Melancholy images from the sea

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Melancholy images from the sea

During the opening reception for his photography exhibition at Gana Forum Space last Friday, Kim Young-soo was told by some critics that they could almost imagine the emotional state he was in while he was taking his photos of Korean islands.
“The conversation wasn’t about the critical aspects of my work,” says Mr. Kim, 58. “Some of them came to me and said they could almost tell how much I drank while taking these photos, what a tough time I had.”
Indeed, there is something irresistibly melancholic about Kim’s photographs. Maybe it’s because they are in black and white, a medium that often seems to evoke a sense of nostalgia.
Or maybe it’s the exhibition’s title, “Wandering Island.” Wandering is exactly what Mr. Kim does with his camera; he seems to approach his photography with the idea of making a casual travelogue, rather than documentary photography of the kind one would see in a magazine like National Geographic.
Regardless, there is a sense of longing that runs through the photos in this exhibition, for which Mr. Kim visited 80 different Korean islands. His camera never completely captures its subjects, whether because of their distance, the mist over the sea or some other obstruction.
One photo in the Gana exhibition, for example, is of Baekryeongdo island off the west coast, taken from inside Mr. Kim’s car during a rainstorm. In this print, there is a North Korean mountain across the sea whose shape is barely discernable through the rain on the windshield. In another photo, of an ocean view, the tops of three women’s heads are partially blocking the view.
But even in photos in which the subjects are more clearly revealed, there is a sense of the unreachable, something that evokes a strange sadness.
One photograph depicts a group of people waiting for a ferry on a platform, their faces turned away from the camera. In a subtle way, the picture looks more like a landscape photo than a snapshot of people.
An island, of course, can itself be a metaphor for longing. Its isolation from the sea makes it seem more distant than it really is. That’s also one reason islands have often been used in art to represent utopian ideas.
All that having been said, Mr. Kim admits that those critics were right about his emotions when he took these photos.
If there is one thing that the pictures convey, he says, it is the “sentimental state” that he was in at the time.
“It’s not about whether the photos are of good or bad quality,” he says. “What’s always important to me is how I saw them, whether I’ve captured the subject under its flesh.”
Indeed, in his notes accompanying the exhibition, he says he was “intoxicated by alcohol, intoxicated by the sea.”
That would seem to be confirmed by how intensely alive the subjects in his photos seem to be, whether they’re seagulls in flight or simply the waves of the sea.
The photos are exhibited with some basic information, such as the names of the islands and the dates when the photos were taken. But if there is a sense of place in these photos, it has more to do with a state of mind and the atmosphere of the moment than with literal geographic sites.
“I almost have to embrace the island first in order to take the kind of pictures I want,” he says. “The mood is very important.
“But in the end, I think there is an island in everyone’s mind. It’s what you want to go back to whenever you feel the gap.”
In a way, Mr. Kim says, this island series is a search for home. Ever since he left his hometown of Busan, he says, he’s felt a constant longing to settle down, though it’s never really happened. He thinks this longing has its roots in his childhood, when he spent time with his grandfather on Yeonhwado island, not far from Tongyeong.
His search for home also manifested itself some years ago in a series of photos that he took in Seoul shantytowns, where he lived for years after moving to the city.
Mr. Kim is currently involved in a project with other photographers in which they travel around the country, taking photos of elderly people who’ve signed up through their district offices to have their funeral portraits taken.
What’s so outstanding about Kim’s photographs ― despite the fact that stylistically, they’re not much different from those of many other documentary photographers ― is something below the surface, something that transcends style and genre. Some of his black and white photos of mountains and oceans have the kind of subtlety one might find in a traditional Korean ink painting.
Maybe it comes from the photographer’s genuine understanding of humanity. Or maybe it’s just the eye of the veteran wanderer.


by Park Soo-mee

“Wandering Island” continues at Gana Forum Space through Nov. 30. For more information call (02) 720-1020. To get to the gallery, take a museum tour bus from Insa-dong, or take bus No. 1020 or 1711 from Gyeongbokgung station, line No. 3, exit 3. The gallery is in Pyeongchang-dong, located in the same building as Seoul Auction House.

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