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.