An Interview with Evan Lee
Living in Vancouver, a city renowned for its photographic practices, artist Evan Lee’s innovative body of work has consistently challenged the nature of the media and its possibilities. We have followed Evan’s practice for years and while he is primarily associated with photography, it would be more accurate to say he works around it, often forgoing the standard camera and instead creating images with a scanner, appropriating pictures taken by his father, manipulating inks printed on the backside of photo paper to create painting-photograph hybrids, and using journalistic imagery as inspiration for a recent project which takes as its subject matter the MV Ocean Lady migrant ship. In pushing the boundaries of the media and creating works through his own innovative processes, Evan asks his viewers to reconsider their understanding of photography and its potential, pushing the media’s ability to construct rather than merely depict. Evan has also created video, drawings and paintings and he has exhibited at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Presentation House Gallery and Vancouver Art Gallery. He very kindly answered a few questions on his work for us:
Here and Elsewhere: A lot of people think of you as working primarily in photography but your work really pushes the boundaries of the medium and has a strong relationship to painting. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to photography, your interest in painting, and how that’s influenced your practice?
Evan Lee: I started doing photography only after I had been studying painting for some time in school. When I began making photographs, I thought I was somehow working between the two forms, but it soon became clear to me that I wasn’t; rather, the issues surrounding the technological and social evolution of photography were the actual focus of my practice. I neglected thinking about painting until I started manipulating the printed inks of photographs, as with the Flashers and Forest Fire series and other works from 2009 and 2010. Even then, the relationship in these works was quite superficial as they only “resemble” paintings, and the issues I was dealing with – namely the conflation of analogue and digital imaging, originality, and the multiple – are all arguably photographic issues.
HE: Can you describe the process by which you created your Flashers and Forest Fire series?
EL: With the works that I made just prior to these series, I was trying out alternative ways to capture a photographic image such as by replacing the camera with a scanner. With the Flashers and the Forest Fires, I took it a step further by seeking different ways to present an image, namely by intervening in the printing process. In both series, I printed found images using inkjet onto the wrong side of darkroom photo paper. It was an experiment to see what would happen if I mixed two incompatible materials together. Predictably, the outcome was a mess. So I reworked it using a brush to form a cohesive image that was somewhere between the original photograph and a painted interpretation of the same.
HE: It seems, over the years, you have often worked ‘around’ photography, using innovative methods to create your works – using a scanner, for example, or your method for creating the Flashers and Forest Fire series which sit somewhere between a photograph and a painting, or even by starting with a photograph as the inspiration for your migrant ship recreation project. What is it about photography that continues to interest you, despite your deviation from a straight photographic practice?
EL: It is useful and perhaps comforting, given the seemingly infinite realm of images, to know that photographic images will always contain some empirical “knowns”. That being said, the photographs that I find the most compelling are the ones that are most incomplete or unresolved. Also, as the technology keeps advancing to make photography easier, faster, more acute and more accessible, it also offers more opportunities to subvert, or intervene, in the image-making process. Staying interested in photography has become a rather active process.
HE: Can you tell us a bit about your migrant ship recreation project? What interests you about this story? And why have you decided to capture the story using such a wide variety of media?
EL: I am attempting to make a re-creation of a press photograph of the arrival of the MV Ocean Lady, the ship carrying migrants from Sri Lanka that arrived and was detained near Victoria in 2009. There are two aspects of this story that interest me, and they both make a good case for reconsidering how the event has been depicted. First, I was both intrigued and troubled by the low quality of the actual photograph chosen by the news media to depict the event. It was a highly compressed, low-resolution aerial shot and the migrant’s faces are blurred out. This is typical of the type of media photojournalism that exists today; we are already so accustomed to seeing phone camera photos or surveillance camera photos on our front pages. It think the quality of these images will have a negative impact on our history, which is increasingly constructed by the visual.
Second, I have many friends and family that have faced the challenges of immigration to Canada. It also became clear through the coverage of this event that there are lot of Canadians who are extremely nationalistic and have overt and subtle racist views. The Ocean Lady was not the first nor the last migrant ship to arrive and create a storm of controversy about who gets to decide who can come to Canada or not.
To answer the second part of your question, my intention was always to make a singular work. My process of re-creation necessitates a large amount of research, and it is generating a lot of material that I find visually interesting on its own. The news clippings, figures collected from image searches, 3D model and model ship I have made or collected in my studio are all ephemera that exist in the service of re-depicting the event as accurately as possible. And yet, the verisimilitude is only a starting point; the gaps left by the “incomplete photograph” will have to be filled in.
HE: We are struck by the diverse range of subjects your practice embraces which includes still lifes, landscapes, figures, and even current events in your recent turn towards exploring the MV Ocean Lady. What unites your interest in these varied subjects?
EL: I guess I’m interested in a lot of different things. I choose my subjects carefully with the belief that I should be connected with them, but every project has also been about photography’s role in presenting these subjects, and also how we see the subjects through the frame of photography.
HE: Your phoropter collage works combine a myriad of images of the machines that are used to test vision, layering lenses upon one another. The way these collages are constructed uncannily reflects a human face – is your intention to have the works act as a metaphor for the act of looking?
EL: Yes, I was thinking masks, but the works are also literally about the inability to see, and about the technology of vision-correction. I’m near-sighted, and am realizing that it makes working with photography a little uncomfortable. I bought some phoropters on eBay for this work, and I’ve since come to appreciate them as highly precise and well-machined objects. But, our parents took us to a very old-school optometrist in Chinatown, where my first memories of the instruments were that they were cobbled together like some 19th century contraption. This was what I had imagined anyway, and am now trying to recreate using cut-and-paste collage.
HE: Thanks so much Evan for sharing those thoughts on your practice with us!