Skin Matters: An Interview with June Yong LeePosted on Oct 15 2013
June Yong Lee presents lush monochromatic photographs of human skin as flesh without bones. In his Torso Series of 2010, Lee constructs 360-degree views of the body displayed on a single plane of vision. The visual impact of his realistic yet "impossible" panoramas of flesh is both fascinating and disturbing. In this conversation, Tina Takemoto speaks with June Yong Lee about his use of digital photography, his thoughts on race and identity, and his unique approach to rendering skin.
The following is an excerpt from the full interview, which will be published in its entirety in print in the coming year.
Tina Takemoto: Standing before your work, the viewer can experience both attraction and repulsion to the visceral quality of flesh without bones. How do you account for this dual response to your work?
June Yong Lee: That is still one of my biggest concerns in this project that I want to explore more. Even though it was never intended, there is a medical and visceral quality to these images. In a way, I think it is because this is not a familiar portrayal of the body, and we are very sensitive to our skin and body. The nature of skin is profoundly intimate and delicate; it is the reason I started this project. My idea was to present skin in a unique way, to allow viewers to examine other people’s skin closely, and to hear the story it tells them without any other distractions. Also the whole story (all 360 degrees of a torso) is told as skin records their life. Furthermore, prints from Torso Series are usually printed slightly larger than life-size to reveal more details on the skin. In an ideal situation, I display this work under spot lights so that only the frames are illuminated without any ambient light. It creates an intimate viewing experience for the viewer.
TT: Various theorists have described the skin as a site of memory, trauma, fetishism, and inter-embodiment. What aspects of the skin resonate most strongly for you?
JYL: For me it is all of the above. In general, I explore what skin is in this project by looking at different people’s skin and sharing it with viewers, especially the deeply intimate nature of skin and the fact it is closely tied to one’s identity. I do not think many people realize how emotional the subject is, and how much of who we are is associated with it. We are born with it and skin is the biggest organ that we have. Skin defines and dictates who we are. We judge people by it and categorize people by it. Also, it is a physical record of our life. Whether markings on skin are permanent or temporal, intentional or unintentional, skin carries our stories in a much different way than memories in our mind.
TT: Formally your work simultaneously evokes vintage medical imagery or even morgue imagery as well as modern and classical photography. Can you describe how you use digital technology in combination with black-and-white photographic techniques?
JYL: Digital technology allows me to create this impossible view of body in order to emphasize the surface of skin. By removing its form and structure, skin becomes like a paper. Paper has been used in civilizations to pass on knowledge and stories to next generations. It was interesting to think about it as the relationship between text on paper and markings on skin. In a way, the project displays a new reality that allows viewers to look closely at our skin and what it tells us. Because the skin looks very realistic, I think it engages viewers more directly and emotionally so that sometimes some viewers are uncomfortable looking at it. I seek a balance between reality and constructed imagery. Even though all of these photographs from Torso Series truthfully depict the model’s torso, it is not entirely real because it is impossible to see our back at the same time as seeing the front part of body in real life. Also the original color of skin has been removed and the details on skin have been visually enhanced. Therefore, the surface texture of skin becomes more important than before. I am consciously making these decisions based on the traditional nature of photographic medium that evokes a sense of “what was in front of camera” and altered/constructed imagery that becomes more accessible with digital technology.
Tina Takemoto is Associate Professor of Visual Studies at California College of the Arts. Her essay, “Precarious Skin: The Photography of June Yong Lee,” will be published in our forthcoming monograph, Skin, featuring Lee’s Torso Series, part of The Arts at CIIS’ CHROMA publication project.
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