Collaboration with Lei Lei
Date: 2016


In 2013, Lei Lei and Thomas Sauvin collected number of black-and-white photos from Chinese flea markets and imagined that all of them belonged to one fictional Chinese person. Through rendering, collage, and a cyclical process of hand coloring, scanning, and printing, they created connections among the photos. They spent two years repeating this process. These 1168 hand-colored photos invoke the passage of time, injecting life into the imaginary protagonist as he ventures through time and space.

"It Never Has To End: The Photographic Image in Transition with Thomas Sauvin and Lei Lei." Text by Brad Feuerhelm

"Each octave or state of the image has contributed to a new potential or opened a discussion of photography that is often overlooked”…

Anachronisms are often a difficult aesthetic concept to consider when the future is written largely by the velocity and speed of technological change. How do we examine material economies of visual means from the past while also trying to apply them to the future present? Artist Thomas Sauvin and Artist Lei Lei have given us the keys to exchanging the past for a new document of the future by the appropriation of found material and intervening the two formal technological elements simultaneously at odds with each other in photographic conceptual framework-the hand applied colorization of vintage photography and animation.

Animation by its very process is conditioned to short steps of change that alter our perception of an image from its genesis to its enduring finality. Each movement or change to an image becomes one small part of the overwhelming final product. All moments in between are captured as a procedural dialectic when examined in the context of the finished work. To trace the movements becomes the whole itself.

Thomas Sauvin’s is widely celebrated for projects that examine the great reclamation of disused Chinese photographs and negatives that were previously destined towards the dustbin of history had he not salvaged their them and their potential. His collection itself is now considered a full-blown project for his own practice, not simply an archive. This is to be considered collecting as practice. It is the same for this project, though the archaeological implications are from sourcing existing images and not negatives that had lost their home and are placed on the market to be salvaged from loss by his hand. That there is an implicit potential for sacrosanct horror in loss is also worth acknowledging. The loss of hundreds of thousands of Chinese images, stripped of their silver nitrate or homes would become a great act of iconoclasm of an entire people if the process had been left to its final ends of dismissal in the festering trash heap. Sauvin’s intervention in saving these images not only provides his own practice with considerable fodder, but also breathes new life into the potential of what has been saved and what becomes re-purposed.

The keystone of the project “Hand-Colored Photography” began when Sauvin, sifting through a batch of newly-saved images found a photograph that bore the annotations of its short history-“taken in 58’, colored in 68’” on the back of the physical image. Sauvin recognized instantly the profundity of this photographic relic- namely that its “life” was always in transition so long as it existed. He understood that the value of a photograph being made in 1958, but improved upon with hand-coloring in 1968, enhanced the photograph’s value, representation and quality over time to which he could also inscribe his own ideas or mark to the original image thus continuing its life and transition. To “make it better later” is an idea that promotes that not all images are finished once printed or archived.

Observing that the anachronism of such an image at its base was strife for further change, Sauvin enlisted Beijing-based friend and multimedia artist Lei Lei to work on creating a series of animations in which the original photograph could be enhanced through technology and the hand of the artist. Documenting each step of the hand-coloring process by scanning each change, sometimes over hundreds of progressive scans and coloring, the duo turned the resulting moments or stages into animation and gave the images a transcendent possibility not inherent in their original condition, thus continuing its life. Within re-contextualizing these individual images, the artists have created a fictional narrative not found in each errant individual image.

By conditioning the image to hand-coloring first, the artists consciously developed a methodology in which they could make the image move and progress in step-moments by additive color process. This should be underscored. The image in flux and the image in transition is a neglected idea in general photographic practice. The spectatorship of the moving image is almost always aligned with the transition to film. The step that is often missed is how to make an image move by from its initial physical object-hood into something greater than itself procedurally without turning towards the necessarily cinematic. In coloring the images and then taking each step through the scanning and animation process to the final product, the artists have re-invigorated photography and more importantly, THE photograph’s potential for evolution. Each octave or state of the image has contributed to a new potential or opened a discussion of photography that is often overlooked for the potential of film itself. These images breathe and they sweat a neo-fauvist color palette and their new intention continues to transcend that of the static repository for which they have been destined.