A respectable fashion photographer? Shutter to think

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A respectable fashion photographer? Shutter to think

For decades, art critics have viewed fashion photography with suspicion.
While the glamour and visual perfection of the medium has greatly enhanced the camera’s development, the fact that so much of fashion photography is about using the power of seduction to sell has raised ethical issues about manipulation and treating women’s bodies like commodities.
Kim Jung-man, a veteran fashion photographer, has helped ease the distrust among some critics with works that walk the line between fine art and advertising.
The experimental nature of Mr. Kim’s photographs ― mostly black and white ― minimize artificial lighting to the point that the images sometimes look dim. The background set-ups are minimal and poses are less staged that with most fashion shots. And though his works don’t always serve as a faithful reflection of reality, they seem at many times natural, often poetic.
Perhaps the artist’s two-volume photo book, “After Rain” ― a fund-raising project organized by UNICEF to support North Korean children ― is a testimony of the artist's creations that serve as "portraits of our time," as Mr. Kim has always liked to describe his works.
The book, mostly bust shots and portraits, carefully examines the faces of 175 celebrities. Mr. Kim’s photographs highlight or mimic the social milieu when the pictures were taken, as well as celebrate his subjects’ fame.
What’s just as entertaining as flipping through the photos of pretty faces in arrogant poses is looking at the hidden personae Mr. Kim tries to capture beyond the celebrity facades, detailing his models’ emotional states at the time of being photographed. Throughout the book, portraits are juxtaposed with up-close snapshots of wild animals ― another subject that has been a recurring theme in Mr. Kim’s works.
A series work from the book are the black-and-white photos of Kim Hyun-sik, a legendary singer who stood as a symbol of Korea’s underground rock scene before he died of liver failure in 1990 at the age of 32. The images, some of which were used on the cover of the singer’s commemorative album, depict him walking on Haeundae beach in the rain, barefoot. One shot zooms in on the singer’s feet standing on top of his sneakers, as if to suggest he was desperate to free himself from the ruptures of his past.
The details in the photo and their underlying significance ― the torn bottoms of his jeans, his rough toenails and wet feet ― exude a startling suggestion of what freedom had meant to this singer, while also foreshadowing his death.
The book also includes black-and-white photos of the notorious singer Psy, sharply glaring at the camera from an awkward angle, accentuating his persona as it is often portrayed on screen.
Mr. Kim’s book also serves as an important documentation of Korea’s pop history and a record of its stars. A photo of Oh Su-mi, a popular actress and the photographer's ex-wife, captures her in an obviously hazy mood. It serves as a stark document, coming just before Ms. Oh died in a car crash in Hawaii in 1992.
A young Cho Yong-pil, a singer now in his 60s, is posed in front of an old microphone stand, and exudes nostalgia for a falling star.
Perhaps it was Mr. Kim’s personal struggle with his cultural identity that allowed him to examine his models with inventive eyes, like an outsider. Raised abroad by his father on a medical mission, Mr. Kim was deported by the Korean government twice when he came back home as an adult ― once for opening a photo exhibition in Korea without the proper visa (he was officially a French citizen). During a 10-year period, Mr. Kim underwent three divorces, a series of drug problems and confinement in prison and a mental hospital.
The photos in the book were selected from 300,000 slides the photographer has taken over the past 30 years. Some of the mug shots of celebrities are so grossly real they almost resemble airbrush bursts by Chuck Close. While in some others, it’s obvious that the artist was just trying to make a buck.
But even then, in his most commercial works, the photos stand as explorations Mr. Kim’s personal observations.


by Park Soo-mee

"After Rain" is being released during his photo exhibition "Document of Flowers, Longings and Celebrities," currently on display at the Skydome on the sixth floor of Hyundai Department Store in southern Seoul. The book, has two parts, and each is on sale for 20,000 won. For more information call (02) 745-8566.
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