Hengki Lee‘s photographs aren’t from a different world; they’re from a parallel, funhouse mirror version of our own. He isn’t bound by traditional rules and codes of photography; his surreal and blurred visions break most of them, reflecting a psychological landscape that exists only in our imaginations. His enigmatic protagonists- people made more from gestures than from flesh- are familiar and strange at the same time, like characters from the dreams we had as children and then forgot.
We asked the fine art photographer, who is based in Jakarta, Indonesia, to take us into his world. Here, he tells us about the many inspirations and motivations, and he also reveals some of his secret weapons and tools, like the Lensbaby lenses that help him achieve his signature look.
Your fine art work is influenced in part by poetry and literature. Could you tell us about some of your strongest influences?
“Yes, I do like to read and write poetry. Some of the works of Kahlil Gibran have influenced my artwork. But I also like listening soulful and poetic music, like the pieces of Secret Garden, the Norwegian musical duo. Some of my works were directly inspired by their music.”
Could you walk us through the process of conceptualizing and casting a photograph?
“When I get inspired by music I heard, I usually try to visualize that idea in my mind. I try to imagine the ambience, the circumstance, the gesture or movement of the model, the things that he or she would wear, and the expressions he or she would make. Then I determine the model, the props, and the location.”
How has teaching yourself and following your own rules shaped the artist you are today?
“Just one word: freedom. I free to do anything I like without considering someone else’s opinion. I can follow my heart, my dreams, and my obsessions, and I can express those things in my artwork. Maybe because of that, I have found my own character in photography, and it’s the most important and valuable thing I have.”
Why do you think so many fine art photographers are returning to black and white these days? What is it about the world of black and white that makes it so appealing?
“The world of black and white appears simple, and black and white images often evoke loneliness and mystery. We see the world in color, so black and white allow our minds to enter an unfamiliar, imaginary dimension. Monochromatic photographs have a nostalgic and curious feeling.”
Has the natural landscape of Indonesia inspired your work at all?
“No, not at all. My genre is fine art, not landscape. But I have favorite spots, like some of the beaches in Bali. In general, I like places like meadows, the outdoors, places with a lonely tree. Those are perfect for making artwork with my Lensbaby lenses.”
Can you remember the first time you used a Lensbaby lens?
“Yes, it was confusingly awesome. When I used it for the first time, I feel a bit confused, but since I like to make blurry images, I just kept trying. Within one month, I found my character by using this lens.”
How many Lensbaby lenses do you have, and what is your go-to lens? How does this lens enhance your own personal aesthetic?
“I have a Lensbaby Composer Pro II with several optics (Edge 80, Edge 50, Sweet 35, Sweet 50, Plastic Optic, and Pinhole/Zoneplate optic). My favorite lens is the Sweet 50 because its dreamy blur effect makes my work looks unique, strong, and moody. It’s such fit for my character.”
What surprised you the most after shooting with Lensbaby lenses?
“The strong dreamy effect and the unique Lensbaby bokeh. It’s so poetic!”
Do you think it is important that photographers create a unique look? If so, what advice would you give them?
“Yes, it’s so important. If you don’t have a sense of character, people will not recognize your work. Just be yourself, and keep exploring your obsessions. Cameras and lenses are only tools; your imagination and vision will define you. Make something surprising, or try something new.”
All images © Hengki Lee