▲ Lee's work fuses light and nature to explore the nature of beauty and the divine. Photo by Lee Jeonglok
An interview between British photographer Simon Powell and Korean fine art photographer Lee Jeonglok.
▲ Artist Lee Jeonglok is fascinated by the human relationship with trees. Photo courtesy Lee Jeonglok.
Lee Jeonglok was born in Gwangju, South Korea. He discovered his passion for photography as a design student at Gwangju University, and subsequently studied photographic design and fine art photography in Seoul and New York. For more than a decade the artist has exhibited in solo and selected group exhibitions throughout Korea and his work can be found in the public collections of some of the most respected museums across the country. Lee Jeonglok describes his current calling as “listening to nature to discover a unique, personal impression of a place…translating what it says into a visual language through my photography”. This year he came to live and work in Jeju.
Simon Powell:Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism, once famously said: “Teaching and learning is nothing. It’s living and looking”. Do you agree? Were you a good photographer from the beginning?
Lee Jeonglok:I believe this is my destiny. I was born to do this, to be a photographer. My name is 정록 (Jeonglok). In Chinese, 정 (Jeong) means right, correct or true.록 (Lok) means to record.
SP: But professional artists tend to have a propensity for creative self-expression through various mediums. Why did you choose photography?
LJ: I initially studied design because I wanted to pursue my creative instinct. But design involves co-working and teamwork, whereas I really felt a desire to work alone, under my own name. My medium is fine art photography. Although the end result is a photograph, the process by which each piece is created is far more complex than merely pressing a button on a camera. A whole host of artistic skills and techniques are involved, such as installation, performance and sculpture. But it is very important to me that my end product is photography. I believe there exists another, invisible world within the world we can see with our eyes. If I were to draw an image of this parallel universe, it would become a mere fantastical illustration. However, by using photography the end result is very different; it retains the essence of our experience of reality, while simultaneously conveying a sense of the hidden realm that exists therein.
SP: What is your greatest source of inspiration?
LJ: Every artist has their own source of inspiration: Sting meditates every morning, Pollack drew inspiration from alcohol, Picasso from women. In my case I pray to God every morning. In my earlier work I think you can trace the influence of many other photographers but nowadays I believe I am more unique. The images I create, God gave to me in my heart, and my job is to find a place and means to express my visions.
SP: This sense of spirituality is evidently integral to your more recent work, perhaps no more so than in your “Tree of Life” series. What does this particular symbol mean to you?
LJ: I have been deeply interested in trees for many years. Ancient peoples across the globe greatly admired trees, appreciating them more for what they saw and felt than for any sophisticated scientific understanding of their inner workings. For a long time I struggled to discover these secret qualities first-hand. Then one winter’s day, as I stared at an apparently lifeless specimen in the cold, I suddenly noticed a vague and solitary nascent green bud on the tip of a single branch.In this moment I finally experienced the special energy for myself. I tried to express the sensation I felt through photography and experimented for more than six months before I eventually found a satisfactory means to visually convey my emotion.
▲ 5-3-1. Photo by Lee Jeonglok
SP: Is light an important element of this process?
LJ: For me light is an essential medium through which to present the link between the world of reality we witness with our eyes, and the other mystical world we can sometimes sense in a particular time and place. I found that it was only through the inventive use of light that I was able to represent the nature and power of what I felt that day when I first connected to the tree’s inner energy. For my Tree of Life pieces I shoot at night using three sources of light - natural light, a search light and dozens of individual flash lights. The light effects you see around the edges of the trees’ branches are all created using a series of individual flashes, captured in a single photograph over a very long exposure.
SP: Place is also a significant theme in your photography: landscapes, places of residence, private and personal places, mystical and spiritual places. Why did you choose to come to this place, Jeju?
LJ: I had a solo exhibition in Jeju last December, so I came here for the installation and drove around the island for four days. I had visited previously on my honeymoon, 15 years earlier, but this was the first time I came with my camera. The Gotjawal forest of Jeju so inspired me. Wow! I knew I had to return. I told all of my friends, “I have to go to Jeju, I have to go to Jeju”, and luckily one of them helped me to come back here.
SP: Have you found a special feeling or inspiration in Jeju, distinct from what you experienced elsewhere in Korea?
LJ:Ah yes, it is very different, especially the forest. I didn’t know about the phenomenon of artists coming to live and work here until I came myself, but now I realize why. There is an alternative atmosphere, a unique quality to the scenery and landscape. Weolcheon beach, Saryeoni forest and the island’s cow farms are three of my favorite places. For me they all possess a special aura. For a long time in my life I have suffered from stomach problems, but they are somehow alleviated when I work in these places, particularly in the forest. I cannot explain why with scientific words, it is just something I feel - a physical thing.There is a certain sensation that I cannot quite grasp, explain or comprehend, but I know I have only felt it in the Gotjawal forest of Jeju.
▲ The Forest of the Soul. Photo by Lee Jeonglok
SP: There seems to be an interplay in your work between the orderly and disorderly - the natural and unnatural. Do you view the world as intrinsically ordered or irrevocably disorderly and chaotic?
LJ: Ten years ago, I became a Christian. Eleven years ago there was a big problem in my soul.I couldn’t find the final answer to my problem anywhere. I had previously trained in many traditional meditation techniques - from the seven Chakras to tree-hugging to ancient breathing exercises.However, these seemed to be ways or paths to something, rather than a final solution to my dilemma.I could only find the solution in religion.I believe that religion chose me.
SP: That is internal order and disorder, in your soul. What about in the external world around us, the world you photograph?
LJ: Actually, during my first two or three months in Jeju, I didn’t really do anything. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t even open my camera pack.Every day I visited the Gotjawal forest, but the forest didn’t show itself to me. Every place must have some kind of order, but here the disorder was too strong, too complex, too great. I was overwhelmed by entropy. Since then I have taken other photos in different locations in Jeju, but despite having returned to the forest time after time, even now I am unable to find any order there.The German philosopher and critical theorist, Walter Benjamin, once explained that although the bible may contain the true revelation of God, because it is written in our fallible human language, the very words through which that revelation is conveyed become a barrier to finding the truth.It is the same in the forest. I want to witness the revelation of God, but for now all I can see are the human words. Perhaps it is not so much a question of order, but rather enlightenment. What I really want to do is find something in the forest that normal people can’t see.
SP: You mentioned that you found a “final answer” to your spirituality in religion. Do you think you will ever discover a perfect place, an ideal final destination in your physical life and work, or will there always be something missing, some sense of disorder?
LJ:In my work I do not have my final answer yet. I have not seen it, but I am on the way to finding my way. I am on the path. One day, I have a dream that I will be able to grow my own Tree of Life in my own garden and use that in my work. Someday I would like to make my own Garden of Eden, but even then it will never be perfect.
Lee Jeonglok is an artist in the middle of his professional journey and his personal relationship with Jeju.This month he leaves the island to return to his studio in preparation for several upcoming exhibitions. He will be back in November, for one month, to shoot his Tree of Life for the first time in an autumnal/winter setting. Through his Tree of Life, Lee Jeonglok has found in his imagination a means to express a spiritual feeling for a certain place rather than merely reproduce a landscape.The artist has realized a particular shape as a symbol of perfection and enabled the eternal preservation of the feeling of his moment of enlightenment, as if to prove the existence of God through the power of nature he observed in his own vision. It is undoubtedly a mesmerizing scene, in which a magical object of solemn significance sings a song to the spell-bound viewer in the tranquil wavelength of light.
Upon returning to Jeju, the very first thing Lee Jeonglok will do is revisit thegotjawal forest on the rocky slopes of Mt. Halla. Hewill listen once again and continue to search, in its mysterious complexity, for the miraculous revelation that remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Simon J Powell is a Jeju-based freelance photographer, musician and educator from London, England. For more on his work, visit his Facebook page here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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