In search of the unrehearsedFlip through recent issues of Korean fashion magazines ― the licensed domestic versions of Vogue and Bazaar, for instance ― and you’ll find the name of the photographer Kim Kyung-tae below images of fashion icons like Linda Evangelista, Natalia Vodianova, Karl Lagerfeld and Mario Testino.
For a long time, such access to fashion’s inner circle was unthinkable for a Korean photographer. But Kim Kyung-tae ― or KT, as he is known ― has broken down that wall with sheer tenacity.
“So many times, I was shown the door by security guards because my Asian face stood out, but I kept on going back,” he recalls.
“A few seasons passed and I showed up again, smiling. I always brought Korean magazines that had my photographs of them, and showed my pictures to them. The models and stars were initially shocked that Korea had any fashion scene.”
For years, Mr. Kim was an outsider on the domestic fashion scene too. If he was known at all to the players in the business, it was as a paparazzi-style photographer, showing up to snap celebrities and “party people” at various events around town.
Unlike most local fashion photographers, he wasn’t born to comfort. Taking classes at an art institute was out of the question, and studying abroad certainly was. Instead, he bought books on photography and taught himself the craft.
“Every book, every photographer has been a teacher for me,” Mr. Kim says.
It wasn’t the first thing he’d taught himself. He learned English largely by watching movies and TV shows with English dialogue ― often with a strip taped over the bottom of the screen so he couldn’t see the Korean subtitles.
Mr. Kim started out in photography by taking pictures for friends, many of them people he’d met on Seoul’s club scene, where he spent years as a DJ.
“I took pictures of singers for their new album covers, and I took pictures at parties for the experience,” he says. Sometimes party organizers hired him; sometimes he sold photos to local magazines. Taking photos for annual corporate reports helped make ends meet.
But his real passion was for artistic, documentary-style photography. Like his greatest inspiration, the French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, he preferred to take pictures of people who weren’t posing.
The money, however, was in fashion. His break into domestic fashion magazines came when he learned to incorporate the spontaneous style of his documentary photography into fashion shoots.
“I volunteered to go to New York City and Cuba for photo shoots,” he says. “I asked my friends in the Korean fashion industry to help me; they gave me clothes and sponsored the trip.
“What I brought back with me was a series of documentary photographs with fashionable elements in them. Editors loved them; my friends loved them.”
After that, he said, “Other magazines sent me to Paris to do what I’m good at ― just go and take pictures.”
Mr. Kim’s father, he remembers, used to go for strolls on weekends with a Nikon camera hanging from his neck. After each idle afternoon, the old man would lock the camera in a safe until the next outing.
“He didn’t even know how the camera worked, but no one was allowed to touch the camera, which didn’t even have film in it,” Mr. Kim says. “To him, and most people then, a camera was just a status symbol.”
Nowadays, Mr. Kim has all the social status his father could have wanted. He’s much in demand from editors, and much envied by other photographers. After this interview, he’s packing for assignments at major fashion shows in Milan, Paris and New York.
Sitting on a stool in his new studio in southern Seoul, he picks up a classic Leica camera and strokes it as if it were a pet, smiling warmly.
“I love the way my camera feels in my hands and fingers,” he says. “This is my tool. Taking just one picture totally consumes me; the energy of my entire body goes into an image I won’t be able to see until it is developed and printed.”
What about those handy digital cameras? He uses them for color images, but prefers to shoot on black-and-white film. He says it allows room for imagination.
Behind him is a wall of prints ― KT’s trophies. Some of them burst with color; others are in boldly contrasting black-and-white. The images are of some of the world’s most beautiful familiar faces. Sharon Stone, behind her movie-star shades, smiles enticingly. The Russian cover girl Natalia Vodianova glares into the camera like a vampire. The pompously stylish Karl Lagerfeld strikes a pose, flanked by KT himself.
Mr. Kim presents a postcard-size, black-and-white photograph of a different kind. There are no famous faces in it, or any faces at all. It captures a lyrical moment: a black cat leaping from rooftop to rooftop on a crisp winter night. “During the economic recession in the late ‘90s, when I had nothing to do, I went around the shantytown of the capital and took pictures,” he explains.
This photo is featured in a recent issue of Visionaire, a prestigious, limited-edition art and fashion magazine. Mr. Kim is the first Korean photographer to make its pages.
His photographs seem to contain both stark realism and the accidental, sweet humor of life ― whether the subject is the notoriously late Naomi Campbell rushing out to the runway, two pairs of forlorn-looking rubber shoes left on a porch or an alley cat making a dangerous leap.
“Someone told me I take pictures of ‘unrehearsed moments’ in life,” he says. “Through hard years of surviving as a documentary photographer, I learned how to capture the moment.”
Capturing the moment, he believes, can take conventional fashion photography to another level.
by Ines Cho