Biography

Jungjin Lee was born in Korea in 1961 and currently lives and works in New York City.

Lee began photographing in the early 1980s while a Ceramics major at Hongik University in Seoul and later earned an M.F.A. in Photography from New York University. Known for her laborious and handcrafted photographic work printed on handmade mulberry paper, Lee creates cross-cultural photographic landscapes which intermix techniques and materials of Eastern and Western traditions of both painting and photography.

Lee’s work has been exhibited widely in the United States, Europe, and Korea. Lee has published several books including Wind (2009), Jungjin Lee (2006), Thing (2005), Desert (2002), On Road/Ocean (2001), Jungjin Lee: Beyond Photography (2000), Wasteland (1997), and Lonely Cabin in a Far Away Island (1988).

“To distill a feeling, you must still your feelings. But the mind is its own mirage, the desert a looking-glass.”

Biography

Jungjin Lee was born in Korea in 1961 and currently lives and works in New York City.

Lee began photographing in the early 1980s while a Ceramics major at Hongik University in Seoul and later earned an M.F.A. in Photography from New York University. Known for her laborious and handcrafted photographic work printed on handmade mulberry paper, Lee creates cross-cultural photographic landscapes which intermix techniques and materials of Eastern and Western traditions of both painting and photography.

Lee’s work has been exhibited widely in the United States, Europe, and Korea. Lee has published several books including Wind (2009), Jungjin Lee (2006), Thing (2005), Desert (2002), On Road/Ocean (2001), Jungjin Lee: Beyond Photography (2000), Wasteland (1997), and Lonely Cabin in a Far Away Island (1988).

Jungjin Lee

Unnamed Road

As a photographer’, writes Jungjin Lee, ‘I am primarily concerned with the unconscious, the unknown, and the invisible’.
Lee travelled to Israel and the West Bank four times during 2010 and 2011, usually staying for about a month. She focused on the desert regions in the south, particularly the landscape of the Negev. As with her past work, Lee has printed her images on Korean mulberry paper to create a heightened material sense of her photographic subjects. For the first time she has used digital techniques to create further layers of manipulation that characterizes all her work. The images shown here are a small sample of those found in her monograph ‘Unnamed Road’.

Jungjin Lee in conversation with Charlotte Cotton

Summer 2014

CC: When did you first hear about the project? Who told you about it?
JL: In the summer of 2010, Jeff Rosenheim called me and asked if I would be interested in working in Israel. It was a surprise. I mean, Israel is just so far from where I typically work.

CC: Did you have any preconceived ideas about Israel before you went?
JL: I began to study Israel and Palestine immediately - reading books and researching the politics and history of the land. I went to a Christian high school. So I knew the basic biblical story of the “Holy Land”.

CC: Do you normally research a place before you photograph it?
JL: Actually, I have never researched a place for my project before. I follow my intuitions. I tend to approach a place with an abstract idea, without having a desire to produce something specific. When I go to a place for the first time, my camera might not come out of my bag immedately. I’d rather meditate, leave my own preoccupations behind me, and truly see the place. But preparing to work in the region was different. It was good to have the chance to visit Israel before I making a full commitment to working there, just to see what it was like.

CC: When did you take your exploratory trip to Israel?
JL: In November of 2010. Fazal Sheikh was there at the same time as me. I went for twelve days. I requested a couple of days to travel alone with just an assistant so I could breathe in the air of place. When I go to a place for the first time, I just want to feel the land and its abstract atmosphere.

“My work requires a meditative process. I really need to be alone in a place to focus on and feel the place itself.”

CC: Did you take any photographs on this first trip?
JL: Yes, I did, when I was travelling, with Galit, the first assistant who I worked with in Israel, Accopanying an assistant while photographing a place was another thing that was new to me - I have never worked with an assistant in the field. So it was a little bit frightening for me in the beginning, but it worked well enough. I prefer not to have anyone around me while I am taking photos. My work requires a meditative proecss. I really need to be alone in a place to focus on and feel the place itself. But I could not have travelled in Israel and Palestine without an assistant. That would have been impossible in the early stages. Later on, as I got to know the place better, I was able to manage to work by myself, mainly on the West Bank and in the Negev Desert. Later, a professor at Beth Israel, Miki Kratsman, introduced me to a Korean student who later assisted me. Each time I went to Israel, I stayed about a month. The last trip took a little bit longer, five weeks. I made some photographs from the exploratory trip in November 2010, and then started to make my own trips between Jan and Dec 2011. I proposed that my project would be based on the deserts and the land that contains layers of history. The land has always been changing, but there are some fundamental truths that have never been changed. This aspect of Israel was what I wanted to concentrate on and reveal through my photos.

CC: Tell me about how did you choose the landscapes that you worked in?
JL: During my first trip, I tried to visit as many places as possible in the region. I stayed in Jerusalem and traveled south to Negev, came back and then went to north to Nazareth. Also I frequently made a day trip to West Bank. I needed to know what the whole country was like.

“When I was there it was very difficult not to judge the politics and the conflicts between Palestine and Israel. It is very uncomfortable there as if I was difficult to breathe.”

CC: Did you find the terrain to be diverse?
JL: It looked very different to me. The climates and landscapes were vary throughout the country. Yet I believed that it was the people and communities of Israel that have contributed to the diversity as well, beyond what was physically already there. The diversity of landscapes is not purely determined by nature. You can feel the history of the country in the land. The land embraces fragments of past lives. What have been left there in the present give you a feel of what had happened there in the past. In that sense, the diversity of the terrain can be approached by both a physical and an emotional perspectives. I went into Zone A, and many places where you are between cities and between existing communities. I did make photographs in cities such as Ramala and Hebron but most of the photographs that made it to the final selection were made in the landscapes that had a little distance from the centre of the cities. I was conscious that I didn’t want to judge the place. Actually it’s very easy to say this, but when I was there it was very difficult not to judge the politics and the conflicts between Palestine and Israel. It is very uncomfortable there as if I was difficult to breathe. I tried very hard not to express my personal emotion about the place or my prejudices in my work, to remember that this is not all there is to say about this land. The meaning of the photographs that I made changed gradually as I worked over the months. But I didn’t become more reconciled with being there, it was very painful.

CC: You utilise a meditative state as a way to get to the place where you can see a landscape and photograph it. Was that harder for you to do this in Israel as the other places that you have worked?
JL: In the beginning it was quite difficult. I think the work I was making at first was quite different from my previous work. I have never spent so much time in a place that was uncomfortable. I was constantly asking myself if my mental state was different in Israel and West Bank and in retrospect I can see that it was and that it shifted my practice. I’m glad that I have changed so much. In the final trips to Israel in 2011, I think I was able to see Israel with some distance and I knew that the body of work had become not just about the Israel. I mean, what I am searching for in my photographs is something about the life. It’s about the solitary state of being human. Life changes on the surface, like an ocean. You have the constant movement of water on the surface but deep down, at the core, there is no movement.

CC: Was this sense of the core of the land what determined how you made the final selection of photographs?
JL: Yes, I kept that in mind when I made the final selection. I made photographs in Hebron, in what is a very tense, militaristic situation. But I felt that I didn’t need to select those kinds of direct messages. When I made a final selection, I just kept that in mind. Most of the landscapes and objects in the photographs I chose could be from the places I have worked before – California, New Mexico, Canada and Korea. The place matters but there is a continuity in the sense of solitariness in my work that I also found in Israel.

CC: How did you prepare for your final trip to photograph in Israel? Often that final visit can be a time where you are almost looking for particular pictures to complete a project.
JL: By the time I went back in December 2011, I knew that I already had enough work for the project. It felt that what I had made already was strong and that I didn’t need any more pictures. So I felt much more freedom on that final trip. It couldn’t hurt to keep working and not be too forced. In the beginning, I was pushing myself to express something specific in Israel, to directly engage with the conflict between Israel and Palestine. But on the final trip it was more… how can I say? You know the Buddhist term ‘nirvana’? It was as if I had finally let go of my aversions and delusions and could draw on something much more fundamental. It’s like ice becomes water, it was no longer solid, it spread like water. Maybe that isn’t noticeable for anyone else, it’s a very delicate notion.

“It was as if I had finally let go of my aversions and delusions and could draw on something more fundamental.”

CC: The experience of your work is very physical, you are responding the material qualities of the print. What was your editing and printing process like?
JL: I made a lot of time to go through the work. I would look at the contact sheet, select and make proof prints. I did some editing in between my trips in 2010~11, and then started at the beginning of 2012 to see everything together. The editing had been changed few times over the years and I made final selections for the book focusing mainly on landscapes. I realized that over 80% of the images in the final selection were photographed in West Bank and Negev Deserts including Bedouin Camp although it was not my intention.

CC: You have a complex process of printing, scanning and reprinting on handmade paper. Can you tell me more about the processes you use?
JL: My working process in the darkroom to make proof and final prints is a really time consuming job. I coat the paper with the liquid light which is a silver nitrate emulsion. To make the final prints, I coat the paper in the darkroom. I usually make a direct print from the negative on the mulberry paper directly. But for the work in Israel, I needed to make a second negative from a digital file where I could develop the contrast. Working with the original negative just didn’t give the final prints enough contrast and depth. The paper I use doesn’t have any pure, bright whites, which can make the print very flat. So I usually make a print from the original negative at 80 x 40 cm, what is often a very flat print that contains just enough of the feeling of the place I’ve photographed for me to work with it. I scan the print and then work on the image digitally to increase the contrast and make the second negative. I’m not very good at working with a computer so I work with an assistant. I sit with them and adjust the tone and contrast of an image. Then I go back into the darkroom to make the final print. For me, the darkroom is where I have the perfect conditions to create the final photograph. Each moment, each step, involves me being very present and making all the adjustments.

“I try to make a perfect print, but that is a contradictory and impossible aspiration. There is no ‘perfect’, there is only what I think is perfect in that moment.”

CC: Your process is very precise and there are reasons why you have such specific process. As a viewer, that’s felt in the very material experience of your photographs. All the steps in the making process that you describe have to be really true to what you see and feel. So it doesn’t surprise me that your post-production process is laborious, and not a simulation of something but a tangible, material sense of the real experience of place.
JL: It is true. I have been making prints on mulberry paper for the last twenty years – a very long time! What was different for the Israel project was that I began to use digital processes, and I’m still learning and struggling with them, but it was absolutely necessary. I think the dangerous thing for me using digital processes is that I try to be a perfectionist. When I’m making a print on mulberry paper in the darkroom there are always mistakes, things I cannot control. That’s less possible with digital processes – that’s why I still want to combine hand-made, chemical processes with digital in the future. I try to make a perfect print, but that is a contradictory and impossible aspiration. There is no ‘perfect’, there is only what I think is perfect in that moment. Sometimes I make a mistake, by chance, and what comes of that is very unique and thus ‘perfect’.

Unnamed Road- a short film