Developments in computer technology have had an enormous impact on photography. How is the photographer's situation changing spiritually and materially because of this?
To me, it's a revolution. It's almost like when movies began to take the place of the theater. I think the computer technology is making a big step forward for photography. It provides modern technique for visual results and lets you use your imagination. It goes beyond illustration and painting for me. And it overcomes the shortcomings of photography, too.
I had been watching the technology changing very carefully. In 1992, when I saw the computer monitor and its output could matching the photograph, I knew that some very important changes were going on. I knew I would have to get involved in computer imaging. It is a great advantage for a photographer today to move into computer technology. The entire process, from taking the photo to retouching the image and rearranging image to be pre-press ready; all of it gives the photographer more control. I always used to complain to the printers because they would change my work. Now I can control most of the steps up to the final stage.
I think that traditional photography will continue to exist side-by-side with digital, What is your opinion?
Well, I had been working in traditional photography since 1976. I put in a tremendous amount of work, and spent a lot of time trying to do photography very seriously. I think traditional photography will always be there. But the future will be digital imaging because it avoids the waste of labor and time in the industry. It also provides the photographer with much more freedom to develop ideas than traditional photography.
In the future, I think most photographers are going to use digital imaging to complement their work. The concept of the "photograph" will be changed by electronic imaging. Instead of using film, we will be transferring our images for photofinishing via the computer networks. Since the need for traditional photography is going to be limited, it will not continue side by side with digital. I think people will be using traditional means in some specific areas, like classical artwork,With traditional photography there was such a thing as the "original print," But with digital work it is more difficult to define original print. Do you say that the enlarged print is your own original ?
First of all, I think that in traditional photography, we can say that there are original prints, or original artwork. In black and white photography, the naked film could be construed as the original artwork. In color photography the original could be the transparency. In digital photography, however, you might have to call the digital file the original artwork. The work itself is actually a data, You can open it, you can manipulate it, but it is not something you can touch physically. I think if we have to define "original" in digital photography, then the digital file is it.
The artist controls his own file, and then the printer can use that file to make a printout. Then the first printing can be called the artist's proof or the first copy. Then with the second print you can, for example, make it a little darker, or open up the shadow details. You can use color correction. These things can all be changed immediately. So then you can't call the print an original print any more.
Digital technology certainly has changed our thinking about what the original work Is. But l choose to think that everything that comes out in the photographer's work -- the first step -- should be regarded as the original. I think that for the artist the original is really the exhibition or presentation. The whole presentation is the original art. And everything shown in this one-time presentation is the original work. The same presentation shown again somewhere else, in a different setting, would be something new again. The artist should have this kind of freedom -- and keep an open mind for presentation.
That is why the original as such is not that important any more. The only reason I still sign my work is for limited editions. It stresses the value of those prints among other work. That value is for collectors only. For me, if I can show some work in a magazine, that's a presentation to me also. I show my work in books. This is also a presentation. And then we have to keep one piece as the original, which has value, like a masterpiece? I don't really think we need to do that.
In a sense, the role of photography is widening: from recording the world we see to expressing the artist's vision of the world. How do you consider this as an artist?
Well, I had training in fine art, both in undergraduate and graduate school. I think the reason I switched from painting to photography is because I preferred the modern medium. Photography is something I can use to express myself more directly than with other media.
As an artist I enjoy very much being a photographer because photography allows us to work in so many different areas. From recording the world as seen in photojournalism, to art and commercial photography. There is such a diversity of subjects for the photographer to choose from.
Photography, of course, is very technical. I have spent around twenty years working on the techniques, but right now, the computer technology is giving the photographer so much more leeway. It's almost like the saying in Chinese about giving a pair of wings to a tiger. The tiger was a very powerful beast to begin with. But giving the tiger wings enables it to do almost anything. So it is with photography. There was a time when photography was kind of limited, But the computer technology has given photography unlimited power.
I've done different things at different stages in my career. Before, I was thinking, what is the most important thing a photographer should do? And the answer was to capture our life. That is why l went to China. I went to the minority areas between China and Burma, and l took photographs of minority people there in an attempt to capture their way of life. I tried to preserve something of their way of life on film because it might be disappearing someday.
But later on I became dissatisfied with simply trying to capture things. I have this kind of mind driving me that wants to create. It's not that creating things is more important than capturing things with the camera, I wouldn't say that. But I was trained as an artist in the first place. If I stopped creating things l would probably start feeling sorry for myself. That's why, these years, in my work I was trying to create new images. Something that people have had no experience of in the past. The computer has allowed me, as an artist, to do this...to express my imagination, to share things with other people. At this moment these are the kinds of images that are important to me. And for the moment, using photography to record or capture life is less important than the creative work I'm doing on the computer.
The "Manimals" prints for the exhibition were very large. What is the size of those prints, and where and how did you print them out?
This work has already been shown twice in the last three years in New York. The first show was of the 12 "Manimals" and the second show was called "Judgment." The prints in those two shows were of different sizes and different materials. The "Manimals" were C-prints. I made internegatives from the original 8 x 10 transparency output. The 8 x 10s are a product called LVT from Kodak. It has a very high resolution. From these I made the internegatives also in 8X10 format. And then I made the enlarged 24X30" color prints.
The images for the second series "Judgment" are supposed to be characters in the Buddhist underworld courthouse. The idea is really about Judgment Day when we are judged on our lives. If we are judged sinners. we are turned into animals. If we are judged otherwise, we will become human beings again in the next reincarnation. The characters came from Chinese mythology.
The images for that series were direct digital output by a Laser Master inkjet system. All prints were printed and controlled by a digital imaging company called I-Con in New York. The printer is similar to the Iris system. I chose the Laser Master system because Iris prints are limited in size. They can only go to 30 x 40 inches. Laser Master lets you go as big as 50 x 80. Also the price is actually a little bit less than Iris.
I heard that your last solo exhibition was very successful at OK HARRIS Gallery in New York. Could you tell us about the exhibition ?
My first computer-generated images were shown at OK HARRIS at the end of 1993. I got a very good response for the work in that show. Then I worked on the second theme, "Judgment," which was shown at OK HARRIS towards the end of 1994. For that show, I took the Judge of Dead, his two guards and eleven other characters from the underworld courtroom of Chinese mythology. I grew up with these mythological characters in comic form. I wanted to see them again, today, as photolikeness.
People found the images disturbing because they look so strange, but at the same time realistic. A lot of people appreciated these images, perhaps because they bring a new kind of experience to the photographic portrait. So reviews came in very quickly from many magazines and papers, including American Photo, Creative Technology (England), ZOOM, Photographer International, A Venir and Newlook (France) and other publications from Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Canada, Greece and Brazil, etc. I've also had exhibitions in Italy, France, as well as in Japan, Taiwan and Slovakia.
I was very lucky to have this kind of success which happened in a short period after l picked up the computer technology. I think this is mainly because I use computer just like a new tool, to extend the photography I have been working in for a long time.
What advice would you give to emerging artists who want to work in digital imaging?
First, I would like to impress on them that the future of photography lies in digital imaging. I hope that they spend more time studying digital photography and computer imaging. Today, in a developed country, everything from communication, entertainment, education and so on -- are all linked together with new technology. There will be new medias with a lot more programs for consumer. In the other hand, there will be more jobs opened for the artists who are good in digital graphic, digital photography, computer animation and 3D rendering etc...
Therefore, I think it would be helpful if you can operate many different programs, but, it's important that you are good enough in one area and have a solid portfolio. For the artist who takes digital photography as fine art. I suggest that you will still need to build a strong skill in drawing, traditional photography and lighting techniques.