Kim Young Gap in his studio reviewing some of his earlier prints. Photo courtesy Kim Young Gap Gallery
Kim Young Gap was a man obsessed. He spent his last ten years roaming the countryside of Jeju looking to capture the essence of his adopted home. He stripped his life of all, but the bare necessities, believing that a simple, uncomplicated existence would make it possible for him to find, as he once wrote, “the island’s hidden flesh, the hidden beauty.” He frequently personified the island, writing of its elusive “flesh” and “bones,” and in the same vein he would pen “my being becomes grass, trees, insects. I am assimilated into their life.” His writings are full of metaphors that depict a live and breathing Jeju and himself, infused into the nature around him and his photographs are not simply landscapes, but the visualizations of his words.
“His life work was hoping to find the life of Jeju,” said Park Hun Il, Kim Young Gap gallery director and old friend of the artist. “At the beginning, he did not use the panoramic camera, but he could not contain the image of Jeju. He wanted to put it there in the photo; he wanted to deliver Jeju’s panoramic view.”
The artist’s cameras can still be since where Kim left them in his office. Photo by Kim Gyong Ho
In his gallery, photos from this early period still hang on the walls, though outnumbered by his later landscape pieces. These pictures, black and white images of shaman performing rituals for the deceased, are the only photos of people to be seen. Park mentions that it was not the Shaman he was specifically taking photos of, but the notion of the afterlife and the transference from one state of being to another that he was most concerned with.
The gallery, mainly comprised of landscapes, is organized by season with several images showcased in all four sections displaying the scenes different incarnations. In his attempt to capture the essence of Jeju, Kim would return to the same spot and take the exact same picture throughout the year.
The subjects of his photos are of what one would expect of Jeju- oreums, forests immersed in fog, Jeju stone walls- but, in his hands, they are imbued with an ethereal quality that creates a sublime image full of life and emotion. Kim referred to his photos as “mummies preserved,” but there is no impression of death or decay. What Kim was able to capture and miraculously, translate into stills was the sense of awe he felt as he gazed at the horizon.
Kim Young Gap took pictures between the altitudes of 200 - 600m within the mid-mountain ranges where he said he felt the true sense of seasons. Kim endeavored to capture the wind in his pictures and returned to this same area season after season believing that it is because of the wind that the seasons are felt. Photos courtesy Kim Young Gap Gallery
“He was self taught,” said Park, “He refused to have the learned way of taking photos. He refused that stereotypical A.B.C. rules of taking photos and took advantage of it.”
This notion of breaking the elementary rules of photography is not at first apparent when looking at his photographs. Kim ignores the most basic rule by placing the desired object in the very center of the frame. Since his images, for the most part, are large, horizontal prints, this technique creates cohesion between all the elements within the picture making the entirety of the photo the focal point. The image is all encompassing and the unseen wind and cold seem to become an almost visible presence. He even dedicates an entire chapter to this invisible force titled “Images brought by the wind, a soul gone with the wind,” in his photo book, “Wind… Field… Oreum… Cloud.”
During a time when most photographers were experimenting with new, cutting edge technology, Kim was a naturalist and continued to shoot on film without the use of gels or any other photo manipulation techniques. He often shot in the rain and snow, and if a rain drop landed on the lens of the camera he would leave it and allow it to become part of the picture.
As time passes and Jeju continues to change and morph and alter its identity, Kim Young Gap’s photographs will become images of nostalgia, chronicling what once was. They will be looked upon as historical references of a time before the amusement parks and museums, a time before the glitz, gimmicks and glamour. His gallery and mid-mountain range inspired garden will become a refuge for those who want to glimpse the Jeju of yore. “He felt so sorry for Jeju’s development plans. He felt so sad,” said Park. Already, several of the landscapes captured in his photographs that line the walls of his gallery do not exist anymore outside of their frames.
He was a writer before he became a photographer, but he felt that words could not explain his feelings. Kim Young Gap believed that his photographs captured the hidden faces of the wind, but little did he know that the faces he was capturing were his own.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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