Nir­vana ex­posed

Pasatiempo - - Art And Photography - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

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.”

Jungjin Lee:

Wind 07-106;

op­po­site page, Wind 07-68

Pho­to­graphs by Jungjin Lee from Wind,

pub­lished by Aper­ture (Novem­ber 2009)

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