It was a hot afternoon and the air dripped with humidity as I entered a maze of footpaths lined with volcanic rock and surrounded by lush greenery and manicured trees in Samdal village on the eastern side of Jeju Island.
Tiny clay figurines posed intermittently among the vegetation on either side of the path. I crouched down in front of one hollow, almost circular chunk of roughly textured rock. Another of the figurines sat perched inside, its legs bent, elbows resting on its knees and its head tilted to one side as it stared at the building beyond.
Tourists poured out of the Kim Young Gap Gallery, cameras clicking as they took in the exquisite gardens outside. While the park-like setting was indeed attractive, it was the work inside that I’d come to see. Kim, a landscape photographer originally from the mainland’s South Chungcheong province, photographed the beautiful rural landscapes of Jeju Island for nearly 20 years before succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2005. Seven years later, his art lives on in a new exhibition simply titled “Wind.”
I’m always excited to see the work of a landscape master, and the first photos on display did not disappoint. Printed large and completely unedited, the power of nature pulses through each image. The first two photographs bring together all the great natural elements Jeju has to offer: beautiful light, layers of clouds, long shadows, and crisscrossing lines punctuate the frames.
The next photo is a panorama of an oreum. Its S-shaped curves in perfect harmony with the dark, rolling clouds above is simply stunning and his best work in my opinion.
The final image of his exhibition, windswept pampas grass in late afternoon light, showcases the subtle blur that is a trademark of his photographs. You can almost feel the power of the wind as it blows across the grass-covered hills.
As I leave the gallery I glimpse a portrait of the artist in his later years on the wall outside of the office where he worked until his death. I stand closer and look deep into the eyes of a man who could no longer do what he loved. I see a hint of sadness and it breaks my heart.
Philosophical by nature, Kim would spend hours, even days in the field waiting to capture the perfect light and weather conditions. His subsequent photos were his attempts to understand the beauty of the land and yet, years later, he came to the conclusion that he never really understood it at all. It makes me wonder if he came to realize that he had spent too much time trying to understand nature and allowed other elements of life to pass him by.
Regardless, as pure art, his photos are magnificent and the latest exhibition of his work stands alone as a wonderful representation of a Jeju that is slowly slipping away as mass tourism and development take hold.
Douglas MacDonald is a Canadian-born freelance photographer. He has spent 10 years documenting life and landscapes in South Korea. He is a Getty Images Artist. Flickr.com/photos/dmacs_photos.
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