Jungjin Lee’s work recalls photography’s early artistic affiliations with painting and drawing. It unites feeling and form through the technique of applying photographic emulsion to handmade paper with a brush. In an age of digital imagery unmoored from materiality, her precise and meditative pictures speak to a desire for unhurried sensual experience. Her latest work is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery from September 13 through November 10 and in the group show New Territory: Landscape Photography Today at the Denver Art Museum through September 16.
Lyle Rexer: Let’s begin with beginnings. One of my favorite series of yours is Lonely Cabin, which you shot 30 years ago. It recalls a long literary tradition, especially in Korea, of meditations on a simple lifestyle. What did you take away from this experience? Did it inspire you or mark you as an artist? As a human being?
Jungjin Lee: I started working as a documentary photographer in my twenties, and my first project was a man who dedicated himself to collecting ginseng (Lonely Cabin). I was fascinated by this old man who lived in isolation with his wife in the mountains with a dream of finding wild ginseng. It was really rare, and he had never found a single plant in ten years on that island. I spent one year visiting him in order to shoot pictures, and in the end I realized that what I photographed was a reflection of my mind, not the portrayal of his life. After that project, I decided to be an artist rather than a documentary photographer. I never went back to the documentary world after 1988.
LR: You have had a long fascination with the American desert. Tell me how you first came into it, what you saw and felt, and why you continue to return to it.
JL: I made a cross-country road trip by car in 1990 and encountered the vast southwestern desert for the first time. It was too hot to stay out of my car, but I was overwhelmed by the openness, the essential energy from land and sky. I went back a few months later with my camera, and my journey continued until I returned to Korea in 1995. The desert made (and still makes) me see my inner self clearly, which is often hopeless to express with a camera because I’m not interested in shooting sublime scenery. Instead, I want to make images from what I feel there. The desert made me feel vacant and present in my being always. I go there to be more than to photograph. I’d like to share this feeling from the open land. My works are the traces of my mental experience while taking pictures. They enter the viewer’s mind because, I believe, there are universal elements in the feeling. My early works from the desert (American Desert series, 1,2,3,4, 1990-1994) are more a mirroring of myself, while my recent series (Opening) shows my gaze on the landscape without reflecting my emotions.
LR: Robert Frank has called your pictures “landscape without the human beast.” Why did you decide to remove the active presence of people from your photos?
JL: I don’t make up my mind what to photograph in the beginning of a new project. It usually comes to me intuitively in the place, even in a commissioned project. I never ask myself why I don’t photograph people, but if I have to answer, it is because it doesn’t concern me as a subject. It’s like why I don’t take color photographs. I’m more committed to expressing the inner state of my mind than the active presence of people in real time. The magical thing is that my photographs capture exactly what I focus on expressing, and real time and place lie outside my intention.
LR: I know you have been asked this before but what did you learn from working as an assistant to Robert Frank when you were in graduate school? There are no obvious stylistic influences.
JL: We both have good eyes although our subjects and styles are different. According to Robert, “truth” exists beyond style. I’m influenced by his artistic attitude, which (I believe) comes from his personal identity, not from talent or intelligence. He followed his own beliefs without following existing rules, and I was deeply moved by it. This lesson was much more profound than learning how to make good photographs. As for the differences, he loves to watch people, and I love to watch trees. That’s all.
LR: You have referred to the image as acting like a poem. There are poetic elements, of course, as when you have objects stand in for human beings, as traces. But you mean this in a larger sense.
JL: The image in my works often stands as symbolic, although I don’t try to use the image to express something specific. For example, your eyes see a tree in the image and then your mind reads something else at the same time, something that can be translated into emotion or some elemental experience. Especially in Asian poems, a word can connote in different ways depending on the context.
LR: As opposed to several decades ago, when landscape photography was relentlessly objective, I see many younger photographers attempting to reconnect personally with the natural world. Is this need to connect physically one reason for your adoption of so much handwork in your photographs?
JL: I think there are two different points that distinguish my landscape pictures from objective landscape photographs. One is my subjective gaze; the way I see the objects or landscape. Second is the physical process of using handmade Korean paper. It makes the viewer feel the work more than read the image. I don’t try to manipulate the image in the darkroom because the image I capture already has a great deal of my breath (Vicki Goldberg called it “shorthand notes from the spirit.”). I want to keep the feeling of the moment that I shared with nature until the end of the printing process.
LR: The photographic tradition you have been identified with is pictorialist, with strong connections to painting and drawing. It has continued to have a following in Korea and Japan when most photographers elsewhere have purged these approaches from their vocabulary. Can you explain its continuing appeal?
JL: Maybe yes – I’m more interested in paintings than the photography world, and more in abstract painting than traditional Asian paintings. I don’t deny that my aesthetic is partially rooted in Asian culture, but I don’t see my work as pictorialist. I don’t portray landscapes or nature. Instead I try to express my inner being through images of landscape.
LR: Maybe the most explicit exploration of the connections between Eastern and Western traditions of art is the series Opening. Most of the images are vertical, suggesting Asian scroll paintings. But several of the photographs divide horizontally into contrasting zones that resemble Mark Rothko’s paintings. Were you seeking this unity of spiritualized aesthetic traditions?
JL: Your points are very interesting to me because I didn’t think about that theme at all. I don’t intentionally adopt ideas from traditions, either Eastern or Western. Let’s say breathing in might be Eastern, and breathing out is Western, but we all breathe in and out. Rather, I attempt to make a new series with my vacant thoughts as if I’m free from what I did and what I learned from the last 30 years working as an artist. My intention in Opening was to convey the deep interaction between myself and the contemplated landscape. Choosing a vertical format was an attempt to express the limitation of one’s mind, and the title Opening refers to an opening of the heart, a freeing of it from its limitations. My thinking in general is rooted in Asian philosophy: Buddhism and Taoism. That philosophy is reflected in the concept of Opening more than with any of my previous series. The title is a symbolic hint of my idea, no more than that.