Daniel Lee’s half man, half animal images are just too disturbing for some. He never intended them to be frightening, he says, just realistic. By Sue Weekes.
Daniel Lee’s bizarre half-man, half-animal characters, or ‘Manimals’, have been known to turn a few heads. We had people literally turning over the cover proofs in the office this month because they found the images to disturbing to look at. When told of this response to his work, the Chinese-born photographer shifts the emphasis back onto the person viewing the image. ‘Maybe they are running away from something,’ he says, ‘Nobody has seen anything like these creatures before and the fact that they look so real makes them very disturbing. The images go beyond people’s experience.’
Well, you can’t argue with that (unless you move in some very funny circles). The manimals are from Lee’s personal portfolio of work and occupy that hinterland between photography and art. `They aren’t paintings and they aren’t photographs, they are something entirely different created on the computer,’ says Lee. The images have undoubtedly triggered more than one debate about the validity of computer art as a whole new genre. Significant;y, and much to Lee’s delight, the Brooklyn Museum of Art has just taken the image shown on our front cover this month,depicting a Chinese person with the facial characteristics of a leopard.
Whatever your stance on the, ‘but is it art?’ front, the images also have more than a passing interest and relevance to the commercial creative world. For even if you find them hideous grotesque, repulsive or too bizarre for words, you have to admit that they represent a lovely piece of electronic retouching, executed not on a high end system, but at the desktop by Lee himself, using Adobe Photoshop software running on his Macintosh Quadra 950.
Like many, we jumped to the conclusion that Lee scans in shots of the human and the animal, and then uses Photoshop to refine the photocomposition. Such an assumption does him a great injustice however. Lee actually draws and paints in the features of the animal onto the human face using Photoshop’s brushes and tools. ‘You couldn’t do it just by scanning in an image of an animal’s face,’ says Lee. ‘For instance, take the face of a snake, it is so much flatter than a human’s. It just wouldn’t work to superimpose one on the other. I have to draw and paint each of the features to ensure it looks realistic.’
As well as being a photographer-cum-digital artist, Lee is also director of photography and digital imaging at the New York-based Merchandising Workshop, which is a self-promotion company that also incorporates an ad agency, photo studio and pre-press house. Photoshop is also his preferred software at work. ‘I don’t want to be an advert for it,’ says Lee, ‘but it is the best thing for the work I do and is also good for pre-press. As an aside, the trend in the UK for repro houses to use Photoshop is growing in the US as well. At the Digital Images event, Walter Schild, R & D director of Alan Lithographic in Los Angeles, spoke of how the company chucked out its Crosfield and Scitex systems to use Photoshop and special plug-ins for Hi-Fi colour.
Lee’s job, and his various editorial commissions from his publications such as the Chinese Times and Marie Claire, all give him experience on which to base future computer-generated works, which won’t necessarily be in the Manimal mode. A political magazine recently asked him to do a beaten-up image of President Clinton for its cover, and he has done an ageing man for a pharmacy magazine.
Lee was born in 1945 in Chungking, China, where his father was a general under the nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-chek. When the Communist regime took over in 1949, the family had to leave and fled for Taiwan. ‘So I still grew up in free China,’ says Lee. He attended the University of Chinese Culture in Taiwan and then decided to do a Master’s degree at the Philadelphia College of Art. After this he went to New York and worked as an illustrator for a marketing company, and eventually turned freelance photographer in 1976. His first Manimals project was the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac and it proved to be the perfect task to test his new found artistic freedom: ‘A computer helps you create what is in your mind,’ says Lee.
Many Chinese people believe that men and women exhibit characteristics of the animals to the year they were born. ‘I often observe people who have particular animal traits. But when I do the images, it is important that they appear more human that animal.’ Part of the reason for this is because the images are more a comment on human behavior than the animal’s.
The images shown in this article are from a more recent work called judgment, which takes inspiration from the Chinese Circle of Reincarnation. Including man, there are 108 different creatures in the circle and Buddhists say that each one will be judged in a mythological court under the earth after their death. In Lee’s court, judge and jury are based on Chinese mythological figures, heroes and spirits.
All the portraits were photographed with a 5 x 4 Hasselblad camera and then scanned into Photoshop. Lee has his animal reference beside him while he is creating the figures. He shies away from letting you dissect the images too clinically, preferring that they retain their mystique. However, you can probably identify which animal features in most: on the opening spread (pages 10-11) the man takes the features of a pig, and the woman, those of a snake.
All are output direct from disk to a large format Laser Master digital ink-jet printer, with ultra violet guard, and are protected with a dull lamination. It has been known for Lee and his printer to take over three hours to output just one print, after going back and colour correcting and refining. The Laser Master allows them to output the prints up to 36 inches wide.
The longevity of ink-jet prints is a subject that is up for discussion because the technology is so new and also because the issue is inextricably linked with whether computer images can justly be described as art. If computer art is to have any long-term value, then we must know that works will last. Based on experience, Lee has hung similar laminated output in exposed light for three years and there has been no deterioration. ‘Nobody knows how long they will really last, but I hope it will be for a few years,’ says Lee.