographic Society, United Kingdom.


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  1. Beautiful work. LOVE it!! I’ve been fascinated by Empress WanRong for years. Your photography brought her to life.

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