The South Korean fine art photographer Boomoon has had a long and deeply engaged relationship with the medium of photography for over four decades. In recent years, his work has dealt ostensibly with landscapes—but really as a means of meditating on perception and the self.
As critic Shino Kuraishi wrote, Boomoon’s images are ”so large that they extend beyond the perimeter of the human body…Wherever I stand in front of Boomoon’s landscapes, I am inevitably drawn into dialogue with myself.”
LC: Given the look and feel of your more recent output, I was surprised to learn that your initial forays into the medium were through street photography! Looking back at the work you made at the start of your career, how would you describe your development as an artist over the past 40 years? What elements have remained constant, and what have evolved? Are there some traces of your present self that you can see in your earliest photographs?
BM: From the very beginning, I have regarded photography as a way to apprehend the world in front of me. The camera was always a tool I could use to understand objects and phenomena; I could gradually liberate myself from them by taking pictures.
As a young man, the city was a magnetic place for me—something new would happen every day. I grew as a photographer by working on the street. But even if my early images look like documentary photographs, I did not have any inclination towards documentary work when I took them, nor were they viewed or used as such. They were exhibited, but they were of little interest in the Korean photography world in the 1970s and 80s. Yet ultimately, they were formative for who I became.
Looking back, I can see my attitude towards the world has stayed the same since then, but there has been a drastic change in my working process and my production of the final image. In the early days, I was interested in exercising all of my senses to create imagery; more recently, I have begun to focus on my perceptions and their origins.
LC: You also had a documentary/anthropological phase to your career, surprising to me given your dedication to the fine arts today. How did your use of the camera as an objective tool influence your use of it in recent years as a means for self-expression and emotion?
BM: I quickly lost interest in photographs that expressed only the power or beauty of the subject in front of the lens. I also came to disdain the messages those images contained. Instead, I found more interest with the resonances in myself that came from my encounters with phenomena in the world.
The camera is an extension of my perception—a tool I use to maintain the breath of my creative spirit.
I use the camera to enter into resonance with the world I am looking at, to maintain a rhythm of working until the final opportunity. In doing so, I develop an amazing relationship with my images. My photographs are not self-expression, nor do they carry a message. They are simply the embodied result of my interactions with my surroundings.
LC: In 2013, the Daegu Art Museum held a sort of retrospective of your work, focused on your landscapes. Charlotte Cotton wrote a wonderful text. What was it like to reflect on your work in this way? Did it help point the way towards new projects?
BM: At the Daegu Art Museum, I could visualize the “rooms of images” that I had dreamt of for a long time. The resulting spaces were entirely new places created from my own photographs, drawn from across vastly different places and times. It was a great opportunity for me to experiment with philosophical concepts such as time and space using my images.
It is certain that this huge exhibition influenced my work, but it is still too soon to define and explain what that change looks like. I will probably need to wait for an image to reveal itself in order to understand what has changed.
In general, I try to hold myself back from interpreting or analyzing my work. That part does not belong to me. I am more interested in going forward than looking back, and I would like to keep a reserve for the images that are to come.
LC: Some recent series (“Skogar” or “In the Garden of Cezanne”) were shot far from Korea. Other works seem to have been made closer to home. As a landscape photographer, I imagine place is very important to you. Does your approach vary when shooting in a familiar location (somewhere in Korea) vs. a foreign one (an Icelandic waterfall)? Or are national boundaries beside the point…?
BM: Photographers must render the familiar unfamiliar: offering objects and phenomena a different appearance. I believe this only becomes possible through a life-long attitude towards image-making, not with a single gesture or in one moment.
As for place: it is important, but more in regards to weather and light rather than geography or geopolitics. My experience of national boundaries happens often when at airports; meanwhile, I am not allowed to cross the closest border near my home—I live just a thirty-minute drive away from North Korea. This strikes me as absurd: while the space probe New Horizons continues to explore the universe beyond Pluto, our earthly condition only seems to get worse and worse. I believe our national boundaries are hugely responsible for the tragedies happening all around the world.
LC: Finally—your work is going to be shown at PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco, an event specifically aimed at bringing East and West into dialogue. Do you think your photographs bridge these two worlds, which are often cast in contrast with each other? Do you think this binary is a useful one (East v. West)?
BM: I have no interest in works that play strategically with Oriental or Occidental effects. Of course, there are differences: when I was young, the West was a synonym for ‘modernism.’ In the intellectual history of the Far East, self-reflection and internalization are important: my exposure to modernism taught me another dimension of self-reflection and personal freedom.
Today, I think the West and East share more commonalities than ever before. The bridge that has been built between the two worlds is the product of time. Personally, I am more faithful to contemporaneity and the present moment than traditional trends. The direction that interests me most in my work is North: it seems to offer landscapes that are the least contaminated by words and meaning.
—Boomoon, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: Boomoon’s work will be exhibited (and for sale) at the inaugural edition of PHOTOFAIRS | San Francisco. The fair opens to collectors on Thursday, January 26, 2017 at Festival Pavilion |
Fort Mason and will focus on presenting work by international artists never before
seen in the Bay Area.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Ester Vonplon’s Gletscherfahrt, a series on the melting glaciers in Switzerland; the elegant black-and-white photographs of snow in Mitsuharu Maeda’s Snowy Journey; and Meike Nixdorf’s absorbing images of mountain ranges from her series, Your Earth Transforms.