“What is authenticity? It’s a moving target, just like everything that relates to human beings.”
Chris Chen is positing that just because something is authentic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, and in this instance, he’s talking about D.C.’s elevated food scene. While the seasoned government lawyer and longtime photographer is supportive of the waves chefs are making in the local restaurant industry, his definition of authenticity is someone craving a dish the way their mom makes it – even if their mom is a lackluster cook.
“I understand why there are chefs trying to make food more prestigious, and that’s fine, but I ain’t paying $12 for a soup dumpling. I don’t care if it’s made with Wagyu beef or whatever the hell you’ve done. I’m glad that you can get away with charging that and some tech bro who’s just moved to D.C. is willing to pay for it. But me, Chris Chen? I am not going to pay that.”
In the same breath, he is quick to tell me that he’s skipped the epic line at Columbia Heights hotspot Bad Saint to get his order to-go, which we all know was not as common at trendy restaurants in the city pre-Covid. All of this boils down to one thing: Chen is a bit of an anomaly.
He actually grew up in the area and has vast historical knowledge of the ways D.C. has changed over his lifetime, and that of his father and grandfather before him, which is a fairly unique perspective in our transient city. The Montgomery County, Maryland native shares stories of his dad riding the trolley in the District and cheering on former football team the Washington Senators, and his grandfather sporting a racoon coat, driving a Model T and shopping at department store Garfinckel’s, an institution of D.C. past.
Oldies taken by Chris Chen.
And yet, he’s a fixture in the city’s creative scene, documenting what makes the District hip and relevant through his lens. He navigates with ease between mentioning local up-and-comers like indie band Den-Mate and divulging how he snuck a film camera from the 1940s into a 9:30 Club show and stealthily took photos of The Jesus and Mary Chain. He has hometown pride, but remains realistic about prevalent city issues like the ever-looming and always complicated topic of gentrification – or as he likes to call it, the “lame-ification” – of certain pockets of D.C.
“As much as I’ve complained about gentrification over the past few years, this is the same time period that a lot of my friends are finally succeeding – and all of that is at risk now,” he says, reflecting on our current state during the pandemic. “It’d be great for the cost of living to go down, but I don’t want all of my friends to be out on the street. It’s tough, and I’m not any more perceptive than anybody else about how we’re going to come out of this.”
Chen says the city’s stay-at-home order feels like a weird flashback to 1991, when he moved home post-law school during a recession.
“The city was a lot less cosmopolitan. There were a lot fewer restaurants. None of my friends lived in D.C. so I never saw them. [Now], the streets are deserted and nobody’s out and about. The only difference is I have a lot less hair and a lot more money.”
He’s seen the city embrace and resist palpable changes in the past three decades, but has never really wavered from his desire to keep living here. After 28 years as a federal employee living in an apartment in Kalorama, he’s aware that he’s living comfortably, and it allows him to invest a great deal of his livelihood in his photography.
“Most of what I do is take pictures of my friends doing cool stuff, so I see myself more as a documentarian than an artist,” he says. “[As D.C.] got cooler, I knew the people who were making it cool. My friends were making the city a better place. I feel like I’m just a tiny part of that by documenting it, but it never felt right that I should abandon them because it’s not like I need to go someplace else. Why don’t I stay here and support my friends? Plus, I can’t afford to move anywhere [laughs].”
Recent photos taken by Chris Chen.
Chen carries a camera with him at all times. He jokes that he’s like Flavor Flav, except that instead of a clock hanging around his neck, he has 100-plus cameras he can choose from whenever he leaves the house.
“If I’m leaving my apartment for more than five minutes, I’m going to have a camera with me. It’s more of a habit now. There are basically two kinds of photographers. Either you like to create images, or you capture them. I’m in the second category. If there’s something that’s interesting, I’ll take a picture of it.”
He first got really interested in photography when shooting for a myriad of local publications like Brightest Young Things, which he remembers from its Myspace days, and a much earlier iteration of On Tap Magazine (editor’s note: On Tap rebranded as District Fray in March). Chen took photos at concerts and events, gaining access to bands he wanted to check out and making social connections along the way.
“Photography was a way for me to meet people, as well as a creative outlet.”
As the years passed, his friend group grew and his need to catch shows for free lessened, but he continued to take photos while out and about. His former blog has been replaced by his Instagram account @furcafe, where he posts both new and old shots from his portfolio. Chen’s Instagram has become a way for him to dig into the archives and pull out some gems from years past.
“The bulk of my Instagram is these throwback pictures. Those are the ones that get all the likes. It’s like, ‘Oh, 20 years ago, that was a liquor store? Now it’s a church.’”
He also uses social media as motivation to post in real-time, transmitting photos from his camera to his phone and editing them in quick succession for Instagram galleries. Otherwise, the backlog begins to feel overwhelming. He discloses that his freezer is completely full of film and his fridge is half-full, and a leading factor in why he agreed to this interview was to have a reason to sort through photos from the past few years.
Chen rotates through his camera collection on a regular basis, exploring on foot and capturing moments and glimpses of D.C. life that might normally go unnoticed by our type A inhabitants. Quarantine has somewhat limited his creative flow since he can’t see or take photos of his friends, but he’s embracing the challenge by spending more time in his own neighborhood and shooting subjects he wouldn’t normally, like trees and cats.
It seems there isn’t a nook or cranny of D.C. that he isn’t familiar with, both as it stands now and what it looked like 20 years ago. But he describes each experience as a discovery and not a regurgitation – a mark of true artistry. His fervor for capturing the District in photos extends to his impressive memory of how we’ve ebbed and flowed as a city through the eyes of three generations of Chens, and his experiences building his own community. As he shares a few final nuggets of local history, he says something that resonates as we prepare to shift to a new paradigm as a city.
“You don’t know where people are coming from until you know where they are coming from.”
Without knowing someone’s story, you can’t truly know what makes them tick. In an era when connecting with the people around us is our strongest shot at rebuilding D.C., Chen’s insight is worth taking to heart.
Follow Chen on Instagram @furcafe.