The Motionless Heart of Things
by Didier Brousse
My encounter with the work of Jungjin Lee was fortuitous but rich in an emotion that was not far from love at first sight.
It happened in April 2012 . There were a few dozen of us, curators, publishers, and art dealers, who had been invited to the Fotofest, held every two years in Houston, Texas. The feature of this festival, where the exhibitions are scheduled throughout the city, is its highly remarkable and effective organization of portfolio reviews. The experience is exciting and intense. The contact days alternate with visits to exhibitions.
Jungjin Lee was not present at this edition of Fotofest but at a visit to an exhibition held on the festival premises I was overwhelmed by a huge photograph, very sculptural, posted in one of the offices. It was a print from her American Desert series(1994) and this was my discovery at the Fotofest. I captured the image and the artist’s name with my phone. I had never seen a photograph like it. Its beauty and the uniqueness of the object itself so enchanted me that this one photograph, after the thousands I had studied and commented on, fulfilled my expectations and justified the trip to Houston.
Then the penny dropped and I recalled an exhibition in the 90s at Pace MacGill, New York, by a young Korean artist, said to have been an assistant of Robert Franck’s. I had been struck by those large photographs printed on a traditional Korean paper,as if the image had been brushed onto the support. I was a printer at the time and I had long worked on making platinum prints on Japanese paper: I considered it a perfect example of success in the interplay between image and material. That had been my first encounter with Jungjin Lee’s work, and now I had rediscovered it more than fifteen years later.
On my return to Houston, I got in touch with her and we worked on an exhibition to be held at the gallery in September of the same year. A meeting of this kind is exceptional and there’s no time to be wasted...
What had struck me in that first photograph, which was fully confirmed when I eventually got to know her work better, is not easy to define, but I would say it’s an experience of the same order that one has before a sculpture or painting. It’s a different feeling with photography, though I don’t want to introduce a scale of value. Like painting, it bears the memory of all the painter’s gestures, and thus an intimate part of his or her being. It seemed to me that Lee Jungjin’s photography likewise possessed a singular presence, that her power had as much of the object as of the image in it.
Since then I have discovered her whole oeuvre and a little of her history and her character, but above all the rare and rather secretive artist. In thirty years’ work, Jungjin Lee has created in all some fifteen series of photographs.
Jungjin Lee was born in South Korea in 1961. During her artistic studies in Seoul, specializing in ceramics, she taught herself photography and in 1988 decided to continue her studies in New York. She graduated, majoring in photography at New York University in 1991. It was in the US that she found her artistic path in a chosen exile. A new country, an image-oriented culture, a new language and then a meeting and friendship with Robert Frank. Jungjin Lee’s art was born on this soil; a demanding, uncompromising combination, with an acute, existential sensibility, and a remarkable work on the form, the photographic material.
The experimentation with form is crucial to her. The practices of ceramics and calligraphy, disciplines where gesture and matter are essential, were a decisive influence on her creativity during her years of study. Jungjin Lee prints her photographs on a medium that she herself has prepared. Her choice of traditional Korean paper cherishes its living essence, like a skin, its ability to respond freely and unpredictably, almost as if it were “wild”, to the brush that applies the emulsion.
Printing, for Jungjin, is a kind of struggle with the material, a grueling effort, given the fact that her proofs are based on large formats up to two meters wide. The paper she uses, made from mulberry, absorbent, strong but very fine, folds and crumple under the brush; the treatment in successive baths leaves it a kind of shapeless ball of paper, creased and moist. It has to be spread out, dried on a stretcher, at the risk of the work tearing, and then rubbed on a heavier paper.
All this work is done to develop a drawing so special that it can only be made by the artist herself, using a procedure she has long elaborated and which is an essential phase of her creativity. From her series Unnamed Road in 2012 Jungjin opted for a partially digitally printed work: she makes a first print on emulsified Korean paper, which she digitizes and then touches up in order to achieve the definitive prints by pigment printing on kozo and hemp based paper. This digital step is a necessary control of her image and is essential to the creative process.
But beyond this work of proofing, photography is an indoor adventure for Jungjin Lee, a meditation on our presence in the world. Her beginnings in photography – Lonely Cabin in a Far Away Island,2 her first book, was published in 1988 – attest to certain predispositions for the documentary, in the tradition of reportage. But we already feel, by the subject chosen – the reclusive life of an old man in an isolated natural setting – and the shaping of some images, the outline of her future work which would suddenly discard documentary.
The revelation of the American desert came during the first years of her studies in New York and it was the trigger. She travelled west and discovered the bare, ascetic landscapes, places that bring one face to face with oneself. From American Desert in 1990 until Wind3 fifteen years later, several cycles grew out of this fascination with the desert; rocks, plants and the traces left by humans in this desolate landscape, where the bounds of heaven and earth merge. A metaphorical landscape that evokes the human condition. A place where we feel closer to a geological time that transcends us, and at the same time are confronted with our own frailty, the impalpable transience of clouds.
In the preface to Desert Book, published in 2002,4 Robert Frank wrote: “Jungjin Lee is the Voyager in the American desert.... As if taken from the light of the moon, an instant calm emanates from her images ... Jungjin has heard a voice in it. Without paper, she is capable of showing us the reality of her obsession – and that moves me.”
Between 2010 and 2012, Jungjin Lee participated in the “This Place” project. Devised and directed by the photographer Frédéric Brenner, the project invited twelve of the most important names in Contemporary Photography5 to turn their gaze on Israel. This work, which took two years in various parts of Israel, resulted in a series, Unnamed Road, issued in late 2014 by the British publisher Mack6 and exhibited at Camera Obscura in April 2015. It was not easy for Jungjin Lee to find her rightful place in this project and work in a country wounded by conflicts. She finally managed to make one of her greatest series by presenting a vision of the harsh, sometimes disquieting, beauty of this ancestral land, painfully marked by history but also rich in spirituality. The places photographed by Jungjin Lee have a strange presence. These mental landscapes seem out to come out of a dream rather than describing a reality. The texture of the prints is reminiscent of drawing and certainly contributes to this perception, but it is clearly her meditative vision of things that remains decisive. By seeking the essence, Jungjin Lee’s photography attains a formal perfection that concerns us profoundly because it speaks of the beauty of the world as well as our difficulty to live in it, to find a place of our own here.
Jungjin Lee has always followed her own path, without any guidelines, and as chance would have it, shortly after she completed Unnamed Road, the Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach, Florida) asked her to take part in a project on the Everglades, the Florida swamps that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This project, “Imaging Eden”, will bring together the works of five artists7 and will be on display until 12 July at the Norton Museum of Art.
The Everglades is the opposite of the arid desert. This is primitive nature hostile to humanity, nature dominated by water and trees. Lee Jungjin finds in it the essence of what moves her and fosters her work. Of her work for “This Place”, Jungjin Lee said: “What I am searching for in my photographs is something about life. It’s about the solitary state of being human. Life changes on the surface, like an ocean. You have the constant movement of water on the surface, but deep down, at the core, there is no movement.”
Now, in late 2015, Jungjin Lee is about set off for Arizona to photograph the desert... again. However, I suggested we could start to correspond by e-mail so as to complete this presentation. During our past meetings, I found that Jungjin Lee was not very forthcoming. A dialogue with her is an unstable equilibrium on the thread of her sensibility and the questions often seem to fall short of her true concerns. To my surprise, she began to reply at some length to my biographical questions, although she soon confessed that this retrospective exchange disquieted her while she was busily at work, due to her natural reserve.
Interview with Jungjin Lee, End of May 2015
Didier Brousse: What led you to become a photographer and leave South Korea for New York city ?
Jungjin Lee: I discovered my deep interest in photography in my first year at college.
My major in the art college was in ceramics, as I wanted to work with some essential material like clay. But I had a strong confidence that I would be a photographer just a few months
after I started taking pictures, although I enjoyed making ceramics (I remained at the school as a ceramic major). There was no photography department in my college, so I joined a photography club of the school for one year and then I developed my interest as self-taught, through books and also advice from a few well-known photographers in Korea in the 80s.
I came to the US for the first time in 1988 to study photography at NYU (I got a Master’s degree in 1991).
There were two reasons: to learn photography and also follow my wishes to live in NY as an artist. I was ambitious then... I wasn’t happy in the class because I never felt close to “conceptual art” or even saw myself literally as a “photographer”. I rather struggled that time. The positive thing is that It made me find my own identity and what I really wanted to express in art.
D.B.: Can you tell us about your idea of photography and the construction of your vision. Your first achieved photographic work, A Lonely Cabin in a Far Away Island, published in Korea in 1988, was merely documentary. What made you change to such a different path in your following works like American Desert, just a couple of years later ?
J.L.: That early work was done while I was working for the cultural magazine A Deep Rooted Tree. I worked as a photo journalist for two years and half right after graduation from my college and this was the first and last project as a documentary work. It took a year to finish shooting the lone old ginseng man (This book documents the solitary life of an old man and his wife in a mountain where they live by harvesting wild ginseng.) By the time the project was done, I felt strongly that I wanted to be an artist instead of being a photo journalist. Then I moved to New York with that hope in 1988. I just wanted to express myself, my emotions and my vision... with a camera. I thought the camera was a perfect tool for that, better than anything else. Better than painting, making sculpture or ceramics or writing… I thought it was a magic tool!
I thought my camera could express something beyond what I was able to imagine or think of. There is a magical glimpse while I see the world or things through the camera. Like the fundamental essence of things being captured through my intuition. That faith always stays in me, so that’s why I’ve been a photographer ever since then.
I often wonder if what I’m doing is really “photography”, because it seems to be quite a different method from what other photographers do with their camera. For instance, my pictures don’t reveal actual Time and Space. They show more the inner state of my mind beyond my thinking. Taking pictures of moments is more like an encounter with my own soul that flows in the world, where I am present.
D.B.: Your prints are always quite special objects. Can you explain a little about your technique and tell how and when it became an evidence to print that way?
J.L.: My experience of making ceramics, calligraphy or painting has been reflected in my printing process. And the understanding of negative space by heart. They are all fused with my basic idea of making prints. Using my tools from these experiences helps me to expand the meaning of the image in a deeper way and express my own feeling more closely. It makes the viewer feel my image rather than see it. All my darkroom technique never once reached what I felt at the moment when I photographed. In this sense I don’t mind being called a “photographer”.
D.B.: I imagine that working with Robert Frank was decisive in your artist life.
J.L.: I Met Robert Frank in 1991 through Ralph Gibson. (He gave me Robert’s phone number) I brought him few different series of works including my first book (A Lonely Cabin in a Far Island). I was lucky that he let me visit his studio on Bleecker Street in NYC. I recalled that it was my destiny to meet him in my life. He was very kind to me from the first and he made some good comments about the work I brought. He seemed to read my thoughts and mind (desperation and the desire to be a good artist, and my personal nature beneath f my work). Those were overwhelming moments for me, as if I was talking to a Great Zen Master: he spoke in very simple words but he seemed to have a power of penetrating the present moment. Just like his photographs. Luckily he liked my works (some but not all of them) and he let me visit sometimes and show him my works.
I made some prints of his negatives, and was documenting when he made films. It was between 1991 and 93. He became my true mentor. He enabled me to learn how to reflect myself into making art much more than how to make a good picture.. He didn’t really teach me anything directly related to photography but l learned very important things about expressing my own voice by watching him and his life at that time.
D.B.: Can you tell me about the circumstances of your latest work, Everglades. It’s a commissioned work, right?
J.L.: Yes: the Norton Museum of Arts, in West Palm Beach, Florida, proposed I should work on the subject. I guess they asked me because I had been working in the vast lands of the southwest desert in the US.
D.B.: What did you find there that appealed to you? You had mostly photographed arid landscapes, deserts, in your previous series, and here you are in a very different environment.
J.L.: I was interested in the subject of the swampland, which gave me the imagination of a mysterious land. It was right after finishing the project Unnamed Road in Israel and I was willing to take a trip with my camera to a wild nature with quite the opposite kind of environment compared to the complex country of Israel. I made three trips in nine months. I didn’t take many pictures on my first trip: not only because my camera was broken on the second day there, but also I couldn’t find a way to express myself in such a hidden and mysterious land. So it took me some time to figure out what I wanted to focus on in making images there. I thought of something beyond the boundaries of our imaginations, about time and space. I couldn’t capture anything particular by eye, but I could feel like an invisible moisture in the land and the sky. I tried to experiment with a new form of image with my camera, struggling to express the eternal energy and its circulation in wild nature. I was wondering how alligators and birds see the Everglades.
I try not to think of what I created in the past when starting a new project. I prefer to start with an empty mind. Not easy, but I try. But in the end, all works look similar even if they are different subjects and also different printing forms. There is a common flow in my works which I could define as “breathing solitude”...
D.B.: You are currently working in Arizona. Is it a new project? A new step, or kind of a continuation of American Desert?
J.L.: I am working on the Breath series, which I started in 2010. The concept is still very abstract to me and I don’t know where it will get to in the end. There’s no boundary in the subject matter: nature, portraits, common objects... It’s not about art, it’s about the state of my mind in life.
1. Didier Brousse founded the Galerie Camera Obscura in Paris in 1993 and has represented Jungjin Lee since 2012.
2. Lee, Jungjin, Lonely Cabin in a Far Away Island. Text by Jungjin Lee. Published by Yelwha-Dang Art Publications, Seoul, 1988.
3. Lee, Jungjin. Wind. Texts by Vicki Goldberg and Eugenia Parry, copublished by Aperture Foundation / Sepia International Inc., New York, 2009.
4. Lee, Jungjin. Desert. Prologue by Robert Frank, self-published, 2002.
5. Wendy Ewald, Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Gilles Peress, Fazal Sheikh, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Solomon, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall and Nick Waplington.
6. Lee, Jungjin. Unnamed Road. Interview by Charlotte Cotton. Published by Mack, London, 2014.
7. Gerald Slota, Jungjin Lee, Bert Teunissen, Jim Goldberg and Jordan Stein