An article that I wrote for LensCulture about the long journey that I traveled to publish my last book. It's a rather lengthy article but one which I think you will enjoy reading.
My good friend Andy Amadi of Clam magazine published this article in his Clamlab blog in Tokyo.
One Last Goodbye, the third monograph of Korean-American photographer Jehsong Baak was published by Wonderlust Press.
One Last Goodbye is a stark and intimate photographic chronicle, a journey back in time to the photographer’s early days in New York, unfolding an intense and raw photographic story about relationships – to others, to survival, to photography, and to self. Pictures introduce the viewer to friends, lovers, family, and neighbors at a single- room-occupancy hotel of that time. Read more...
Jean-Louis Poitevin's article about ONE LAST GOODBYE in TK-21 revue.
For all of you who have been waiting patiently (and graciously listening to me for the last couple of years as I traversed the rough seas of 5 publishers, innumerable modifications to the maquette, countless versions of the cover, and so many different titles that would have turned any schizophrenic crazy), I am beyond elated to announce that the book was finally birthed in Toulouse, on the 7th of October. FADING FURY simply faded away.
There was no scale to weigh the baby upon delivery, but the doctors on hand estimated that it came in around 1 kilogram. The baby has been sent to Spain to get a sturdy spinal chord and a thicker skin (necessary protection from potential harsh critics who may appear on its path). The handsome boy, named ONE LAST GOODBYE, will make a grand entrance in early November.
Many thanks to Mike Derez who tirelessly collaborated throughout the pregnancy, right down to holding the hand of the photographer in the delivery room while the baby stuck its lovely head out into the world.
Once my boy ONE LAST GOODBYE is properly clothed and groomed, I will share more photos of his first steps...
Many thanks to Jean-Jacques Naudet and Ericka Weidman of L'Oeil de la Photographie for this article, and my friend Angela Randall for her lovely text.
For the upcoming exhibition, 20/20 VISION, at the Christophe Guye Galerie in Zurich.
Catalogue by Sturm & Drang Publishers.
In an era dominated by process-based conceptual photography, often abstract and presented as large-scale color prints, it can be startling to encounter a simple series of black-and-white gelatin silver prints, depicting real human struggle and observation, and to realize the impact these still can have. Jehsong Baak, a Korean-American artist now living in Paris, works in a traditional modernist photographic style, the grain and inky darkness of his images recalling Robert Frank's melancholy photographs, or latently violent work by Japanese photographers, such as Daido Moriyama. In his series Beginnings, a shadowy remembrance of his young adulthood in New York, Baak searches his past through the fragmentary remnants of photographs made at that time. The incompleteness and impossibility of this search is made evident in a vocabulary of photographic glimpses, of places and faces only fleetingly captured--or lost despite double, triple, multiple takes of a single subject--and often rephotographed pinned to the wall or fresh out of the fixer, caught a second time, traces of experience held fast, for the artist's continued scrutiny. Lingering within these images is but a promise of revelation. Photography, like experience, only suggests meaning. We finish the process.
- Kevin Moore
It is Valentine's Day today. Rain is coming down the way it does most of the time in Paris, which is to say at a melancholic pace and intensity, almost like Chinese water torture. Rarely does it rain here in a manly Texas fashion, with gusto and conviction. I can hear the fine mist hitting the diagonal window pane to my left in a staccato manner, and I am making a mental note right now that the next blog should be about the stunning sunsets that I witnessed and photographed last November from my window. I will need these dramatic colorful scenes to help me get through what remains of Parisian winter.
So back to Valentine's Day. I found out recently that one of my favorite films of all time, Federico Fellini's "8 ½", was released on this day in Italy and in France in 1963. It is curious that the producers at the time had decided to release this highly personal cinematic confessional by Fellini on a Valentine's Day. But now I am thinking that Valentine's Day had not yet been imported into Europe from the United States back in 1963. It may have been a fortuitous coincidence, for "8 ½" is such a grand declaration of love from Fellini to his wife, to his mistress, to his friends and colleagues, to the very creative process that an artist goes through.
If my memory serves me well, the first time I saw "8 ½" was at Film Forum on Houston Street in Manhattan when I was 21 or 22. I walked out of the movie theater utterly shaken to the core. The film had given me an entirely new perspective on what and how an artist can express in his work, and that he can stand naked in front of the world baring all his warts and innards without embarrassing himself nor his audience. This film, and the extraordinary images photographed by the cinematographer, Gianni Di Venanzo, influenced my photography just as much as the works of Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, or Josef Koudelka.
So when I found myself in Rome in August of 1999, and my friend Anna Bruna told me that she knew a man who was a friend of the director of the movie studio, Cinecitta, (where Fellini had made most if not all of his movies) and that he could get me in to spend a day there, I was, needless to say, euphoric. On a scorching hot day, I walked around Cinecittà like an Elvis fanatic with a day pass at Graceland, overwhelmed by the thoughts of the footsteps of all the bigger than life actors and actresses and genius directors that had graced the very grounds that my feet were now touching.
I spent the last couple of hours in the offices of Fellini. The studio had preserved them just as they were the day that he died in October of 1993. The clock on his desk showed 4:30. The clock must have wound down to the end of its cycle and no one since Fellini's death had rewound it, I presumed. Even clocks arrive at a death. I wondered when was the last day that Fellini had been in these rooms. Who was the last person that he had spoken to on the phone? Did his mistress come by for a long lunch? In my musings, I preferred that it was his wife, Giulietta Masina, who had been there instead of the mistress. How could it be any other way? How many women throughout history have loved her man as much as Giulietta loved Federico?
I sat in Fellini’s black leather chair and placed my palms on his desk. I closed my eyes and said a prayer to the great man for whom I had limitless admiration. I told him that I had traveled from afar on a pilgrimage to seek his benediction and asked him to share with me with some of his creative energy so that I may create works of great and enduring beauty and poetry so that my work would touch some people one day as his work had touched me.
Happy Valentine's Day, Federico.
The last week in November, my good friend, Cecile Delpire Kambouchner, took me to see her father, Robert Delpire, at his home. I hadn't seen Bob (as he is affectionately called by those who know him) since late April or early May at his office in St. Germain des Prés when he had made some changes to the cover of the book that we had been working together on for over a year.
When Cecile told me that Bob was up for my visit, I was both excited and nervous about seeing him. I've known Bob for almost ten years but he always made me a little nervous. He is, after all, a legend in his own time, a man who has been doing so many incredible things for photography over the last 60 years. Maestro, as Robert Frank once called him. When I asked Cecile what I should bring for Bob -- flowers, a Bach CD, perhaps North African dates that he likes -- she said that what would give him the most pleasure would be some leaves that he can use for his 'herbier' collages that he has been doing over the last few years. Where would one find some interesting looking leaves at this time of the year, I wondered. Cecile suggested that I go to Jardin des Plantes and steal a few. I am not for any type of thievery, but this would not really be theft, now would it? What harm would there be in taking a few leaves that our good God has sprinkled in a public garden in the middle of Paris? So that's what I did…I went to Jardin des Plantes a few minutes before it closed, and as light quickly faded, I pinched five items -- two leaves and three fairly exotic looking flowers -- and discreetly stashed them in my bag.
I had been to Bob's home numerous times over the years when I had the pleasure of dining with him and his wife, Sarah Moon. I found Bob in a much better shape than I had imagined. He offered me chocolate, a big madeleine, and a glass of very strange tasting alcohol from Mexico, dark as molasses whose name I can no longer recall. We then went down to his basement atelier where he works on his herbiers. He took the five items that I had pinched from Jardin des Plantes and placed them between two sheets of paper to flatten them and said that he would use them later. He showed me some of the pieces that he had been working on of late. When I spotted a gorgeous framed piece with a large, extraordinary leaf as the centerpiece, he said that it was his "self-portrait".
As I snapped a picture of Bob with his self-portrait resting on his lap, his generous, all-knowing eyes beaming affection and tenderness into my lens, I couldn't help but feel moved by this great man in front of me grasping his appropriately named collage. I felt privileged and honored to be in his presence. Publisher of countless seminal photography books by great masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, and many others, director of the first photography museum in Paris (Centre Nationale de la Photographie), producer of films (notably those of William Klein -- Qui Etes Vous Polly Magoo, Muhammed Ali, The Greatest), founder and director of a large advertising agency (he once told me that it was his advertising agency which allowed him to finance the photography books that he published, most of which did not fare well commercially at first, including Frank's "Les Américains"), there were never enough hours in the day for Bob. The handsome giant leaf is perhaps the perfect metaphor for the immense and venerable imprint that Bob has been leaving in the world of photography. As opposed to resting on his laurels (no pun intended), this rigorous and disciplined man with an American sense of work ethic continues to produce the Photo Poche Collection with indefatigable vigor and enthusiasm.
As I look now at his "Autoportrait", it occurs to me that Bob cannot help but do with these dried up leaves as he has been doing with photographs for over six decades, which is to transform them into arrangements of undeniable beauty and poignancy.
Given that I have been working over the past couple of years on a book of my first body of work as a young man in New York City, it is not surprising that my mind has been drifting often to the days when I first took notice of photography as something serious to consider. When my family left South Korea and immigrated to the United States in the late 70s, we first settled in Birmingham, Alabama for about a year. Birmingham still has a warm spot in my heart as the people I met there were the kindest and the most generous that I've ever come across in America and the girls were the loveliest, but better employment prospects convinced my father and stepmother to relocate to a small city called New Carrollton in the state of Maryland, just a few minutes outside of Washington, D.C.
We lived in a lower-middle class, predominantly black neighborhood. The few episodes of "Little House on the Prairie" and "The Brady Bunch" that I had watched as a kid in Iri, South Korea did not exactly prepare me for the mean streets of New Carrollton. For about two years, from about the age of 11 to 13, I regularly got into fights with the kids on the block. It is an exaggeration to employ the word "fights" to describe what went on in those days; they were more like "flights of survival". I got a few punches in once in a while but with 3 or 4 kids, all of whom were considerably bigger and stronger than me, pouncing on me from all directions, I did my best to play the part of a dignified punching bag. I had on average about two to three flights of survival per week (which dropped down to about once a week during the summer months, and sometimes none at all…yes, even bullies take it easy during summertime!), which makes it horrifying to come to grips with the fact that I was involved in roughly 150 to 200 fights during these two hellish years. The cycle of violence ended abruptly one day when I erupted in a near psychopathic rage and pummelled away at the poor neighborhood idiot who was a giant, but a very docile one, that the bullies forced me to fight for their entertainment - but that story will be for another time.
So what do these predictable childhood torments involving being bullied have to do with photography, you may be wondering? Well, as it turns out, I owe my deepest debt of gratitude to my former bullies because it was they who were indirectly responsible for my discovery of photography, and therefore, for my having the life that I have now. As often as possible, I did my best to stay out of their radar by taking refuge in the local public library. It is sad to note that libraries in poor neighborhoods tend to be desolate, and it was the case in mine. The library was so quiet and peaceful that one could easily mistake it for a community meditation center. It was there that I discovered and was comforted by Dickens, Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, and many others. I never read as much as I did until I turned 15. That was when I lied about my age and told the manager interviewing me at Chuck E. Cheese that I was 16 and got my first job. When I wasn't in the kitchen making pizzas and steak and cheese sandwiches, I made appearances wearing a giant mouse costume at children’s birthday parties. The kids jumped up and down unable to contain their excitement and joy at seeing their favorite giant rodent, and when I did Chuck E.'s special dance moves, they screamed so loud in their jubilant delight that for a few moments, I almost felt like one of the Beattles (George Harrison, who else?). Invariably, some of the little critters would pull on my tail and I would pretend to be angry and chase them around the long table.
While hiding in the library one day, I stumbled upon two photography books – probably one of those compilation books, and as I turned the pages, I came upon a photograph of such stunning beauty that it left me utterly dumbfounded, a beauty which my budding young soul was not prepared to meet. I remember that I felt like I had just been struck by a lightening bolt quickly followed by a freight train. I had no way of being able to process rationally what I was looking at, and yet, at the same time, it felt like coming home. It was Edward Weston's iconic photograph of Charis Wilson lying nude on a sand dune.
In my early 20s, when I got around to reading "The Daybooks of Edward Weston", I learned how Charis would scout suitable locations while Ed snoozed in the car and that she would strip naked as soon as she found a good spot and that she would lie on the bed of sand waiting for Ed to finish composing the shot in his view camera. But back then when I was 13 and I saw this image for the first time, Charis Wilson struck me as the most delightful Eve that I would ever want to have in my Garden of Eden.
Yet another thunderbolt struck the top of my skull when I discovered, once again, a beautiful photograph of a sublimely exquisite woman, this time by Bill Brandt. Her face and arm and breast so pale and smooth and perfect, emerging out of blackness like Persephone rising from Hades. What words can describe the scintillating effect of encountering such incomprehensible beauty for a 13 year old? These indescribably beautiful images were like divine food for my soul that was finally getting some quality nourishment after a lifetime of cheap and stale industrial staple…
Where are my former bullies today? The optimist in me would like to believe that they were able to turn things around and are now social workers counselling younger generations of bullies such as they once were. Whatever they may be doing, if I could see them again, I would hug them all as tightly as I can and shower them with heartfelt gratitude. I would tell them that thanks to their unkind and excessively violent ways, I got to meet Weston and Brandt who then set me on a new path (although I didn’t actually start taking pictures until about 4 years after discovering them), a path which has brought me all the way to Paris, and all the interesting people that I’ve gotten to meet and the rich experiences that I’ve been able to have thanks to having made my life about taking pictures.
For the maiden voyage of my Blog, it would seem logical that I should write something about the project that I am working on presently – a book called “Beginnings” which consists of pictures from my youth in New York City from 1987 to 1990, and some additional pictures that I took of my father and of the city during my last visit there in February of last year.
This book was slated to be published this fall by Robert Delpire, who had published my first book, “Là ou Ailleurs”, back in 2006, but due to his deteriorating health, he retired from his illustrious career at the start of the summer this year, so the book will be done with another publisher. The delay can only be viewed as favorable intervention by the gods who, in their prescience and wisdom, saw the necessity of further fermentation and ripening.
Two years ago, when I began working on the book, I decided to call it “Shelter” but it dawned on me that the word Shelter might suggest helplessness and passivity, which is not at all what the book is about, so I changed the title to “Hunger“, but it didn’t seem to resonate with anyone whose opinion I sought. Cécile suggested “Before“, as in before I became Jehsong Baak, the man who I am today. And Philippa thought “SRO 341“ would make a good title (as in my room number at the sleazy single room occupancy hotel where I lived when I first arrived in New York) and it is indeed an enigmatic title, but very few people outside of New York City would know what an SRO is. And then Angela suggested “Burn“. I liked Burn, still do, because it conjures up images of the inner fire of an angry young man, which I surely was, and it could also refer to a sacrificial incineration of something that needs to come to an end, but the word does not work well with the picture of the pretty girl and the helicopter on the cover of the book.
Then, this past Wednesday, I saw Angela again and she said, “What about Beginnings?“ I loved it because it’s simple and appropriate without being overly intense (like Burn). I also liked it because “Beginnings“ made me think of one of my favorite films of the last few years -- Mike Mills’ “Beginners“. It is a painful and moving account of a guy, played by the always amazing Ewan MacGregor who has intimacy issues, largely stemming from his relationship with his dysfunctional parents, especially his dying father who comes out of the closet in his 70s. So “Beginnings“ it is, unless the angels plant a superior title in my dreams, or maybe Angela, who is so good with words, will come up with something even better.
The picture of the lovely girl and a helicopter may be somewhat misleading to those who will pick up the book once it’s published. The cover may give the idea that the book is some sort of confessional by a chronic jet-set playboy, when in fact the book is more about my tormented youth lived on the razor’s edge in New York and my perpetually conflictual relationship with my father. But as Woody Allen says at the beginning of Manhattan, “…let’s face it, I wanna sell some books here.“
Here is a brief background summary on how the picture of the girl and the helicopter came about. She was not my girlfriend, although I certainly wouldn’t have minded if she had been. She was, as she appears to be in the photograph, a fashion model. Perhaps she still is. I cannot remember her name. It was December of 1989 and I was a college dropout working for a fashion photographer who I did not get along with on a catalogue shoot in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. A few days after we arrived, we were hit by Hurricane Hugo. The entire crew, about 7 or 8 or 9 of us, were removed from our hotel rooms and placed in a villa on the golf course that was the highest point on the island. Sometime after midnight, the roof in the part of the villa where we were all huddled together came crashing down. We were one or two seconds away from getting squashed like bugs. We remained stranded on the island for about ten days, during which time tempers flared and the photographer and I almost came to blows. We returned to the hotel, which no longer had any electricity or running water so we had go to the beach if we wanted to wash up. The expensive seafood in the hotel kitchen freezers was quickly thawing so we were served endless lobsters and crab legs and jumbo shrimps. I participated in a rotation of men who stood guard during the night (with a handgun loaded with bullets within my reach…first and only time in my life that I held a real gun in my hand) as some of the native islanders had started to break into the hotel to loot. The mostly wealthy European and American clientele was starting to freak out.
The U.S. Army (or was it the Coast Guard? I can’t remember) finally arrived and cleared the runway so that planes could take off and the weary vacationers could return home. We were given the green light to head to the airport on the tenth or the eleventh day and I was standing next to the van waiting for the members of our crew to arrive when the beautiful model whose name I cannot remember walked towards the van and a helicopter appeared out of nowhere and circled the compounds. I sensed a possible something coming together, photographically speaking, so I quickly pulled the Rolleiflex out of my backpack but things were unfolding too quickly and I wasn’t really sure of what I was doing. The girl was fast approaching the van and I could see her t-shirt flapping in that way that we sometimes see in romantic movies or in a beer commercial. The helicopter slowly descended to the ground. Time seemed to be slowing down and I started to see things in slow motion. There was no time to flip open the Rollei’s waist-level viewfinder or to think about what the exposure should be or to even guess the focus. I just cranked the shutter and fired instinctively just as the girl walked past me to get into the van.
The crazy thing is that a couple of years later, in a moment of sheer madness, I threw out the negative of this miraculous picture along with 99.9% of all the pictures that I had ever taken (you can read more about this when the book comes out). A trace of the pretty girl and the helicopter still exists today only because I happened to have taken a photograph of two wet prints that I had made from the original negative hanging on a clothesline in my bathroom, just a few months after the Hurricane Hugo adventure in St. Croix. This is why I am convinced that this image has to be on the cover. It captures in a lovely way the idea of things that disappear or get lost, and how certain things manage to get saved, despite whatever foolishness we may at times engage in. Sometimes, there is magic that has to stick around because it is part of our destiny, because it is too beautiful.
I am sure that I will someday run into the woman in the picture. She must be in her late 40s by now and still beautiful, and I would guess with two or three kids. I owe her a print of this picture and a copy of the book once it’s published. And I need to thank her for unwittingly playing the perfect model in what may go down as one of my most iconic images ever, intentionally recorded or not.