Jungjin Lee was born in Korea and began photographing in the early 1980s while a ceramics student in Seoul. Known for her laborious and handcrafted photographic work printed on handmade mulberry paper, Lee creates cross-cultural photographic landscapes which intermix techniques and materials from Eastern and Western traditions of both painting and photography.
LC: You started working in ceramics. An unusual beginning for a photographer. Can you describe how your training and experiences in this medium inform your work in photography?
JL: My experience in ceramics, painting and even calligraphy from my childhood has influenced my working process in photography. I started taking photographs in my first year of college, so I practiced both photography and ceramics together for a few years. Although I was self-taught, I knew that I would work as a photographer after graduation. Still, it’s important to say that I don’t pay attention to boundaries between the arts; photography, painting, and poetry are all just tools that I can use to express my inner self.
Specific to photography, I like to take pictures because my camera captures what I feel beyond what I see. Taking a picture requires only a blink of a moment, but my eye seems to penetrate through the surface of reality and reach towards longing: something eternal. My printing process completes my journey of making images. That’s when you can feel my message more than just seeing the image. The camera is quite a magical tool for me.
LC: Your first series, “A Lonely Cabin In A Far Island” was shot in the late 1980s. I see a lot of aesthetic similarities between this first body of work and your most recent, “Everglades.” How would you describe your development as an artist over the past 30 years? What has remained constant, and what has evolved?
JL: Thanks for your appraisal of my works. I’ll take it as a compliment!
Actually, I have no clear answer—though maybe it’s because I have always been desperate to express my inner feelings. Intuition is crucial. The subject matter has changed a lot over 30 years, but the feeling remains.
LC: I know your work has an essential tactile/material quality. Unfortunately, that can’t be captured in a web publication. But can you talk more about your almost painterly process and how it informs the final objects that you produce?
JL: I agree that reproduction on the web or in a book is quite different from the original print. It doesn’t convey the tactile quality of the print; size is also important.
As I mentioned, I have developed my own process: printing on hand-coated mulberry paper. I do this because I want to produce something that goes beyond an image—I want people to feel the work as an object. I want my print to breathe. My printing process requires a lot of physical labor and time as well as mental patience and endurance. At the same time, I cannot fully control what I produce. Over time, my printing process became a big part of my meditation process.
LC: Finally: your work is going to be shown at Photofairs San Francisco, an event specifically aimed at bringing work from the East and West into dialogue. How do you think your work bridges these two worlds, which are often cast in contrast or binary with each other? Do you think this binary is a useful one (East v. West)?
JL: In terms of East vs. West, they are in contrast, but they’re also strongly related to one another—it isn’t the same as saying Dog v. Cat [i.e., they aren’t irreconcilable by nature].
Culture and education give people different preferences and thoughts on life, but fundamentally, the human mind is the same everywhere. That’s why we (both East and West) appreciate and share ART, which is rooted in the essence and truth of life—beyond outward culture differences.
More personally, I’m overwhelmed that my very personal dialogue can be read so well in Western as well as Eastern countries.
—Jungjin Lee, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like one of these previous features: a review of Daisuke Yokota’s new book, an abstract meditation on art, beauty, and impermanence; Richard Tuschman’s award-winning photographic interpretations of Edward Hopper’s iconic paintings; and the absorbing black-and-white landscapes by Awoiska van der Molen.