For nine years, on the small road one and a half kilometers to his studio at the edge of Seoul, Jungman Kim took thousands of black and white photos. He called this nameless street “Broken Heart Road” because, over the years, he was able to see how a cyclone and increased human intervention had affected the trees lining it.
The number of trees along the street dropped from a thousand to a few hundred. Most of them showed wounds. Jungman Kim when describing this street simply but sadly and very well-known to him and which represents a territory in which space does not figure, emphasizes in few words that which he does not show or which a photograph cannot evoke, material waste and stinking effluvia.
Some languages differentiate horizontal and vertical images, speaking of “landscape” and “portrait”. Most by far of the photos taken by Jungman Kim along “his” road are vertical, “portrait” images. At first sight they strike one by their balance, their elegance, their fluidity, and finesse, sometimes close to engravings, animating the fixed or vibrant movement of the branches. One recalls an Asian painting tradition of constructing space, using white as space punctuated by signs which intermingle, one experiences a kind of silence marked by strident interventions, and you are invited to contemplate. The seasons play their part too in this, and in turn cause us to follow the movement of thin twigs and the rhythmic breathing of leaves caused by a breeze. Or there is a shift in the joining of two main branches by an infill of snow, a new ephemeral geography which the photograph keeps for eternity.
If this slow and obsessive photographic adventure developed with no explicit purpose other than the necessity caused by a reaction to a daily occurrence, it is made formal in the guise of the portrait. With all that that implies for relationships of distance, the correct distance to be given to the work, the very nature one is going to give that which one has felt. The vertical vision does not correspond to our daily experience, still less to a photographer driving along the road which separates him from his workshop and life. The evidence of viewpoint is horizontal, “landscape”. The absence of calculation, combined with an essential effort to divide the world in a fixed rectangle, leads us to see the trees which in some cases are almost anthropomorphic. Subtle bodies of women, trunks hacked violently, interrupted too by decapitated mankind.
The portrait concurs, the album continues, but beyond the first appearance of elegance and suppleness a silent violence is always present. There is no spectacle, and constant state, painful, which we have to take into account.
We could go on, so much their presence, like notes of music moving to point of balance or in the margin, the crossing of lines or their breaking of the very equilibrium, make one wonder at the dexterity with which Jungman Kim integrates his portraits with black birds which come out of the white or gray sky, and escape from the frame or fix one’s viewpoint in the complexity of the branches. These black birds, often the harbingers of bad news from Greek antiquity, are not the distressing invaders of those cousins of Alfred Hitchcock nor even those of the Japanese photographer Masahisa Kukase consecrated in the extraordinary book The Solitude of Ravens. They are signs of malaise, eye-catching elements questioning without supplying answers. They too, even when they go off into space and appear to animate it, are a burden. They add a permanent, but never heavy, gravity to the interpretation. They are permanent terms, because images resist to words, linked to music which arise when one takes the time to try and turn these photographic papers, grant them the time they require, and are an echo of one who has seen them rise, fix in the silver iodide and acquire a form of eternity which involves overwhelming tenderness.
For each of these photographs, howsoever harmonious they outwardly appear, conceal pain and destruction. More or less violent, more or less spectacular, more or less visible. But there, at the sharp angle of a twig, moved by the wind or the weight of snow, as well as by the clear wound inflicted by man who interrupts its growth. The photograph has no intention of proving or showing even when it takes on a documentary viewpoint. It has though, a rare strength derived from its necessary dependence on what existed before it in the three dimensional world it brings a leverage, this capacity of “realism” which distinguishes it from other forms of representation. A realism capable of combining the reference to what it feeds from and the feeling, the subjective point of view of the creator of the work who gives it to us to see.
Monomaniac works, obsessions, those which take years of one’s life which we all know are limited by time, correspond always to fundamental preoccupations. They always go beyond what can be done by the artist. The obsession is beyond us, and return to the motif, is questioning society, is questioning, even confessing, ourselves. I wondered if there existed in photography the equivalent of the broken trees of Jungman Kim. I found only one example among the photographers whom I particularly admire. Esthetically that is irrelevant and concerns a little known part of an essential work of which the sublime still-lives of Bohemian glasses are preferred. Indeed, the Czech Josef Sudek produced hundreds of these compositions in which the light beautifies the object so as to imprint the image with a magical touch. Almost no one ever speaks of his other series, like “The labyrinth of my studio”, or “In the magic garden”. No one speaks of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of photos of broken trees, some struck by lightning, that he produced.
I find that Josef Sudek, in his youth was a soldier and during the First World War was wounded and had to have his right arm amputated. I felt, looking at his images of felled trees, the feeling of identification between his wound, his handicap, and his photography. Even inside their elements of precision, economy of means, and necessity.
The trees bordering the small road leading to Jungman Kim’s studio are wounded. The black birds, when not resting on one of their branches, partly obliterate the sky, either dark our bright. But the wind moves the supple branches of some of those fragile survivors, and after the harshness of winter, after the snow has both protected and worsened the environment, causes the buds to burst and revive. Not always since in nine recent years too many of these trees have died.
Often the most authentic photographers find in the physical world a correspondence with their inner preoccupations, their mental universe, their dreams and nightmares. The trees in the small nameless road have captured the imagination of the photographer and caused him to produce thousands of photos. They speak to us of a slow world disaster, a predicted and constant suicide, of a society incapable of preserving a natural cycle, which provides for its very existence. I do not seek to know through which gap or internal cut could correspond to these trees in danger. They certainly are related to a wounded conscience of the world, perhaps to something more intimate which has not to be revealed.
That is the “broken heart” road. Our broken heart, too.
Christian Caujolle, January-April 2013