Picture showFriends call him the groundskeeper of Gwanghwamun. Jang Tae-bae, the house photographer of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, has spent most of his weekends for the past 34 years crouching and hiding in the darkened theater's aisles and balcony, listening to the subtle clicking of his Leica M5 shutter mingle with the music of whatever orchestra happened to be in town. Stealth is always crucial. The consequences of getting caught by a fastidious conductor can be disastrous.
Take Herbert von Karajan, for instance. The renowned Austrian conductor visited the Sejong Center in 1984 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Less than halfway through a rehearsal, Karajan ordered Jang, "Stop taking pictures or I'm going to call off the evening performance!" Jang stopped ?for a while. But when the performance began a few hours later, he hid in the lighting booth in the ceiling of the theater and took some bird's-eye shots. The next day, desperate reporters flooded Jang's office with photo requests, and by early afternoon, all his shots of Karajan were gone.
Jang is always busy, especially during weekend evenings when other people are usually out enjoying free time with family and friends. "I mean I can't even attend my high school reunions," Jang complains, but with a tinge of pride, while pulling out his archives of prints from a drawer. "I am probably the only guy in the group who pays his membership fees every year and not once made it to the regular dinners. I know it's absurd." He rubs out his half-lit cigarette in an ashtray and says, "I know these things are absurd. I know, I know."
At 61, Jang is still vigorously producing. He takes all the photos that go into the press releases of the Sejong Center, including visuals for the company's nine house troupes and other regular concerts held at its theaters. On top of all this, public relations staffers call for his help when there is an urgent need for photos for the center's monthly catalogue. It's an awful lot of labor for a person his age, but Jang shyly admits that he is proud of his work. "It's a sense of privilege I feel as a performance photographer. I know that I can walk into that theater anytime with my camera on my back, when nobody else can," he says sighing.
The pride also comes from experience. The longest-working employee in the Sejong Center, Jang knows all the restaurants in the area, their owners and every shortcut through every corner of the neighborhood. While talking about his past, Jang speaks fondly of his visit to Carnegie Hall in 1992, when he and the center's Seoul Youth Philharmonic Orchestra were invited to participate in Carnegie's 100th anniversary. "The place had flair," he recalls.
Paik Cheon-woong, the director of the Seoul Metropolitan Junior Chorus, describes Jang as a photographer who is extremely sensitive to the performer's movements. "An image translator who is able to capture the liveliness of the sound," he says. Kim Kyong-tae, who works with the Sejong Center's PR department, refers to Jang as "a true master." "He sacrificed quite a bit of his family history for photography," he says. "There is simply nobody in this room who questions his professionalism."
Jang has witnessed many of the significant cultural movements of the last few decades. Recently he has shared that influence by contributing his extensive photo archives to a 650-page coffee-table book, titled "An Overview of the History of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts."
The album, which was put together to commemorate the current hall's 40th anniversary last December, contains nostalgic, black-and-white images dating back to the 1920s of the Sejong Center and the center's predecessor, the Citizen's Hall, as well as hundreds of glossy color images of performances held in its theaters. About 90 percent of the pictures in the book are Jang's ?treasures he took at the cost of holidays, friendships and sweat.
"This is quite personal," he says while eating a pork cutlet at his favorite Japanese restaurant near the theater. In a society where photographers are considered more technicians than artists, Jang says his career has not always been one he could boast of. As he got older, he became reluctant to tell people what he does for a living because he didn't want people to pity him for having to work to make a living even in his later years. When he was first introduced to his son's fiancee, he did not tell her that he was a photographer. "It may have been just self-pity," Jang mumbles the last part of his sentence. "I am through that phase now."
If Jang's opinion of his job has changed, for most things he remains set in his ways. Drinking is one of them ?he doesn't do it. "I am afraid my hands will shake when I hold a camera. I am getting old," he says. Jang also doesn't like to be photographed. At first he explained half-jokingly that he's too busy to pose for others. But the next afternoon when he was supposed to meet the photographer in front of the Sejong Center for this story, Jang called and said he was too busy to meet. He suggested that the story could run without his photographs. "I can send you some other cool prints though," he offered. After a little pressure during the call, he finally confessed. "Actually, I can't stand being photographed," he said. "Ask any photographer ?I bet they don't have one family photo at home. It just aggravates us. We feel awkward."
Back in his office, where he shares a modest room with a few other staffers in the public relations department, Jang gently places his camera in the cabinet, locks it away and puts on his black cardigan. "It's still a challenge to capture the essence within a short climax," Jang says as he steps out the door. "The theater is dark, the time is limited and you don't know what is ahead unless you looked carefully during the rehearsal."
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