Although Jungjin Lee’s work does not especially pertain to zephyrs or gales or siroccos or even wafting breezes, a sort of windy-looking picture graces the cover of Wind, a new book of her photography. “ Wind is not the actual wind outside; it’s about the inner, our emotional things called wind,” the Korean photographer said in a call from New York.
The 50 giant, lush prints by Lee that are reproduced in the book are distinctive in several respects. First, whether the subject is a long, mostly collapsed building; a rampart of straggly tree trunks; an old piano-key mechanism sitting on a board in the dirt; or a vast landscape, seascape, or cloudscape, it is unvaryingly a horizontal composition.
“She loves the broad, formal strength of horizontals,” notes Eugenia Parry in the book’s essay. Toward that end, Lee prefers to use a panoramic camera, specifically a Linhof 612, which yields images about twice as wide as they are high. This camera allows her to work intuitively, to the extent that she even makes estimations regarding focus and appropriate exposures.
“I just always guess,” Lee said. “I have to make a very fine negative in order to make a print on the mulberry paper. If it’s too flat, it’s very difficult to transfer in this process.”
There she broaches the subject of the second, and more vital, distinction. These are not ordinary prints made on commercial photographic paper and certainly not the facile digital prints favored by the majority of today’s photographers. Lee employs a traditional enlarger to project the image from a film negative, but the recipient of that projection is a very large piece of Korean mulberry paper— either 41½ by 83 inches or 30 by 57½ inches— on which she has brushed a liquid photosensitive emulsion. After the exposure is made, she and two assistants apply developer to the surface of the paper using large brushes. After fixing, washing, and drying, the resulting print exhibits great textural detail— both from the photographed subject and from the hand-brushing of darkroom solutions— with deep blacks and a splendid range of grays. Lee’s works are harshly ethereal and austere but also rich.
“Actually, I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said in response to a question about her motivations as a photographer. “I mean, I know what I’m doing, but I don’t know how to describe it. The photography is important, but other parts like making prints are even more important.”
Not that she is too in love with that laborintensive darkroom process. “I want to stop sometime because it’s too much physical work. So much work to make one print, and if it doesn’t come out, I have to start all over again. But I haven’t found any other tool, because the quality I get from mulberry paper is very important.”
Many of her images have an epic feeling. Among them are a portrait of a coastal Monterey pine, bent toward the east by long years of weather out of the west, and her take on Camel Rock, north of Santa Fe, which is reduced almost to silhouette and lorded over by clouds that seem more about fire and scary black voids than about water suspended fluffily in the sky.
There are also photographs of a truck trailer; enigmatic dark boxes standing here and there in a rocky landscape; a pair of wooden cranes; an old school bus resting on a sagebrush plateau; a long, abandoned, concrete foundation or abutment in a snowy landscape; and that old piano mechanism.
“That one I found in the mountains outside Santa Fe,” Lee said. “There’s some funny houses, and people collect a lot of junk, and they put them around the house, and sometimes I stop. I found a piano there. A lot of photographs in the book were taken in New Mexico. I was doing an artist residency at the College of Santa Fe for three months in 2007, and I made a lot of pictures
then. Before that, I did a series of the Southwest desert from 1990 to 1995 in New Mexico and also Utah and Arizona.”
All of her works play with abstraction, but sometimes the source of an image is totally elusive. One is the piece she titled Wind 04-51. It has a landscape quality, but in this case it’s probably only that the image’s strong horizontality brings up that word as a last resort in the viewer’s desire for a reference. It can be perceived more loosely as a rich white noise. In fact, it is a picture of clouds over Korea.
Lee recalls the locations of some of her subjects better than others. Take Wind 07-104, a shot of a long, wooden building that has mostly slumped down to the ground, its roof a giant, curving shambles of loose shingles. “That was in California,” she said. “I don’t remember the exact place, because my photographs have been done in the middle of nowhere, on the road.”
Her nondescriptive titles are deliberate, an evidence of her approach. “It doesn’t need to have exact title or name of a place,” she said. “It’s more like a poem. You can feel whatever you feel through the image.”
As a child, Lee began working in the world of art and design by mastering calligraphy and doing paintings. By the time she was in her teens, her artistic explorations had moved into clay. She earned a bachelor’s degree in ceramics at Hongik University in Seoul. When she moved to New York City in 1988, she also taught herself photography. In New York, she served as assistant to photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank while working for her master of arts in photography at New York University.
Asked what she is doing now that her first trade book is on the stands, Lee said, “I’m doing motherhood. I have a 13-year-old boy with me. I came back to New York with my son and tried to find someplace so I can live and work in New York again. This year I spent a lot of time for my son’s school, so not much new work.”
She is planning for an exhibition of her Wind prints at Aperture Gallery in Manhattan in the spring of 2010. Santa Feans had the opportunity to see some of these photographs when Lee had a show at Bellas Artes Gallery in 2008. The gallery, which has represented the work of Jungjin Lee since 2000, has a DVD about the photographer’s process in the field and in the darkroom. It also shows her meditating. “I get into the twilight state,” she says in the narration. “I want to see things by themselves. ... I wish I could shoot the big picture with eyes of clear mind.” Her picturemaking strategy, which is based on meditation, is grounded in a peaceful clarity achieved through an emptying or calming of the busy mind, she said.
“When you have a head full of ideas, you can see what you think of. When you remove all your thoughts, you can see things from your heart. This is a very important part of what I want to keep,” Lee said. “I don’t go out to look for old pianos. I go out with a camera, ready to deflect myself into landscape or things I encounter. It doesn’t matter what it is, but when I photograph something, it can be another piece of myself, kind of a self-portrait.”
opposite page, Wind 07-68
Photographs by Jungjin Lee from Wind,
published by Aperture (November 2009)