Lee Shulman: “The main purpose of art is to convey emotion”

February 6, 2024

Since 2017, Lee Shulman has been collecting slides. From these snapshots of daily life taken by anonymous people, he has created The Anonymous Project, a series of works, exhibitions, and books. Once grouped together, the images become touching, universal, and meaningful stories. He discusses his creative process and his love of storytelling with Samaritaine, where he is exhibiting some of his pieces as part of the Paris-Venice campaign. On view until April 24, the exhibition will then travel to Venice, just in time for the Biennale.

You are a director and collector—how did your taste for images and art in general develop?

My father took a lot of photos when I was a child, and so did I. Later, I went to film school in London, and in the first year we were told that we wouldn’t shoot anything and would only work with slides. It’s impossible to reframe the image once it’s made, so it was a radical way to train your eye.

What types of projects have you worked on?

I started with commercials and clips with a group of friends who became very well known, like Michel Gondry, Cassius … . It was the French Touch era! I also made a lot of Polaroids and drawings. Even now, I still make storyboards. I treat photographs like a movie.

How did The Anonymous Project start?

Seven years ago, my parents cleaned out their house and sent me the slides they had of the family. I also looked on eBay and saw that a lot of people were selling slides because they couldn’t use them. I bought a box, put them in a scanner, and found the results incredible: the colors, the quality … even though they were from the 1950s! I started sharing them on Instagram and people liked it. The New York Times contacted me to find out who the photographer who took these images was … It disturbed them that they were so beautiful, so artistic, and so intimate despite being taken by unknown photographers.

How did you feel when you looked at the first slides?

I felt very strong emotions because there is an intimate relationship between the photographer and the subject. It is an authentic and sincere connection. We all see ourselves in these images. It was this narrative that interested me. For me, the art is in how it’s assembled—everyone makes images, but choosing the right ones and knowing how to put them together is something else. I have the soul of a collector, and together with my team, we look to tell stories.

What do the works look like once they are created?

My exhibitions are real movie sets! I always work with the same teams, movie production designers, with whom I recreate entire living rooms from houses in the 1950s, as if we were having a slide show. In Arles, in 2019, with “The House,” I built rooms where the images were backlit in cupboards. I made mises en abîmes. I wanted people to be able to look at the images in other ways than on walls.

Do you continue to hunt for new slides to expand your collection?

Today, lots of people support the project and send me their slides. Initially, this project was about my family. Due to immigration from Eastern Europe, my family is very fragmented and partially lost. Every exhibition, I come away with the feeling of having founded a new family! I have never been more motivated to bring people together.

You are exhibiting in different spaces at Samaritaine—can you explain that to us?

It’s a place that represents life and transition. My first approach was to integrate myself into that. I put large-format photos on the elevators to give the impression of entering the image, then I installed fashion-related images in the men’s and women’s spaces. Two columns are visible on the ground floor. These are two-meter-high installations made up of 2,000 slides each, front and back. It’s a way to penetrate the universe of collective memory, like a storyboard of life. I like people to focus on it, adults and children alike. It’s transgenerational! Finally, on the sixth floor there are prints on the theme of sleep printed on voile. As they are transparent, you can see the people behind them, which gives the impression that they are part of the shot. Dressing the walls with unknown families, it’s a mirror of our lives. It brings us back to basics. And the main purpose of art is to convey emotion.

What do our theme and these two cities, Paris and Venice, inspire in you?

These are cities full of emotion and love, a fantasy of romance and light! I like seeing cities come together. It matches my project, which evokes collaboration between people. In art too, we won’t get through it if we don’t work hand in hand! We often think that we are very different from each other, but in reality, we’re not. There is an expression in English that I love: “Different but the same.” This notion of inclusion is very important to me, like the book recently produced with the Senegalese artist, Omar Victor Diop. I photographed it and inserted these images into slides from the segregation era. It is both funny and very political. At the moment, I’m working on a documentary about Martin Parr. He’s a very accessible person. He has the genius of the great artists who believe in sharing. That’s the most important thing: sharing and transmission.

What does Samaritaine represent for you?

I love bringing exhibitions to places where I’m not expected, mixing living spaces with art. Samaritaine is a legendary building, which symbolizes French expertise! There is a requirement, a quest for perfection, a desire to seek the best. I learned a lot about working in detail in France. In this way, we honor memory and remembrance, and emotion is amplified.

Are you going to continue your collection? What are your other projects?

Yes, there are still many ways to tell the story of these images and to collaborate with other artists. The slides continue to arrive every week. There are always surprises! Some have become iconic. I always wonder which one will be next. I am also working on a book project about fashion, a subject which is front and center in the images I receive. In the middle of COVID, I received a phone call from Christian Lacroix, who had seen my exhibition in Arles. He told me, “You don’t realize, you are a witness to the fashion of this era in full color!” I want to use that.