Interview by Satomy Okazaki and Mineku Mori, curators of Yokohama Civic Art Gallery Azamino, on February 23, 2011 in Seoul.
- You used to practice documentary photography with subject matters such as young soldiers during the Cold War. But then, you have been producing nature-themed works for more than 10 years. Was there a specific trigger?
As a young man, I was interested in looking at my immediate environment with a camera. The portraits of soldiers depict my teammates during military service. They were there and I had a camera. The camera gave me an ability to interpret the world I saw as well as strength to take a distance from it.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Korean society met new challenges and underwent major changes. Thanks to photography, I could remain as an observer at distance from a troubled epoch. However there is one change in society that definitely affected my work: with the arrival of colour television, colour photography lost its distinctiveness. And I began to be really interested in colour.
It did not take long before my first interest in cityscapes devoid of any humans moved towards natural landscapes. Facing nature, I could experience the power of my own vision freed from ready-made significations, as well as the expansion of visual awareness.
- Your works are overwhelmingly large, but simultaneously, they are in focus with so much details that they startle the viewer at first sight. How did you reach your unique style?
It is not a matter of style but of the specificity of photography. When you get close to a painting, you see the lumps of paint rather than the painted object. But when it comes to photography, there is a deep-rooted demand for its role of replication. However large a photograph is, if details cannot be identified when approached, it will let the viewer down. Photography is a transparent medium.
The reason why I need large sizes, especially in â€śSansuâ€ť, is because I want to â€śre-presentâ€ť the expanses I had before me. If a photograph is small, you tend to read it. In front of a large size image, you look at it before you make any efforts of reading it. The important thing here is: simply looking. It is urgent to recover our vision, freed from signification and indoctrination. In front of my images, you are invited to stand at the point where I have been and to look.
- What made you start your new series "Sansu"?
I am living in a mountainous region and the changing aspects of the mountains, depending on the season and the weather, amaze me daily. In winter, they reveal their form and mass, which were before covered in green vegetation. Snow creates a new dimension. Furthermore, I like winter because the cold makes us humble and silent. Preparing a recent exhibition with a series of snowy mountain scapes, I came up with the title "Sansu". Of course, itâ€™s a historically and culturally loaded word. I did not intend to refer to the traditional Sansu when I took pictures. But I am pleased to reflect on our long tradition of relation with nature through my images.
- How does the moment when you encounter an object (the moment when you release the shutter) come to you?
In my early years, I worked impromptu since I did not feel any necessity to wait. I refused to use a tripod. I still like spontaneous work but now I can see infinite changes in a seemingly immobile motif, and I am ready to wait for the moment to release the shutter. Nature displays different kinds of time and makes me reflect on absolute time. It demands us attention and patience. Waiting is part of the process.
- What do you think about the relation between the medium called photography and time?
Photography is medium for understanding the time. Itâ€™s a form of memory. However I want my work to show the present progressive. For instance, snowflakes in the air suspend time in endless present progressive forms.
- Snow frequently appears in your works. It is also essential in Naksan* series.
Snow changes a landscape instantly. It veils and buries a familiar view to reveal a new one. I have often worked on the seashore of Naksan near my place, but it is only during heavy snow that I finally obtained what I had dreamed of. I call it the â€śreal image of the siteâ€ť, revealed by snow. In â€śSansuâ€ť series, snow makes visible hidden forms and spaces of mountains and woods.
- To conclude, do you have any plans for future production?
I try to avoid planning, because it gives birth to uncomfortable desire. I prefer dreaming to planning. I often come across a scene Iâ€™ve dreamed of. Itâ€™s dreams, not plans, which give me energy and images.
* Naksan: The name of an area located in the east coast of south Korea.