This is the first of the series of essays I will be doing about the pictures that just came down from my recent exhibition. I present them in no particular order, and all the images chosen for the exhibition had a particular place in the overall presentation. However, this image is a bit more meangingful to me, for several reasons.
First of all, this shot wasn't included in the original group of pictures selected for the exhibition. Benjamin – the owner of Le Saint-Ex – and I sat down to go through a whole bunch of pictures related to the topic of people "in transit," which was an idea Benjamin came up with in the first place. One of the great things about collaborative work is that another person is often crucial to offering an outside eye and perspective on one's work, and this was a perfect example.
I have identified several themes in my shooting, which originally started as a frenzied year of shooting everything that struck my eye upon my return to Korea in 2002, when I became a true street shooter. However, as time went on, and I began to get settled into life here and normalized into becoming an everyday Seoulite myself, I innevitably began to lose a lot of "edge." This was a process I had already expected to start happening, so after around a year, and after hearing a lot of people comment on the fact that there seemed to be a lot of women in my pictures, I followed my nose and went in the direction of other, more specific themes that spoke more directly to things I was starting to think about in Korean society on an academic level. Women, the commodification of their bodies, discrimination, and other topics were directions I began to follow – and still do.
But when Benjamin sat down with me and simply threw out the idea for people "in transit," I instantly seized upon it. It was perfect, as it made instant sense to me, while saying in a nutshell what I must have been subconsiously thinking for the many times when I decided to push the shutter button to capture sleeping subway riders, people slouched in the back of buses, ajummas waiting irritatedly in the rain, or young women anxiously waiting for friends to show up.
We went through a lot of my pictures that I keep online for easy perusal, quickly and easily agreed on all the shots, and before we knew it, were done. So it was left up to me to go back through thousands of negatives on about 600+ rolls to get the original negatives in order to get a high-resolution scan to make a high-quality print. I hardly ever make prints, and the scans I'd had done previously were too low-resolution to print; they had been designed to simply go up in batches as web pages through which I could easily see my pictures, since working completely with negatives doesn't give you a full sense of what the final image will look like, especially when it comes to color.
So I sent off my photo assistant to get my images – an easy-enough job, I thought. Well, as the deadline approached for getting the scans in so that they could be worked over by me, sent back to be printed, then submitted to be framed, she hadn't been able to find most of the images I had specified to her. And since I work almost full-time during the week, I was getting pretty frustrated with the fact that I had paid for more than 25 hours of work and I'd have to still go through the entire stack of negatives myself anyway. Anyway, I quickly relearned the maxim that "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."
So I hunkered down after a full day of teaching and found the remaining negatives all by myself in about 4 hours. One can imagine the seething anger I felt at having shelled out cash to have someone do something that in retrospect, took far less time than I thought would have been necessary to locate all the images I needed. In any case, I now felt the importance of not only doing something myself – I couldn't really blame the photo assistant, since who knows my images and when/where to look than me? – but also the fact that I wouldn't have been out of around $250 either. Man, what had she been doing all that time, anyway?
The other thing I had discovered was that there seemed to be a whole slew of images that of course I remembered taking, but had completely forgotten had existed. On top of that, a lot of images hadn't been scanned by me way back when I had been looking at them in only a general way, without a particular theme or the new lens through which I was now looking. And there were some GOOD ones, some of which just jumped out of the negative sleeve. But the one that said "Print me and put me in the exhibit, even without having the time to re-consult with Benjamin" was the image above.
Actually, this was a picture that I had not been too excited about at the time I took it, but when I saw the negative, was completely enthralled. I remembered seeing the fascinating side of that bus in the Ehwa Women's University shopping area and having done multiple compositions in multiple shots before moving on. But now, looking at the theme of being "in transit," the picture spoke to me on two levels, because of the obvious kinetic motion of the picture's elements, on top of being stuck on the side of a bus; but in addition, the tongue-in-cheek nostalgia also suggested something about times, or culture, or – something – being in a state of transition. So, in short, I didn't know why, but it just felt kinda – arty. Yeah. Well, I'm intellectually and aesthetically swift enough to know that something's going on – I just knew I'd leave that up to interpretative powers of other folks. And hey, isn't it in the eyes of the person doing the interpreting that art really happens?
But there's even more going on in that picture, and having had it on display and scrutinized by myriad critical eyes greatly ramped up my thinking as to what had been going on in that picture to cause me to snap half a roll of it without even knowing why.
The biggest reason has to do with the fact that the image itself is the product of someone else's work – it is found art. I don't take many found art pictures, and I am always generally frustrated by the fact that my eye seems to work in a particular way, but seemingly only in that way. I do like my style, and I do think I can see things in certain ways that others might miss, but on the same note, my particular lens on the world is a fixed one. If I think about my photographic style, sometimes I irritate myself, since I do think that a lot of my failed shots, once broken down under my self-critical editorial gaze, reduce down to irritating visual cliché that is just plan embarrassing. At least, to me.
An even more obvious reason is the fact that this image is visually stunning. Yes, I chose to make an image of another image, and yes, I composed its several elements in a new way, but much of the power comes from the fact that it was easy to make the image "work," since the elements of it are just so damn good. Another reason this particular piece really worked for me must also have to do with the fact that, whoever the graphic designer was, s/he seemed to be interested in working with some of the same elements of femininity and fetish that had already begun to fascinate me and define a new theme in my own work.
A third thing to mention is that the stunningness of the original has a lot to do with it being an optical illusion. A quick glance at the picture fools seemed to leave the impression that the picture was an image I made of an actual scene. I joked with several people during the exhibit that I only wished I knew models looking like that. But if you look at the picture long and close, you can see the elements that break the illusion completely – but still you have to be looking for them.
Element #1 – The two horizontal lines, cutting across the frame at about where you would slice the picture into thirds, which indicate that the woman and the doorway are indeed pasted over a solid face. The two lines are guides that allow a clean break away from the "illusion."
Element #2 – There's also a handle on a door right below the woman, which again reminds us that this is an image pasted over a solid surface.
Overall, I really dig this picture because of it 1) just being a good picture, 2) catching my eye in the way that it has been recently grown accustomed to searching for different ways the female body is fetishized, and 3) just being kinda sexy and funny. Whatever the marketing campaign or advertisement ( I actually don't know and I'd love for a reader in-the-know to write in and tell me!), the photography was cool, the design slick, and the presentation just plain fly.
So that's why I had to stick to my gut, throw this new image in the mix, and see what the reactions would be. It resulted in several people saying that it was their favorite image of the show, resulting in one actual buyer to boot.
You guys have any thoughts on it? Comments, please!