Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jaeyu Lee to speak with him about photography, book making and cultural materialism as it relates to both photography and to his design day job. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
MNM: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and editor of the Korean Photography Books blog. I am sitting her today with Jae Lee…
MM: …who has published–self published?
JL: Yes, self published.
MM: 19 books of his own photography and we’re going to talk about that work and the books and why make books. So let’s start…
JL: I didn’t prepare anything.
MM: This is last minute, but we’ll make it work. Could you start with your background: where you were born, where you grew up, how you came to New York
JL: That is a long story.
MM: Well, the short version.
JL: OK. I was born in Seoul in 1974; and then I grew up in Korea. I graduated from college, went to the army.
MM: So, you studied in Korea.
JL: Yes, in Korea. I studied mechanical engineering. But I really had a pasion and wanted to start studying anthropology. I was working for just a normal big Korean corporation one year and then somehow I really wanted to go away because I wasn’t that happy. I just felt like part of this big company and thought I could study anthropology in the United States. And I came. And tried to figure it out, but I didn’t really speak English at the time. I couldn’t get into the schools, I was stuck and had to go back to Korea. But somehow I met one guy, Jaime Hunter, he is a product designer. He told me that he had a PHD in anthropology; he told me, “Why don’t you apply to some schools in industrial programs?” Somehow it worked. I worried I would have to go back to Korea when I graduated. It was difficult to find a job; the eeconomy had just crashed. Somehow it worked though and I started working with a company.
MM: This is right around 2000? The dot com crash?
JL: Yes, right around the dot com crash. And I just kept working as a product designer. A lot of ideas came from my understanding of product, how people use it. You know product is always about communications. So my photographs are partly the process of understanding the people on the street or whereever.
MM: So as a day job you work as a designer? On a day to day basis, what is in your head every day?
JL: I am designing funny stuff. We say the product is telling a story. And the products are very cheap–less than $10 or something crazy. But these are products we sell in the MoMA stores or design stores. And we are working on very tight schedules. I design and manage about one hundred products every six months.
MM: That is a lot.
JL: A lot. A lot of product. So it is very busy, very fast paced. So I don’t have a lot of patience. I always want to do things fast so I make a lot of books right now. Every month I am thinking that I have to make a book, so in a couple of weeks or two days I finish a book. Very quickly.
MM: You mentioned before we started recording that you’re traveling for work frequently; roughly 6 months of the year…
JL: Well, let’s say four months.
MM: That’s still a lot. Is that a key component of when you’re photographing? I know that a lot of your books are in New York, but do you photograph while you’re traveling?
JL: Not really. I was in Amsterdam six times already this year and last and I have to go two more times. When you go to the city you have some kind of impression. It’s not really interesting; I don’t carry a camera. But, when I was in Mexico City I wasn’t really thinking about photographing in Mexico City. But when I got there that atmosphere really told me something. There was a little bit of danger. There was cool architecture. The people were so friendly. You know people dancing around; I went to a bar. I was dancing with random strangers. Then I got really crazy, shooting like 500 photos in three days. I got back and thought I should make a book. So the next weekend I flew there again for the weekend to take photographs.
MM: So you went back for work or were you there specifically to photography?
JL: Yeah, photography specifically.
MM: I guess we’ve already segued, but I want to move on to your photography broadly and then the books. So let’s start with the easy questions. Behind you there’s an enlarger and a couple of film cameras. You’re still shooting film?
JL: I do.
MM: And you still print yourself.
JL. I do. All my sales go back to the photography. Film and paper.
MM: You’re shooting all black and white. You’re printing yourself. 11×14 is your standard size?
JL: Yeah. I used to do 8×10. Then when I showed my work to people, everybody was looking for larger prints. I didn’t want to because it was harder and took more time. I didn’t really want to but once I started to make the larger prints I started to like them. I want to do even bigger but you need more space. And my apartment is so small as you can see.
MM: Well, I would agree except that I once turned my entire apartment into a darkroom for mural prints because a gallery asked me for bigger prints. I had troughs running down the hallway. It was a mess. It is definitely an undertaking to print larger than 11×14; the space needs drastically increase.
JL: Yeah. If someone asks me I like to do it, but it is a lot of work.
MM: Aside from shooting 35mm film; what is your working method? When you go out to photograph whether here in New York or in Mexico City, what is your working method? Do you have something in mind beforehand? Are you going out and finding something? Is there a clear idea of what will be in the book or are you pulling things together as you photograph?
JL: In Mexico City I had a clear idea of what I was going to photograph: This was going to be just my take on travel photography. In New York City I know exactly what I’m doing. I just take photos and photos and take photos. Mostly I try to have no idea, just immediate shot. I just want to see it; not even thinking. Just put the camera up, take the photo; I don’t even want to make a nice photo. I just want to put more information: where, how, who. And most locations I shoot I don’t even remember. So later, when I see in the darkroom I find what I really did. And then I think this photobook could be this way in this timeframe. That’s how I focus it.
But for example Mexico City, when I went to shoot I was in a particular location. I thought, “this book is going to be this kind of thing and these photos are going to fit.” I saw the mixture between real poverty but people who were very happy. There were also a lot of American or global corporations there with their big signs; the government has no control. People were kidnapped frequently; my friends told me not to go outside. I went outside anyway. So I kmow the exact feeling I had in mind. I wanted to make a book like a Matrix movie: red pill, blue pill. I was looking for something not really visible and tried to photograph in the moment. That time I was very focused.
Most of the time though I just go out shooting. I don’t really have a picture in my mind. I develop what I’m really thinking about when photographing.
MM. Your photographs have a very compressed tonal range. You’ve cut out most of the highlight tones. The tones are pressed down into the shadows. Why?
JL: Why… [sighs] I don’t know. I never studied photography myself. I mean I am a designer. I do a lot of graphic work, too.
MM: You’re clearly visually attuned.
JL: Yeah. I never thought about the photography. I mean I use this guy alot [pointing at his enlarger]. Somehow I thought this my visual language; I just kept doing it. Somehow it fit into my theme, which is mostly dark. And I don’t want too much contrast but I want to show clearly what I saw at the time. This is a guessing game, “Ah! Probably I saw this.”
So that is why I made the photo in this way.
MM: It came to you over time.
JL: Yes. I took the time. I kept doing the same thing. Again and again and again.
MM: Now, when I was looking through Fragments in Scene… is that a recent book?
JL: No, that was the second book. The first book was less dark. I’ll show it to you later.
MM: That was all shot in New York. And it made me think of books like Ken Schles’ Invisible City, Daido Moriyama’s ’71-NY, William Klein’s Life is Good and Good for You in New York. Are books like these influences? Were there any books you were looking while making yours that you feel are an influence on your photography?
JL: Well, William Klein definitely. I was shocked when I saw his book.
MM: It’s still shocking.
JL: I wanted to go to the auction to buy the book. I don’t mind spending the money to get the book, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet.
MM: You could always get Errata Editions…
JL. Yeah, but…
MM: …Not the same.
JL: Yeah. It is different. I saw it and just touching the book; this is like shocking. In the beginning I felt like I was imitating his book. I don’t know if really the photography, but when I looked at his book what I saw was that first page, second page, third page, they don’t really have much story. You don’t know what will be next. They have no rhythm. It’s all random. But it is all put together. I saw this and something else came out from my mind. I felt yeah this is so cool; I really want to do something. I didn’t want a timeframe. I just wanted to randomly put the photographic book together. I don’t really switch or fuss over the layout too much. Just full frame and put a lot of photos and as much as I can. Individual. When people read my book they all have different feelings. Maybe some people felt it was funny. Maybe some people felt that it was dark. Maybe some peple felt it’s random and thought “these are all random; I don’t know what this guy is trying to tell.” I like to hear all these things. So I just keep working in this way.
MM: It makes me think of–not the photographs but the working method–of Gary Wingrand late in his life. He was manic. Photographing became compulsive for him. And in a way your book feels compulsive in that there are so many photographs put together. It’s very dense.
As I’d written, the density makes it heavy.
Another influence I want to look at is Marvin Harris, who you mention in your bio on your website.
JL: Yes, the anthropologist.
MM: Could you talk about how his theory of cultural materialism influences–I mean it probably influences your design in particular, but it must seep into your photogrpahy as well. It must be ingrained in how you think.
JL: I don’t know how I can explain this part. Must be. Somehow
Whenever I see something–I’m thinking, “What’s behind this?” Why do we drink coffee? Does our body naturally need it? Or, is there something more than that? Why don’t Indian people kill the cows? Religion? No. Something more than that. Probably some people told them, don’t kill the cow because its much more productive, much more efficient. Let them poo, let them eat, whatever. There always has to be a reason.
When I design that’s how I’m thinking. What is the story to tell? When I’m photographing.. when I make a book, yes. I’m thinking about what the story should be. But when I’m shooting I don’t really think that deeply. I’m just feeling the atmosphere. I want to react to it.
MM: I’m going to circle back to Harris; and I’ll note quickly that I haven’t read Harris’s work. I read only summaries of his thinking because I figured if it is important enough to go in your bio, it clearly must be important to everything else. So I just read a little background on it. I have a couple of surface oriented questions; you know big picture, not drill down deep kind of questions.
For the moment let’s stay with the books. You have made 19 of them plus a portfolio. I counted.
MM: When did you start making the books?
JL: When was that? 2006? Something like that. It was the very early age of print on demand. It wasn’t Blurb, it was another site. I thought, “Oh, I can use them to make a book.”
MM: I started using Blurb around then, too.
JL: Of course the quality is not good.
MM: Unless you push that and try to use it and make something of the bad quality.
JL: Yeah, yeah. Actually, I always of my photography shouldn’t be good quality anyway. I think that’s not really me. I want to be humble. The color changes and it doesn’t really matter. Mine is more about feeling. So I started using it. It was fun using it.
The first one came and I was very happy. I got it done. I gave it away to people. And then I got another one. And I got another one. Another one. Then, I find out that some people can use the book machine cafe, which uses even worse paper. Like a copy machine. I started to really like it, that paper quality. It had more texture. When you print out the really black it looks there sparkling.
MM: Right, you get weird line screen issues and ink issues.
JL: Yeah. So that’s how I work. Usually before I make the book I make one copy for myself with nice paper from a nice printer and bind it myself. Or, I ask a friend who is a book designer and he binds it for me. Usually a little bigger.
MM: And that is on photo paper?
JL: Yes, photo paper.
MM: Two sided?
JL. Yes, two sided.
Then I make a like a a bunch and bring them to Printed Matter; you know, “Do you want to buy my book?”
MM: How did your book get to Korea? When I found Fragments in Scene I found it at the Book Society or somewhere. Maybe Your Mind.
JL: Yeah, Your Mind I think.
I didn’t visit Korea for a long time because I have claustrophobia. I could not take the airplane. I didn’t travel that much. I sometimes felt like I was going to die. So I didn’t travel for a long time. So I didn’t go to Korea for like 6 or 7 years. Somehow I had to go. So I went. And it was so changed. It wasn’t the Korea I used to know. So I walked around taking more photos. I also love books and graphic books like photo books. I asked someone if there was a specialty bookstore. I was told to go to Your Mind. I spoke to the guy there and told him I had this book and if he was interested I would send some to him. So I came back to the US and sent him one copy. He e-mailed me and said, “Send five copies.” No, it was 15 copies. So I sent 15 copies. That’s how I connected. Usually when someone tells me something I’ll do it. I have a very open mind.
MM: As I wrote my review of your book, I was looking through your site and realized, “Oh, this guy whose book I found in Korea lives in New York.” It’s funny. So I wonder… and we’re coming back to cultural materialism now… so you live in New York. You grew up in Korea. You went under-grad in Korea. Then you came here for graduate school?
JL: Actually I came here as a transfer student. Actually I couldn’t get in because my TOEFL score was too low. But I was lucky. I spoke to the guy at the program. I said, “I don’t have much money. Will you allow me to study? Oh, and I only have two years so I might not graduate.” This was in Philadelphia. The guy said, “OK. I will take you.”
So he gave me one and a half years. He transferred every single credit for me. So I was very lucky. Always I’m very lucky in that way.
MM: So the question, then, about this idea of etic and emic operations, which I was reading about in my surface look into cultural materialism. So emic is the native or internal person’s vantage and the etic is the external theoretical scientific view on something. I am curious: you seem to straddle the line on those two things: You live here in New York. You work here. You’ve been here a long time. So I wrote about this when I wrote about your book, this interesting inside outside kind of pull that seems to be there.
So I was looking at it in this tradition of street photography, particularly in New York City, because your work doesn’t feel like most of the work being made in the last ten years in Korea. It seems much more local to here.
JL: Yeah, I feel that way.
MM: So the question I guess I have is: how do you place yourself–or do you place yourself–on that line? You know, are you an outsider looking at this New York thing or are you an insider looking inside the thing?
JL: Definitely an outsider. I always feel like the outsider. Whenever I go to Korea, even when I was in grade school I felt I didn’t fit the society. That’s why I came here. And when I came here and tried to get into this society very deeply, definitely I’m in. I’m talking about as a designer I’m quite well known in the industry. I don’t know if I have a good reputation, but I work with many different designers from all over the world.
It’s OK. My life is OK here, but still I feel like I still struggle to get deeply into “here.” I am still looking for it. You know, I walk around and still I feel like a minority somehow. Still shy. I think I’m shy. I don’t know.
MM: You don’t seem shy.
JL. Yeah. [laughs] I just always look around. I don’t think that I’m getting deeply in the inside. I’m still outside.
MM: If you were to place yourself, would you define youself as a Korean artist? Or a New York artist? Or do you not really think about that at all?
JL: Not at all. I always say “international”.
So this I have to tell. This I have to tell. I’m a Korean guy. I’m the head of the design department working for a Dutch company. Most of my products are very Dutch. Doesn’t really matter to me where it’s coming out from. I think what I most feel is that it doesn’t matter to me. It is the work that really contains Korea? Maybe. Maybe because I’m something inside. I still like to eat kimchi. I have a rice cooker. There is something that came from that, I believe. Especially when I’m writing. I really feel that in Korean I’m much more comfortable, much more able to express myself. I’m sure that in the photo pieces that it’s the language that they came out from. I believe I have a lot of Korean side. But what I really am doing here is probably… I tend not to be Korean but probably there is always Korean. I have some identity issues maybe. [laughter]
MM: Another thing from the cultural materialsim that caught my eye that I thought might be apt is that Harris put the value of reproduction over the value of production. Which seems a very photographic kind of thought. The photograph is endlessly reproducible–even more so when you take into account the printing press and now digital technologies. Is that something that interests you in the book making: that incredible reproduction ability and being able to send it out to the world?
JL: Yes, definitely. A book is the best method of providing info to someone else without anything else. They don’t need a computer. They can feel the texture. I always think that the books it is what it feels like, where you print it, that texture is very very important. With the book I can contain everything that I want to. The format, cover; I can extend my feeling to someone very easily. I think it is the best way and then I can reproduce it many many times. This is very much because of digital that I can produce so many books myself. But the physical book is still the best. I mean, I can do it with the web, but it isn’t really me. And the book is much more playful. I really enjoy it: the cover, sometimes different formats… different studies. You can even make it 3d when you open. Like this one [Jae pulls a book off of his shelf and opens it. It is a pop up book of trains. And then pulls another that is more art oriented: Rein Jansma’s “Stairs.”]
I used to live in… what’s the building? I forget the name. I’m bad with names. I used to live in an artists’ community on Bedford Street in the West Village. There is a building that was all artists. Not any more. There are only a few artists still. The artists made all kinds of crazy things. Someone died, so I got this book. [laughter] The family came and just had people take whatever they wanted.
I decided all kinds of things that I could make differently. At the same time I wanted to keep the craftsmanship: something that I only could make. Still when someone makes a print it is always a different quality for each photo. I really like that idea. For that reason I want to stay with analog photography, not digital.
It’s the same thing in design. Everyone does 3d printing. I have one in the office. I can just make whatever I want to, whatever I see. Right away. I see it; I draw it on the computer; I push the button and the product is right there. As a designer I still like to have a table that someone really cut out. [gesturing towards his table] This is a beautiful pattern. Someone is really using it. There’s an old coffee stain.
MM: Right, the physicality of the object.
JL: That’s the quality. There is more emotion with that. I want to do the same with the photograph.
MM: That makes perfect sense to me. My wife is Korean. We were in Korea and we were shopping for a traditional Korean chest, which… not my favorite but whatever. So we were looking and looking. And we saw real antiques, but they were very expensive. And we were looking at reproductions and they felt dishonest to me. So we found this small little chest that had been made during or just after the war when there was no wood to be found. So someone had re-purposed an oil can box into a Korean chest. And that’s a very strange thing, but as an object it was very honest in a way that a reproduction of an old thing isn’t. The reproduction antique is pretending to be something it isn’t.
So when you say that you’re interested in the object and it being real and having that handmade aspect…it’s one of those things that when you see something you very viscerally feel the honesty. So I can understand the urge to make the books and to make the analog prints because there is a sort of honesty–that isn’t necessarily the right word but it’s what is coming to mind.
JL: Yes. And, I just love to do it. You know, coming home after so much work, jetlagged and just put the black out cloth. I don’t even care if it isn’t totally dark; I like to see a little. And it probably affects my prints but I don’t care. And I print all night and then go to the office in the morning. I really like that. And sometimes I just make two or three different, never same.
MM: Do you print every night?
JL: Not every night! Of course not. I have a day job [laughter]; I don’t want to get fired. Once in a while, quite often. I slowed down recently. I haven’t been carrying a camera as much. This year I wanted to slow down. Definitely I want to push more on the photo.
MM: Do you have any books that you’re working on now or exhibitions coming up?
JL: No, no exhibitions. I wish. And right now all my photography–one of my friends introduced me to someone telling me that “he probably can sell your work.” I was in Milan and I had a meeting with the gallery. He didn’t really like my work. So, I came back and asked if my friend knew someone else. “Oh, yeah. Another friend, a young guy, he’s won a lot of awards.” So I met him and showed my portfolio; he liked my photos. He came back a couple of days later and picked up my prints but never called back. No answer, no answer. My photos seem to be gone. I still have my film, but the prints are gone. So I don’t know what to do with him. Usually I give the work and then keep patient, let the gallerist handle it. But it’s been a couple of months, six months now and I’m a little worried. It’s not the selling, it’s just let me know what’s going. I’ll just have to see.
MM: I think that covers it. I have to say I really enjoyed the book. It is right up the alleyway of what I like: small, very personal, unique, dark aesthetic. I love that play between insider/outsider. Especially that flip once I realized that–you know I bought it in Korea and then to realize that you’re working here. I saw it and thought, “oh, that’s interesting work for a Korean artist to be making right.” Everything seems to be big and color and highly conceptually driven. This is much looser, much more intense.
JL: I’m not that smart, not that conceptual. I’m more of a doing guy.
MM: Yeah! No! I mean then I realized you’re in New York and it fits into this other tradition of books people have made. And then it got me thinking about insider/outsider, where people fit into traditions or how they span multiple traditions. It brought up a lot of interesting things to think about, which is always nice.
I appreciate your taking the time to sit down and to talk. Thank you.