My first introduction to Korean photography was Bae Bien-U. Korean photography didn’t exist for me before Bae. I’m now not sure how Korean photography fell into a blind spot, though, as I write that, I wonder how many other photographic traditions do not exist in my mind? Until traveling to Turkey in 2011, I never really considered Turkish photography. Without a point of introduction, how is one to know that something exists?
I first encountered Bae’s work at the Asian Art fair held at the Javitz Center in New York a number of years ago. The photographs were, as I am now aware, his most recognizable: black and white, panoramic and very large photographs of groves of pine trees surrounding the royal tombs in Kyung-Ju. They were beautiful, but the scale and presentation turned me off. Bae’s pine trees ought to have made an electric connection. The pine tree is nearly as culturally freighted in Maine, where I grew up, as it is in Korea.
It is a pleasant surprise then that Sacred Wood connects with me in a way that the large prints in a white cube setting didn’t. The private interaction with the book is intimate, nearly spiritual. These photographs, taken over the past 25 years, are luminous and lyrical. They are a kind of twisting visual poetry. Having been to several of the groves depicted in these pine trees, I can attest that these are not simple snapshots. Bae has imposed himself upon the scene. These are not unguarded or unsung places. The kings of Silla have many visitors. I can’t imagine that any aside from Bae has made photographs as moving. (I am sad to say that the photographs I took there do not measure up.)
The light, especially in the earlier photographs, is diffuse and soft. It spreads between the trees like fog. The trees seem to be melting into the morning mist. One is tempted to place them in the Western context of the landscape photographs of Adams or Weston. I think this impulse is wrong: though there might be superficial aesthetic similarities, the path is different. Bae makes his approach through the spiritual. (Hatje Cantz in the blurb for the book calls the photographs meditative.) Whatever technical prowess Bae has, and he has plenty, it is not what drives the photographs. Whereas the F64 group turned to straight photographs as a reactive break from pictorialism, Bae’s photographs represent a continuation of cultural tradition. The pine tree is a revered symbol in Korea; the very format of the photographs–the narrow panoramic aspect ratio, harkens back to brush and ink scroll paintings. Unlike a younger photographer such as Seung Woo Back with his visual and political rabble rousing, Bae is extending existing cultural traditions through photography.
The physical book is quite nice. It is a roughly 11×14 horizontal slab with a printed cover and 2 piece cardboard slipcase. The book opens with two essays, the first by Wonkyung Byun and the second by Thomas Wagner. These are followed by 71 illustrations, 12 of them in color. The printing is very good, as is to be expected from Hatje Cantz. Most of the spreads have two opposing panoramic images, though there are roughly a dozen spreads with either full bleed double truck panoramas or multiple vertical panoramas on a page. Each image is captioned with an archive number and a year. Had I been the editor, I would have cut the color images: only a couple of them have the power and beauty of the black and white photographs. They feel out of place. Likewise, I do not feel that the captions add to the book; they, too, feel out of place. (There must be a reason for this captioning though, as Bae uses it in another book of his that I have.) These two design miscues make the book feel like an exhibition catalog, which is what it is: published in conjunction with exhibits by Phillips de Pury & Company, London and BOZAR Center for Fine Arts, Brussels. I would have preferred that if it were to be a catalog, it not have been treated as a sales catalog.