Daniel Lee


Daniel Lee / Digital Image

1. Where do you get your image (Manimal, Origin, Nightlife...) concepts?

Fortunately, I lived in New York which allowed me to see many good exhibitions around Soho area in the '80s. At the time, I was a traditional 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 too limited.

It was in the early 90’s when I bought my first computer, a Macintosh Quadra 950. The technology of digital photo manipulation was just being introduced and I couldn’t wait to create modern photo-realistic images. The first thing to come to mind was the Chinese Zodiac -- something which related to my root. I thought it would be interesting if I could create a series of 12 portraits representing the 12 different Zodiac signs from Chinese calendar. For instance, a person borne in the year of the ox would resemble an ox-man humanoid This was how I got my concept of the 'Manimal' series.

The reviews of ‘Manimals’ were well beyond my expectations. Hence, I began working on ‘Judgment’, my next series based on the Chinese mythological theory of life in 1994. In the Chinese Circle of Reincarnation, each creature will be judged in a mythological court under the earth after their death. In this underworld, the ‘Judge of Dead’ and His guards take their honorable seats in the underworld courtroom. Their role is to judge the dead souls and to determine their human or animal destiny in their next life. The ‘Jurors’ in this court, are suspended characters and spirits I selected from Chinese fairytales, such as the Fox Spirit, Monkey King and Leopard Spirit. This concept led me into my 1996 series, ‘108 Windows’ which portrayed the 108 different faces a soul can be reincarnated into in this circle of Reincarnation.

Following these series, my next challenge was to not only digitally manipulate a person’s face, but the entire human body. The theory of evolution turned out to be a perfect theme to work with in my 1999 series ‘Origin’.

All of the concepts of 'Manimal', 'Judgment' and '108 Windows' came from Chinese mythological fantasy while the 'Origin' origin series suggested our past. Therefore, I planed to capture our life during modern settings for my recent project ‘Nightlife’ which is set before a living scene instead of the seamless background used in the other series.

2. Could you explain your working process? 4. Please introduce your recent project and coming exhibition ‘Nightlife’, which will be opened in December 8. in New York.

Maybe it’s because of my age, but I can no longer enjoy myself in a night club or music lounge mood. I did discover that it can be fun watching other people interacting in such a mood. It’s a place for people to meet people and make friends. After several rounds, some people can begin acting more aggressively than others or begin to act more like predators in a jungle approaching their prey. This was the overlying concept of ‘Nightlife’.

The first thing involved for a new project would be finding models. I prefer using ordinary people as models. They could be my artist friends or people working close to me. The models from ‘Nightlife’ started with an acting student in New York, Noga Ariel. She volunteered to be the first model for this project. Besides bringing herself, she also brought in her friends and her roommate. Then friends of her roommate. All of the models were photographed in a studio under strobe light in front of gray seamless paper. I used a Lite Phase digital camera back on a Hasselblad camera. I took a few shots of each character and stored them to be combined later for greater resolution. It would take my assistant almost a whole day to make a perfect silhouette of each person. After that, I could spend days to a few weeks working on digital manipulation using Adobe PhotoShop. Thanks to digital technology, I was able to photograph each model separately in the studio for more posing and lighting control. I could also rearrange the furniture and select a Soho restaurant as the background.

Technically, it takes more than 120 MB for each portrait to come out as a 35 by 50 inches file (at 150 pixels/inch). I would leave certain elements on separate layers including the main character, furniture, background, Color Balance and Curves. For the exhibition, I made 10 portraits of the characters, some in groups of two. In the end, I placed each one of them onto the panoramic Soho sidewalk café background. Since I wanted to eventually present these characters in life size, the entire mural came out to be 5X18 feet with the final art file turning out to be 1.4 Gigabytes. It slowed down the processing of even my latest Mac/G4 computer, which has 1.5 Gigabytes of RAM.

I’m happy though, because I have always wanted to make a big print. I was always impressed by the impact from those huge paintings you see in large galleries or museums and I finally have the capabilities of producing an image comparable in size.

3. Are you interested in Korea photography and photo artist?

I have a lot of respects for Korean artists whom made their reputation over here and all over the world. I must admit haven’t taken a careful look into the field of traditional Korean photography, but I have noticed the Korean artists I know have amazing discipline. I personally believe that discipline is the most important condition to have in order to be any kind of artist today.
The manager of Digital Imaging over at Duggal Color Project in New York, Yoon Kim, is a Korean photographer who did all of the outputs of my recent work including the 5X18 feet mural. She’s put in a lot of effort and given me a lot of support. Without her help I would be in big trouble today. A few younger New York Korean artists who work as art directors in publications have also left a very good impression on me. I admire their creativity and discipline. This, I believe, is what it takes to one day become a great artist.

4. What plans do you have in 2002?

So far, I have got a few institutional exhibitions scheduled for the coming year of 2002. I’ll start to think about the concept of my next project which should be a fantasy about our future. I guess it would took me a while to figure out how to approach it. I also look forward to have opportunities of exhibition in Asia which including in Korea.