Daniel Lee


Interview/ Daniel Lee / Digit

Q: Manimals portraits are exceptional. What provoked you to find such a deeply hidden nature of humans? And is it a hidden nature?

I think that all creative art requires a gradual step-by-step process. Coming up with the concept of Manimals had a lot to do with the photo experimentation I engaged in for several years. I started out with some basic skills that eventually developed into a specialized style, after which I started exploring possible concepts.
I grew up in a conservative country surrounded by Buddhism. The Buddhists believe in reincarnation and the circle of life, which includes humans, animals, angels and demons. I believe in Darwin’s evolution and I think that we still retain some animal instincts within our behavior.

Q: When Manimals concept has begun? What was the first Manimal art?

I lived in New York City during the '80s which allowed me to see many exhibitions within the Soho area. At the time, I was a professional photographer and the exposure to the different fine art media stimulated my sense of creativity. I started to envy the artists of different media who were able to express themselves so freely. I felt photography was limiting. It also had a lot to do with the fact that I was trained in painting as a college student.
In the early 90’s digital technology was just starting to take root. The first thing that came to my mind was the Chinese Zodiac - something relating to my culture. I thought it would be interesting if I could create a series of 12 portraits which representing the 12 different Zodiac signs from the Chinese calendar. For instance, a person born in the year of the ox would resemble an ox-like humanoid. This was how I got my concept of the 'Manimal' series.
I started with the Dog, since my close working partner, Ken Thompson was born in the year of the Dog.

Q: Could you describe the process of making Manimal portrait from? The beginning (taking any as an example). How many pictures do you have to take? How long do you work on one Manimal? How many and what sort of changes does the portrait need?

Ken was photographed in my studio with a Hasselblad, medium format camera. I took two rolls of Ektachrome ASA100 film. Then scanned the image with onto PhotoCD as digital files. I went to a computer-retouching studio, working with a retouching artist friend, Michael Shen. We tried to shorten the face, to remove his eyebrows and to separate his eyes, etc. I learned that it was impossible to ask someone else to create an image exactly as I wanted. But, it helped me tremendously in picking up the technique of Adobe PhotoShop.
As a result, I invested some money into a Macintosh Quadra 950, my first computer.
In three weeks, I went through at least 7 or 8 versions of the dog-man on my own. Basically, I had a lot to learn about the software. More than that, I needed to create an image that is believable yet, something unusual. I brought a lot of books about animals as a resource. I learned that the difference between man and animal is that a man's face is more flat compared to the pointed face of an animal. Animals also have more separated eyes, and a shorter forehead and jaws...

Q: How do you achieve or maintain the very good quality of new parts of face? When do you know that it is enough, meaning what degree of animosity or humanity is the limit?

Technically, it took a lot of zoom-ins to work into the details and a lot of zoom-outs to view the whole picture. I'd cut out a section with a soft-feathered edge, then use the “distort”, “scale” or “rotate” tools and paste it on somewhere to be worked on. I manipulate everything with the photo elements; trying not to use any airbrush or drawing tools, keeping it as photo realistic as possible.
It's always very hard to know what is enough, or how far to push it. I had no idea how a dog-liked person should look like. But I wanted to make a humanistic dog-like portrait, not necessarily a monster from a horror movie, so that people would relate it to themselves.

Q: How does your model respond seeing all your changes?

Well, I used to ask people who worked around me to be my models in the beginning. Most of them got freaked out when I showed them the results. I think it was uncomfortable to see what they could be changed into. They thought it would become something funny or interesting. Instead, they were faced with some very suggestive or revealing images of themselves.
After many years later, more publications of my work were circulated, and I started receiving commission work from individuals directly. Then I got replies from admirers. Recently, I've received many calls from people to volunteer as my models. That's what happened in my latest project “Nightlife”. I can tell that most models were pretty excited when they showed up for the opening of the exhibition.

Q: I understand that choosing computer to make Manimals was important. Does it mean that you wanted the very realistic look, picture-like of the people you create? Why? Is it to shock. What realism means to you?

Yes, I wouldn’t have the concept or the ability to create Manimals if there was no personal computer developed at that time. As I maintained earlier, I saw that computer technology offered me a great deal of freedom, or rather an unlimited extension of traditional photography. Manimals was presented in photographic form since I was a photographer at that time.
You are so right! People do get shocked when they see images from my Manimal series because it looks so seamlessly real in a photo-like way. They believe their eyes are experiencing something they’ve never seen before. I think the other reason comes from the fact that Manimals remind people about themselves, their past, or something they prefer not to face.

Q: You have been making Manimals for some time. Can you observe the difference now and then? Is there any? Can you say there is progress in your observations and art?
Does the consequence lead you somewhere? Is the Evolution series the answer?

I used the Chinese Zodiac with my first Manimals series in 1993. Then I made “Judgment” in 1994 and “108 Windows” in 1996. They were all based on the Chinese mythological theory of life. The visuals suggested the similarity between humans and animals, what was human and what was spiritual…
Then, I moved to the subject of Darwin’s evolution. Which was seen in the series “Origin”, which I did in 1998-1999. I took the challenge from changing the face to changing the entire body. From an artistic approach, I wanted to make some type of statement on life instead of simply creating a startling image.
In my recent project “Nightlife”, I wanted to express from what I see and think about people in today’s environment. Style wise, I tried to rearrange many individuals together as a large group mural. Beside taking advantage of the computer's capabilities, it was also the first time for me to create a color piece. In a way, to bring the texture of life closer to the work.
I‘m sure that all artists are trying very hard to make progress in their work. Unfortunately, such a progress is so hard to achieve, and it’s something that one can't always expect. I can’t say if there’s a clear progress in my observations and art myself. I just try to do my best from what I have learned in each previous approach. After all, I believe spontaneity and sincerity are what art is all about.

Q: Tell us something about very intriguing series, which is Origin. What artistic (computer based?) problems did you have here?

I had a big problem while I was working on my “Judgment” project, when I tried to suggest the half-human, half-animal quality within the bodies. The bodies ended up looking less convincing than face, which bothered me very much.
That was more of an artistic issue to me, nothing really to do with the computer. Later in 1996, I got an opportunity involving a digital animation project; I solved the problem of making the body change as well. It encouraged me to move onto my “Origin” series.
There were always problems regarding photo-realism, such as creating an object from scratch with no accurate references. For “Origin”, I had to make a 50 million-year old fish, a fish-like reptile, a human-like ape, and then I need to link them together as a sequence. I was facing a series of challenges; maybe that was what I enjoyed the most about it.

Q: 13 people in the Nightlife, are it the coincidence or there are some resemblance with da Vinci's Last Supper?

I had made 10 pieces of work with 12 characters for “Nightlife” first. Each one of them was prepared as a part of a sequence from a sidewalk cafe scene. Then I got the idea why not make a whole picture together. And de Vinci's “Last Supper” popped in my mind at the same time. I didn’t want to create a controversial subject matter but I liked the layout of de Vinci's “Last Supper” and the large group dinning scene. So, I made my version of it, which has no religious implications.
I put myself in the picture as an anxious outsider, as a monkey on the street watching what other people were doing. I want to describe the way I saw myself and the way I saw relationships between today’s men and women.

Q: Please tell us something about yourself. What you do at the moment. What are your nearest plans?

I grew up in a difficult time after World War II and in a difficult place, namely Taiwan. I became a troubled kid as a result of incidents in school and my father’s military-like discipline. It added a degree of resistance and suspicion to my character, I suppose.
The turning point came after I went to the art school. It demonstrated that I could do something better than other students.

I’m working on a book-jacket project at the moment; I don’t know how long it will take me to come up with a concept or motivational factor for my next project. The only thing I’ve thought about was to predict our future. I think all artists are entitled to imagine what the future is like.