N.B. I am writing a series of research posts to introduce a selection of Korean landscape photographers, in part expanding my Literature Review for CS, but will also inform BoW.
There are many unique qualities to the work and life of Lee Jungjin (b. 1961). Perhaps more than any New Wave photographer, she is representative of cross-cultural exchange. Lee’s path creates a differentiation to the landscape genre from Korea; partly because of her choice of subject (see fig. 1.) and also the time she spent in the West. After her studies and a brief period of freelance and documentary work, Lee moved to New York where she worked for Robert Frank, who she cites as an influence on her work (Nelson, 2016). Of course Frank’s journeys, that culminated in the seminal The Americans will have inspired Lee to similarly explore her new environment as an outsider, but we could also interrogate further some of her series in relation to Western photography history. In her thesis Contemporary Landscape Photography: Dissolving Boundaries in Jungjin Lee’s Wind Series, Amelia Nelson writes that Lee “…was influenced by the Western artistic tradition and represented both a step away from the Asian tradition of landscape painting and an opening of Korean society.” (Nelson, 2016, p.13).
While much of Lee’s photography is concentrated on the American West, she occasionally returns to her native land for inspiration and theory. She has used signs and signifiers such as Buddhist pagodas, statues and pine trees (see fig. 2.), albeit in a much more abstract way. Nelson continues saying: “While Jungjin Lee’s photographs are clearly influenced by Asian landscape painting, they are also deeply informed by modern and contemporary trends in Western photography.” (Nelson, 2016, p.18).
Nelson believes that Lee’s work is reminiscent of the Pictorialist movement of the late 19th-early 20th century. Photographers of the period such as Alfred Stieglitz had the desire for photography to be seen in similar artistic levels as painting and sculpture. Indeed viewing Lee’s work one can observe the sculpted quality in her processing that carries over from her early education in ceramics. Her process is a hybrid of analogue and digital, resulting in a multilayered object akin to paint peeling from an old wall, a subject of one of her own series (see fig. 3).
Abstractions found in natural and urban environments were the subject of Pictorialism and continued to be the muse of photographers such as Harry Callaghan, Aaron Siskind (see fig. 4) and Lewis Baltz. It would be surprising to find out that during Lee’s time in New York, with all its galleries and institutes of photography, she would not have been conscious of such work.
Her process is perhaps most prevalent in the object studies Pagodas and Thing (see fig. 4.), where the paper surface is left almost naked for the form to be seen. In both cases “Lee offers a minimalist context to these forms, both the sacred and the mundane framework compelling the viewer to see them anew.” (Nelson, 2016, p.33). What we gain from Lee’s body of work is both variety and scale within a specifically crafted style. Her work is undeniably aesthetically beautiful but there is also a spiritual and philosophical depth that is not lost in the layered process.
I would suggest, along with Pictorialism, that Lee’s work in Thing has a trace of Brassaï’s selection of Involuntary Sculptures. Brassaï uses everyday objects, like Lee, and the ‘readymade’ rolled-up paper (see fig. 6.) nods to Surrealism and Marcel Duchamp. Lee is perhaps less satirical with her use of similar subjects but more contemplative of the notion that any object can be seen as art.
What distinguishes Lee from her peers, besides her cultural background and being a woman (also a form of outsider in a male dominated environment), is above all, her process. Lee is not a purist. Although she shoots analogue, she utilises the digital process in her editing. Furthermore, she brings a different element, the use of traditional Korean hanji (mulberry paper). It is in this unique process that the world of sculpture and photography combine to create an added layer of hybridity to Lee’s work. The results are stunning and bring back that what is lost in digital culture, the need to physically be present in front of a work of art.
Lee is an export of Korean aesthetics, but also a cultural translator for both audiences. Nelson suggests that Lee ‘dissolves boundaries’ between East and West. I would propose that Lee is a truly global Korean. Grounded in her native roots without being constrained by them.
Lee, J (no date) Available at: http://www.jungjinlee.com (Accessed on 28.11.18)
Lee, J (2016) Public to Private: Photography in Korean Art since 1989. Seoul: National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Nelson, A (2016) Contemporary Landscape Photography: Dissolving Boundaries in Jungjin Lee’s Wind Series [M.A. Thesis] University of Missouri-Kansas City
List of illustrations
Figure 1. Lee, Jungjin (1999) Ocean 99-31 [Photograph] At: http://www.jungjinlee.com/ocean (Accessed on 28.11.18)
Figure 2. Lee, Jungjin (2007) Wind 07-69 [Photograph] At: http://www.jungjinlee.com/wind (Accessed on 22.11.18)
Figure 3. Lee, Jungjin (2003) Wall 03-12 [Photograph] At: http://www.jungjinlee.com/wall (Accessed on 28.08.18)
Figure 4. Siskind, Aaron (c.1950) Peeling Paint [Photograph] At: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/55367 (Accessed on 28.08.18)
Figure 5. Lee, Jungjin (2003) Thing 03-04 [Photograph] At: http://www.jungjinlee.com/thing (Accessed on 28.08.18)
Figure 6. Brassaï (1932) Involuntary Sculpture (Elementary Rolling Taken from a Retarded Person) [Photograph] At: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/284689 (Accessed on 28.08.18)