Suk Choo Kim is a photographer I met during a photo conference at Humboldt State University (in Northern California) last fall. Though he wasn’t one of the speakers, he shared some work after a lecture, and I wondered how on earth I had never seen it before. This was a man who photographed with a film camera thirty-plus years (digital for the last few) in several different countries. Of everything I heard, one thing surprised me most; he’s an engineer by profession, not a photographer.
Later that year, he held an exhibition in Eureka, California at the Morris Graves Museum of Art. Despite Eureka’s high density of artists, the exhibition left few unimpressed. The photographs on the wall that day were incredibly large, such that walking up to them, a viewer gets lost in the image looking at little details that seem to multiply upon closer inspection. When talking about how large they were, Suk Choo Kim expressed that his largest image is 18 feet by 45 feet, around five gigapixels, but having no venue of that scale to show it in, he’s never printed at its full size.
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How long have you been taking photographs?
“I started taking photos in 1967 while I was going to engineering school in southern California… In 1968, I went to a western gallery, and seeing prints there from artists like Ansel Adams really opened my eyes.”
After the exhibition in ’68, he began taking photography more seriously, doing research, going to workshops, studying the history, meeting people, etc. He chose to get a Masters degree, and worked commercially as a photographer for 9 months, though afterwards he learned that for him, it was better as a passion, and not a profession. The last twelve years he’s been using his camera just about every single day, though his day job is running a small manufacturing firm.
How many countries have you photographed in?
“Around twenty-five? I enjoy photographing in some places, others, not so much; I like to make work that has meaning… inspires an emotion. For example, I’ve been working on a series for about fifteen years now on how society handles death from the perspectives of different religions, ethnicity, etc. It’s hard to look at.”
When did you start sharing your work?
“I’ve always shared it, but how I share it has changed over the years. It used to be through photo books and galleries, it was expensive.“
What I found interesting talking to him is that he posts a new photo every day, from his collection to his Facebook page, but this is done in a different way than you might expect. For a few days Suk Choo Kim posts nice, eye catching images, but on a fifth day his photos aren’t made to be vibrant and eye catching, nor are they always his favorite. He does this to communicate a visual language that the average person isn’t familiar with, and might dismiss, but as photographers, we’re very much exposed and accustomed to reading a photograph by its meaning over its beauty. We see this a lot with photojournalism.
Your images were featured at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, and I have to say, they were incredible. What made you print them so large?
“I didn’t want people to look at the photo, I wanted them to go in, and lose themselves. When I started making larger photos, if they didn’t have the best print quality possible, people wouldn’t be interested.”
Suk Choo Kim talked to me a little about his method in the interview and when I met with him at the photography conference. As with some past articles on SLR Lounge, the images are created by stitching several individual frames. Zoom out for the full composition.
What are some difficulties you’ve come across traveling?
“Well you have to be physically fit, and at sixty-five, I just can’t do it anymore… I’d say my other difficulty is time. The way I figure it, I have around seven thousand days left, and there’s so much I want to do.”
How do you approach a photograph?
“Well there are two ways, outside in, and inside out.”
To sum it up, ‘outside in’ is when when a photograph is found, and then refined. ‘Inside out’ is when a photographer starts with a concept and builds from there, or manipulates the situation to fit into an idea. As an example, in 1972 he did his first series of environmental portraits, but to make it interesting, he asked his subjects to scream as he was traveling. The series wasn’t meant to get a lot of attention, though it inevitably did.
An excerpt from the book he eventually published:
Between June and December of 1972, I traveled through western states of America interacting with these different people. As we become acquainted, I asked them to scream and I took these photographs.
It feels good.
A scream is a natural expressive act commonly associated only with anger. However included here are also scream of release, joy, loneliness, uncertainty…and just plain scream…………
An example of the “inside out” approach, he completed a series of light painting images to be shown at Humboldt State University’s First Street Gallery in Eureka, a series that most casual observers perceived as paintings, and begged the question “What is photography?”
He went on to explain that there is an in-between way to take a photograph, a “happy accident” where a photographer manipulates the situation, but leaves room for variation. He explained shooting above his head or close to the ground, and allowing movement in the photo. He would experiment, and hopefully magic happened.
These are some photos I wouldn’t have seen had I not become interested in photography, and it was only possible because of where I live. I can’t imagine how many other photographers are out there who have relatively unknown collections, and I’d be interested to see more. One of the biggest things I learned interviewing Suk Choo Kim is how I treat my images and for what purposes.
As long as an image communicates, it’s still useful, and teaching others that appreciation is a task we all take upon ourselves when we take a photograph. With digital memory costs lower than ever, there’s no reason to throw away meaningful shots because the next guy isn’t going to understand. A piece of advice from a previous article; shoot for yourself.
If you’d like to see more images, follow the work, or contact the artist, he posts a photo each day that’s publicly shared to his Facebook page, and there’s a collection of around twenty different albums to look through on a rainy day. Each of the series mentioned above is on the page, so I recommend checking out some screamer photos to lighten up your day.
Until next time,
CREDITS: All photographs by Suk Choo Kim are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.