Photographer Kim Jung-man: Taking the `Ultimate Road

2007-12-17 : 18:58

Celebrated photographer Kim Jung-man, 53, speaks about his transition into fine art photography in an exclusive interview with The Korea Times. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

``The Road Not Taken'' (1915) by Robert Frost perhaps best describes the new path Korea's celebrated photographer Kim Jung-man has embarked on. The photographer is as famous as the celebrity figures that appear in his work, but there came a moment when he arrived at a crossroads.

He chose to step out of the limelight to pour his heart and soul into fine art photography ― what he calls taking ``the ultimate road as a photographer."

``I had to choose, whether to earn more money and make more social connections, or to give it all up ― which wasn't easy by the way ― and take the road of no return,'' Kim said in an exclusive interview with The Korea Times.

``It is a battle with yourself. You choose your subject matter and invest your time, money and passion, and there is no guarantee of success or failure,'' he said. It also meant ``cutting off social connections and arriving at a point where you aren't making any profit and can't even pay rent for the studio.''

But roads often take unexpected twists and turns. After exhibiting some of his work in New York in March, he spent the springtime in the Himalayas with the Hankook Ilbo, the sister company of The Korea Times. Over the summer he was commissioned by the Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism to capture images of Korea for its campaign ``Korea Sparkling,'' and was able to discover the far corners of his native country for the first time.

Born in Korea in 1954, Kim spent his youth in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where his father was a government-dispatched doctor. He recently returned to erect football goalposts in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods, starting from Cape Town to Cairo. Adidas Korea sponsored him on this four-year project, which he will continue through next year.

Before he knew it, Kim had won the grand prize for a big advertisement photo award for Samsung's Burj Tower in Dubai.

``It was the one commercial work I did, and before I knew it, I was dubbed `commercial photographer Kim Jung-man,' '' he said. ``Two years ago I would have been thrilled, but not at this point in my life.''

Kim's newfound career as a fine art photographer however, would take flight when his ``hanbok" (traditional Korean dress) series created a stir at the Asian Contemporary Art Fair in New York last month.

With all 10 editions of ``Cloth of Wind'' (1996) and ``Nipple'' (2006) sold out at prices far above the anticipated mark, it was a spectacular debut. It was Kim's first time participating in an art fair. He had previously avoided it out of respect, because as a commercial artist he felt it was not his ``turf.''

Kim had started the hanbok series more than a decade ago with esteemed hanbok designer Lee Young-hee. It was, above all, an enlightening experience. ``I was shooting fashion spreads with models sporting Chanel. But when I saw our models in hanbok, it came as a shock that our grandmothers and mothers can also be this beautiful.

``I believe this is the true image of Korea. The hanbok project transcends any commercial means or even my own artistic goals ― it is the simple act of recording. Through this process of recording I came across the great artist Shin Youn-bok,'' he said.

Kim was inspired by antique pornographic postcards depicting breast-bearing Korean women as well as erotic paintings by 18th-century Joseon (1392-1910) painter Shin Youn-bok.

``Shin was extremely modern ― the women's hair is let down loose and disheveled, and the breasts and hips are exposed ― and being able to paint in such a way greatly inspired me,'' he said. Kim is currently working on the Shin Youn-bok series, which is a continuation of his hanbok series. He plans to exhibit the pieces at the New York art fair next fall.

``There is something holy and truly beautiful about hanbok-clad women. But I am portraying it with my own style. Maybe 100 years later another artist will express it differently," he said.

Voyeurism pervades Shin's works, with Peeping Toms deliberately depicted in the painting.

``Yes, there is this aspect of sexuality and sensuality in it, but there is an innocence, and above all, a sense of Korean pride. I believe this is what inspires my creativity,'' he said. As a Bloomberg TV interview suggests, Kim earned rave responses from Sotheby's and Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) collectors not because his subject matter seemed novel in the eyes of Westerners.

Rather, it is his ability to take the self and heritage to create something new and named that speaks to our generation ― the language of photography. ``The ideal role of photography is storytelling, rather than simply translating a message,'' he said.

And what exactly is photography? ``It's not painting,'' said Kim, who was actually a Western painting major at Ecole Nationale d'Art Decoratif de Nice in France. ``You cannot manipulate lines on a whim, nor can you claim ownership of what you capture. Photography is the process of recording a world that is endlessly changing.

``To me, photography is more than life itself. It gives me great pleasure and I am grateful to be able to work at my age... I think I have a gained a bit of sincerity, which I lacked at a young age,'' he said.

His dream? ``To try really hard to become a good photographer. This is only the beginning,'' he said with a wink.