Teyé (Daegu, 1985) His given name is Taejay Lee, from South Korea.
After a decade working as a creative director in advertising agencies, Teyé ventured to dedicate himself fully to chemical photography and alternative processes after professional training at the Escola Grisart Internacional de Fotografia Barcelona.
Teyé mixes traditional Oriental and Occidental printing materials and techniques to create photographic art that awakens emotions. He uses various types of natural dyes and physical materials related to the narrative and theme that he incorporates in his final prints.
A visual diary of living through a pandemic in Monte Alto from a Korean perspective.
The photographs were captured during the first phase of the confinement in Spain that began on March 14, 2020, during the short outings with my pet.
I made prints onto a traditional Chinese calligraphy paper, using cyanotype and coloring it with natural dyes. Each copy weighs 30 gr.
I wanted to make them light and delicate as if images could fall, fly and travel into the uncertain and unknown.
Hi Teyé! Can you tell me a bit about how you became a photographer? How do you come from an advertising agency to photography?
Teyé: I have always been in the environment where Photography was used for commercial purposes. The past 15 years to me were very much about innovation, new technology, quickly adapt to what’s going to come next. After many years of creating concepts for ad campaigns and overseeing the production witnessing how ideas come to life, I grew admiration for photography as fine art. Especially its most traditional form. I loved the nature of doing everything from idea to capture, develop, prepare my own emulsion and paper, as well as crafting the final prints in the darkroom or with the traditional 19th-century alternative process. It wasn’t anything about the size of the logo, or try selling sugar to kids, or encourage people to smoke more cigarettes and drink more booze, nor convincing that they must have the new pair of shoes. Rather, gaining complete control over my process and 100% hand-made process gave me spiritual freedom and allowed me to explore and rediscover who I am and what really matters to me in my life.
Did you have any formal training in photography?
Teyé: I took a sabbatical year to register myself at GrisArt Escola Internacional de Fotografia, one of the leading professional photographic institutions in Barcelona, Spain. I was fortunate to have met truly inspiring professors who now I call a friend. Not only have I learned the basics of photography, but new perspectives about life in general. I’m not trying to sound like an old yogi or anything. But every day I learn more about photography, I became happier. The ever-changing moment in our every day was overwhelmingly beautiful and photogenic, I become grateful and happy to be witnessing those moments and see them through the viewfinder. Although I was still freelancing at ad agencies to finance the films and chemicals, 5 hours a day sleeping, Monday to Sunday running around like a headless chicken, that year was such precious time in my photographic journey and I am so glad that I went through that stage of frustration x happiness rollercoaster.
You say you make prints onto a traditional Chinese calligraphy paper and each copy weighs 30 gr. Tell me more about this process, and how did you get inspired?
Teyé: Like many photographers, I also began printing in the darkroom (thanks to my mate John) I then moved on to an alternative process, experimenting with various techniques. At the time I was looking for the best expression to print the entire body of work I shot during the Covid19 confinement. I tried to print on the cardboard I picked up from the neighborhood because the project was made solely in my neighborhood. One afternoon a long hair gentleman walked into my studio with a roll of Chinese calligraphy paper showing me its marvelous texture, taunted me if I would be able to print on it. If I can make that happen, I would be able to control any surface to print anything I want. I accepted the challenge immediately however as soon as I brushed the emulsion on the paper, the paper started to break out. It seemed impossible. I did not go home, skipped all the meals, instead of going to sleep my head was working all night try to simulate the best possible way to handle this mad paper. For several days and nights, I was hustling with the paper just to find out how to emulsion the paper without getting it damaged. Once I figured that out, I had to find out how to wash and tone this paper without getting it damaged. It took me several weeks to make the first piece of print I could approve myself. A month later the long hair gentleman came by and saw several prints I was shy to present. He was surprised and told me that I made it happen! The very third print I made with paper now bears this long hair gentleman’s name. And now I call him my photography godfather. (He does love shooting guns too, the plastic ones :p)
Your visual diary of living through a pandemic in Monte Alto looks amazing. What was this process like for you?
Teyé: I feel flattered and appreciate that you look positively at my work. I guess that every one of us lived through the pandemic on our own terms. In my case, the lockdown began when I just moved into a studio/darkroom of dream about to kick off all the ideas I had planned. I was sad, moreover, it’s because my birth city in Korea had already gone through the widespread of the virus a few months early on right after the virus broke out in Wuhan. It resulted in canceling my business trip and many plans. At the time Spain wasn’t prepared and didn’t seem to believe that it might get here. I was being told to go back to China (?) in front of my studio and a few unpleasant experiences instead of people each taking care of themselves and prepare for their own safety. As a photographer, I decided to pick up the camera and walk around my neighborhood in the limited access I could go out to take my puppy for his nature calls. Perhaps photographing was my way of finding peace and control frustration and upset heart. Then I started to notice small details scattered around the neighborhood. Things that were always there but never had any meaning started to telling me a story or two. It was as if the city had its own voice. All I had to do was listen to what the street had to say, and make a record with a camera on one hand and a dog leash on another.
What is your process for finding good spots for environmental portraits at outdoor locations?
Teyé: By all means, a portrait isn’t my biggest strength. I grew up in a culture where looking into people’s eyes considered rude and challenging. Hence I never really studied people and their faces. Perhaps it is the reason that when I make portraits, I try to seek the places that speak to me first. Then try to add my subject in it with the hope that the place and persona would connect and continue to thrive into another extended story. I do not know that this is the right approach or not, but it’s how I like to work and attempting to build my way of narrative inside a piece of portrait photography.
What artists have influenced your work the most?
Teyé: Oh my god, this list could go on for a few pages. I suppose different artists influence me on different projects and different periods of time in my life. I was highly impressed by Saul Leiter and his way of working – in no great hurry, although it’s very hard for an impatient and frustrated person like me I admire his senses and tasteful vision. I look very highly at Masahisa Fukase, not only his impactful photographs but also the mindset behind his body of work. I could feel his frustration, sorrow, joy, and catharsis in every single photograph which I believe what a good photograph is all about.
What software do you use to process your images? Do you usually use some presets? Which ones?
Teyé: I use photoshop to create Digital Negatives. Because of the way I make prints, I need the equal-sized negative to the final print size. The most cases I need to scan my negative, clean up, adjust, and turn it into a Digital Negative that is printed on the finest quality transparency before going into actual printing of the photograph. The process of making a digital negative could be considered as preset. Each alternative printer has its own way of making the digital negative, be it curves or level… you need to obtain consistency over the entire body of work. Hence being able to control the correct contrast one could call it a preset of the specific photographer/printmaker.
What is your favorite work so far, and why?
Teyé: I like very much the photo I made on the last day of the lockdown, titled Balmis Expedition. It has all the elements I usually go search for. The bird, the fog, the sea, the reflection, & the silhouette people. It’s a representation of me in one piece. The columns you see on the photograph carry the names of children who went on to Asia and America to vaccinate millions against smallpox. I did not know at the time when I took the photo, but a family member who came to my exhibition told me this story which happened to connect every dots together. I like when a photograph can create a story, and a story can continue to grow into another story from within. In that sense, I would like to count these photographs as my own favorite 🙂
What is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome and how did you do it?
Teyé: The biggest challenge for me is that there is always room to improve in photography. I have yet to overcome and I enjoy every moment attempting to become a better version every day.
What is your essential camera equipment (3 pieces of camera equipment you couldn’t live without)?
Teyé: The release cable, Giottos Ballhead tripod (I’m renting from the long hair gentleman), Sekonic light meter.
Where would you like to be in 5 years’ time and what are you going to do in the next 6 months to get closer to that goal?
Teyé: We are living in such an unpredictable time. Who knows what tomorrow holds with this pandemic still infant of us. It had changed everything we knew and the life we lived. In the next 5 years, I would like to see that once again we could go back to what we used to consider as normal, being able to cross borders without fear of infecting our loving ones and create and share work with like-minded people. For the next 6 months, I will be doing what I’m doing today and tomorrow. Keep on making what I believe is the best I can at this moment without losing faith and hope. People often ask me why do I volunteer to do such a time-consuming and painstaking process. I do now know but if it was easy why bother doing it? I say. Maybe I’m an another Don Quijote. But the world just is more interesting when people zig you zag. At least I believe so.
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