Self-taught shooters set up own studiosThe sound of a camera shutter filled the room as Lee Ana, 30, photographed a slim young first-time model. “Your muscles seem tense and rigid,” said Mr. Lee as he put down his Hassel, a film camera, and approached the model. “I’ve been working all day,” explained the young woman in a mini skirt and heavy makeup.
In an attempt to loosen her tension, Mr. Lee gave her a quick shoulder massage and tapped her gently under the chin. “Let’s go for it one more time,” he said as he again took up his camera. He zoomed in for a close-up as the model posed as well as she could.
The hands on a wallclock in the small underground studio showed well past 1 a.m., and the two had been working for more than an hour. An onlooker might assume Mr. Lee is a professional photographer, but he is actually a young self-taught amateur, with no professional training.
In recent years, as the price of digital camera has fallen rapidly, with a Nikon D2H costing less than 2 million won ($2,200), and used cameras being traded increasingly in Korea, owners of huge and heavy digital single-lens reflex cameras has been springing up everywhere, like daisies in spring time. It is now common to see groups of amateur photographers snapping pictures all over Seoul during weekends. Hand in hand with this trend, several young non-professionally trained photographers such as Mr. Lee have set up their own photo studios. Their dreams and goal vary but even though they are excluded and not taken seriously by most professionals, these outsiders’ passion is unquestionable.
“The hardest part is entering the majors,” Mr. Lee said. “The walls are just too high and the competition is getting more fierce by the second.”
Mr. Lee also faces strong opposition from his family.
“My father has no clue that I even have a studio,” he said. “He thinks it’s a hobby of mine, while I take it very seriously.”
Mr. Lee’s first encounter with photography came when he was in the fourth grade, but his passion has been building as long as he can remember. “My father had a collection of pictures and photography came naturally to me,” he said. For two years from then, he worked as an honorary kid’s reporter at the Hankook Ilbo, a Korean daily newspaper. “My father’s camera then was a Canon FTb,” Mr. Lee said. The Canon FTb is a manual film SLR camera. In middle school, however, he neglected his camera as he was more interested in girls and also did not see photography as a viable career choice.
In high school and college, Mr. Lee said, he did occasionally use his camera but never really got interested as he was then more interested in art and cinema.
Art, however, was not accepted in his family and Mr. Lee’s father refused to let his son become an artist. “My father believed the life of an artist is not an easy one and the financial return isn’t that good,” Mr. Lee said. “My uncle was an artist.”
He went on to major in English, always hoping to go aboard to learn art or film.
Mr. Lee said he picked up his camera again and started to really learn photography from a girlfriend he had in college who was majoring in fine arts. “She saw my father’s camera and started to help me learn,” he said. He also got tips and advice from others who were strongly interested in photography. Mr. Lee said he never thought of learning photography from an institution, however. “Many of the professional photographers abroad never had training from an institution,” Mr. Lee said. “I believed I had a chance of becoming a major photographer.” After graduation, he took photographs on his own or with other amateur photographers. They would approach women on the streets and ask if they would pose as models for them. “Once I was supposed go on a blind date, but I ended up with someone else who was just too pretty and who I wanted to take a picture of very much,” said. They did go on to date later on but his passion for photography made maintaining a long relationship difficult. One of his girlfriends allowed him to use her as as a model for a year, on the condition he would then give up his camera. “I went on shooting all year,” Mr. Lee recalls. “I really thought of giving up photography, but luckily for me, she broke up with me and married someone else.” His most recent girlfriend also left him because she was suspicious of his relationships with his models and because he spent more time in the studio then with her.
To afford the high rental on his studio, which he shares with another self-taught amateur, Mr. Lee tutors English at a local institute during the day. At night and during the weekends, he does what he really wants. “There have been times when I haven’t gone home for a week,” he said. “My father thinks I’m working on something else.”
Mr. Lee, who wishes to be a fine arts expressionist with his camera said, “I will never throw away my camera again, ever.”
Kang Seung-chan is another self-taught amateur photographer, but his work is known to many and has gained wide popularity, and even press coverage. Better known as Dalki Cake, his pseudonym on a popular online community that he created, Mr. Kang took up photography relatively late. After majoring in religious studies at university, he worked as a salesman until this year, when he set up his own studio near Hongdae in Seoul and turned to photography full-time.
About two years ago, Mr. Kang gained a small but strong fan base when he posted a picture on his Web site of his friend, another photographer, stepping into a box that is teetering on the edge of a tall building. The shocking but thrilling image caught on and was even shown on television.
Mr. Kang said he knows he is not considered a professional by others. “Although in my mind, I am a professional, I am an amateur to the outside world,” he said.
The young photographer believes the difference between being an amateur or a professional is whether your pictures sell at a high price. He earns enough through occasional commissions to support himself and fund his studio but is not in the league of professionals who ask high prices.
“To be a professional, it means your work has to maintain a certain quality that has been previously guaranteed,” Mr. Kang said. “This is the reason I believe many professional photographers have difficulty in attempting experiments.”
His path towards photography started with the purchase of his first digital camera during the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament in Seoul. At the time, digital cameras cost at least 1 million won. That first camera was an Olympus 4040, but Mr. Kang was far from satisfied with it. He wanted to take better pictures and therefore wanted a better tool. Mr. Kang said he sold his 4040 as soon as he heard rumors that an upgraded version was soon coming out. However, he couldn’t wait until the next model was released and instead bought his first digital SLR camera, a Nikon D100. “I have an extremely strong attachment to my Nikon, like a first love,” he said.
Mr. Kang’s search for his ultimate camera did not stop there. Since 2002, he said, he has owned more than 200 digital and film cameras. “People really don’t understand,” Mr. Kang said. “People say they eat to live but I eat so I can produce better pictures. On an empty stomach, it would be difficult to take good pictures and when a person is tired the results are bad so that is why I try to stay physically in top shape.”
Everything he knows about photography, he learned on his own. “My teacher was the camera,” he said. “I was curious about every function, every button and every little label on the camera. I wanted to know what those buttons did and where they would lead me.”
At a recent concert that lasted for only 30 minutes, Mr. Kang took 5,000 pictures. He studies every angle and what difference it makes and has also started to read books on photography. All to take better pictures, he said. Unlike Mr. Lee, however, Mr. Kang said he is not too concerned about becoming a major photographer. “I would like to remain an indie photographer,” he said. “The world the majors live in and the world I live in are simply different.”
by Lee Ho-jeong