People / Critic

Bae Bien-u, Photographer

posted 25 July 2012

"I'm someone who seeks escape and hides behind landscape. I'm not very interested in stories inthe wild out there." Bae's intention to hide in nature and become one with it is similar to classical Korean scholars. Bae says the artist he respects most is Gyeomjae jeong Seon, a famous Korean landscape painter. If we have to distinguish genres, Bae Bien-U is someone who captures landscapes in his own unique way through with his camera.

Bae Bien-U Photographer Born in Yeosu, Bae Bien-U is one of Korea’s leading photographers. Since graduating from the Department of Applied Arts at Hongik University, he has traveled the world with the firm belief that “a photograph is a picture painted with light.” During that time, he has captured Korean nature in a dazzling array of ways. In addition to his pictures captured in the Pine Tree Series, which earned him international recognition, he has worked on other series as well. This includes his Orum Series, pictures of parasitic volcanoes on Jeju Island, his Seascape Series, portraying islands and the sea around Korea’s southern coast, and his Wind Series, which captures natural landscapes stirring in the wind. He has also taken photographs of landscapes in Tahiti, New Caledonia, and Spain’s Alhambra Palace. With numerous invitational shows and exhibitions overseas, he has introduced the beauty of Korea to many around the world. After retiring from his 30-year professorship at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, he has been focusing his time on photography. At present, he is planning a large-scale show featuring his Wind Series and Seascape Series.

How to Appreciate a Korean Landscape

Since before people first inhabited the Korean Peninsula, since the Earth began, there has always been nature. What enables us to admire nature, to appreciate our scenery, is a method devised by artists who wanted to find a new aesthetic value in the landscape. The East has long had a tradition of appreciating landscapes and expressing them in works of poetry, literature, and painting. As evidence for this perspective, we can look to the "Eight Wonders of Gwandong" or the "Eight Wonders of Danyang," each of which selected eight especially spectacular examples of Korean scenery. These views were praised in literature and reproduced in art by Korea's Confucian scholars. According to the landscape architecture scholar Kang Young-jo, the Eastern approach to landscape appreciation first emerged in literature and "was born through the patterns of landscape appreciation developed from the literary imagination intersecting with appropriate points" in the actual landscape. In these works of literature and art, nature and human being achieve an interior harmony.

Bae Bien-u,SEA1A-041HC(Gulup Island)-Print in Diasec 150x300cm_ 2010

Bae Bien-u,_SEA1A-041HC(Gulup Island)-Print in Diasec_ 150x300cm_ 2010

The photographs of Bae Bien-u tie in with this traditional approach. "I am one who flees," the artist says. "I hide in the landscape. The rough stories of the world hold no real appeal for me." In his desire to conceal himself in and become one with nature, he is similar to the Confucian scholars of old who recited poems and painted pictures as they savored the landscape. The artist he most admires is Jeong Seon, the Korean artist of the 17th and 18th centuries who painted genuine landscapes of the country. If he has to be pigeonholed into any one genre, Bae is a photojournalist, someone who carries his camera with him to capture what he sees. But he does not much like drawing distinctions between photography and painting. What matters is how you express things; photography is but a tool for expression. At the same time, Bae says, "Instead of painting with a brush, I take pictures. Photography is drawing pictures with light. The most crucial thing in taking a picture is having a good understanding of light."
Born in Yeosu in 1950, Bae grew up in a pristine natural environment, unravaged by development. "The roots of my ecological sensibility lie in the islands and sea of Korea," he has said. The beauty of this landscape is recorded in his work: black gravel on a damp shore, islands studding the sea and disappearing into a distant mist. The sites that he captures with his camera are not famous (though some have become famous from his pictures). Rather than merely showing the beauty of the scenery, Bae presents us with a perspective on Korea's distinctive landscapes. "When I was a child," he recalls, "I used to go out with the older boys in the neighborhood and row around the islands in the South Korea in a little boat." In those days, the "young boy who saw the boat as his friend" was learning to harmonize with nature, to experience and observe the landscape from a variety of angles.

(좌)Bae Bien-u-OM1A-018V(Oreum, Jeju Island)C-Print in Diasec 260x135cm_ 2006 / (우)Bae Bien-u_OM1A-019V(Oreum, Jeju Island)C-Print in Diasec 260x135cm_ 2006

(좌)Bae Bien-u-OM1A-018V(Oreum, Jeju Island)_C-Print in Diasec_ 260x135cm_ 2006 / (우)Bae Bien-u_OM1A-019V(Oreum, Jeju Island)_C-Print in Diasec_ 260x135cm_ 2006

The places Bae positions his camera are both the points where the landscape can be observed at its most beautiful, and the points where his unique take on the scenery begins. He learned about these vantage points from walking and walking more until he knew "just when and where I need to be standing." From the outset, his theme has been the beauty of Korea, and he has had to push the shutter many, many times to find it. Since the 1970s, his camera has captured the different islands of the South Sea: Jeju, Hong-do, Wan-do, Baek-do, Sora-do. His discovery of the pine tree in 1983 brought his search for Korean beauty to its pinnacle. "You have the minister pine, the chaste wife pine, the Seongnyeong pine," he notes. "We're the only country in the world that personifies its pine trees." Bae's affection for pine trees runs broad and deep, as do his philosophy and knowledge about them -- what they meant to the ancestors of contemporary Koreans, where you can see the best ones in Korea. He has a particular love for the pines of Gyeongju, growing by the tombs of the Silla kings. As he sees the Dorisol pines that bore departed spirits into the heavens, Bae's eye is directed beyond a simple landscape to somewhere deep and unfathomable.

The Photograph Resembling an East Asian Painting

In capturing his scenes, Bae adopts a different approach from Western landscape painters. One aspect of the Western perspective is captured in the words of Henri Cartier-Bresson: "My passion has never been for photography 'in itself,' but for the possibility -- through forgetting yourself -- of recording in a fraction of a second the emotion of the subject, and the beauty of the form -- that is, a geometry awakened by what's offered." From the Bechers to Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer, what Western photographers have gotten from their deep reading of landscapes and nature is their geometry. This perspective on the landscape has deep roots in Western culture. The mathematical theories of Pythagoras, and their inheritors in the medieval tradition of sacred geometry, represent the epitome of this perspective of nature. We find the starting point of this aesthetic on the last day of the Biblical Creation: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." These attempts to find internal equivalents of the sacred world in the external beauty of nature had an crucial impact on Western visual culture, as they developed into a pursuit of geometric order: proportion, criteria, harmony, and symmetry. Renaissance line perspective made the human into the agent, increasing its hold on the spaces of reality. But humans themselves changed little in their search for mathematical order and perspective in the world.
Eastern landscape art, in contrast, encompasses a far freer method of appreciation than the Western style and its rigid framework of perspective. This is the traditional context in which Bae Bien-u's photographs find themselves. Taken in a wide panoramic format, they place the central trunks of the trees at the center, with their upper branches and roots cropped out. Nor are these rigidly vertical pines; they are twisted in form, condensing and soaring, over and over again. What dominates the frame is not structural order, but an array of irregular lines. More often that not, Bae Bien-u's pine tree photographs are pictures of the forest taken in the forest while walking the forest, rather than distant shots or pictures that consider the relationship between landscape and tree. His vantage point calls to mind a major concept in Eastern landscape art known as woyou (臥遊). If the focus of a Western landscape is on visual domination of the landscape, then the woyou image in Eastern art is about venturing inside the landscape to enjoy it, rather than merely viewing it from outside. When the art critic Shigeo Chiba described Bae as "capturing the landscape not as an image but as an extension of the body," this was a reflection of the photographer's woyou experience of the landscape.
Pine trees are covered in thick, coarse bark, some with cracks deep enough to fit one or more fingers. The materiality of this bark is entrancing in itself, and it is easy to succumb to the temptation to photograph the surface. But few works of art have actually expressed that materiality. In photographs of the forest taken inside the forest while walking the forest, the perspective on the whole matters more than perception of its different objects. Bae himself has said, "I have realized that the mixing and twisting of lines on the pine tree is symbolic of the Korean sensibility." What he is looking at, then, is the relationship, the connections, among the pine trees. He is not viewing individual trees, but taking in the entirety of the scene that they comprise. What matters here is not the individual pine trees, but the observation of a transcendent space between them. The viewer, too, becomes absorbed in the distant landscape as her/his gaze moves freely from the pine in the foreground to the faraway background, which is suffused with light. If the typical method of viewing a Western landscape involves isolating individual objects and viewing them in a relationship of contrast with their background, thus establishing a binary opposition of subject and object, then Bae's perspective shows the hallmarks of the Korean mode of contemplation, one that values the connections between objects, and between subject and object. This is why his works are frequently taken in the pine forests of Gyeongju, presented not as individual portraits but as a kind of ritual in which many different trees all come together.

Photograph of Korean Contemplation

Over the course of his many years spent photographing the pines of Gyeongju, Bae has gone beyond merely observing nature externally and arrived at an understanding of the nature of Korean culture. A core belief in Korean humanism is the way of thinking known as innaecheon: valuing the human being as though she were heaven itself. Bae Bien-u connects his pine trees with this strand of thinking: "When you say innaecheon, it means that the person is heaven. What, then, is the medium linking the person to heaven? I believe it is the pine tree." At this point, the photographer's pine trees are no longer just a visual landscape -- they are a medium showing Korea's characteristic spiritual world. To capture the deep nature that appropriately expresses this spirit, Bae opts to shoot in the early morning or the hazy evening. Neither too much nor too little, the light at this time when nature is breathing deeply marks the peak moment of capturing the Korean beauty he has discovered.

Bae Bien-u,_SEA1A-044HC(Jeju Island)_C-Print in Diasec_150x300cm_2010

Bae Bien-u,_SEA1A-044HC(Jeju Island)_C-Print in Diasec_150x300cm_2010

This philosophical, transcendent view of being can also be found in his photographs of Jongmyo. Bae confessed being drawn to the shrine's "dignity and grandeur." Architectural scholar Kim Bong-ryul. who sees a characteristic Korean philosophy and aesthetic inherent to the country's architecture, is lavish in his praise for Jongmyo: "A simplicity that dominates both part and whole; the transcendent effect gleaned from omitting artificial adornment, technique, and manipulation." To Kim, Korean architecture is about elements coming together. His original "set theory" does not locate the value of architecture in building structure or form. Kim emphasizes isolating three-dimensional units of analysis -- room, building, group of buildings, regions -- and gaining insights in the organic relationships formed as the different units come together.
At the heart of his set theory are relationships. Eastern thought views the person, space, and time in terms of Sai (間) , the intermediate; all things are understood to be "in between." "Between" here does not connote the Western concept of division and opposition between subject and object. In Eastern philosophy, the perceiving subject develops within a mutual relationship with nature (the object). The woyou concept in Eastern art incorporates the perspective of one of these subjects, who moves about enjoying nature. In photographing Jongmyo, and other examples of old Korean architecture, Bae provides an example of this Sai perspective: he sees the other buildings between buildings, blocks of buildings between the leaves of trees, floors and yards through open windows. It is a perspective that sees the architectural structure through the intermediate gateway of a cluster of buildings, capturing all the highs and lows of the terrain.
Other pictures showing the oreum -- low mountains -- of Jeju Island are the result of years spent examining Korea's unique beauty. These are landscapes familiar to every Korean, and Bae's photographs present them like Korean Traditional Paintings. As in most of his work, he applies dramatic contrasts of light. Photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston used powerful light to pierce the object and dramatically reveal its contours. But Bae's focus is not on the individual objects, but the feeling of the whole. In most of his work, the foreground is dark, the middle range the brightest, and the background faint. This threefold structure is employed with facility to capture the depth of nature where there are no cubelike buildings to trigger perspective. Dark in the foreground, hazy in the background, this world calls to mind the first lines of the Thousand-Character Classic: "Heaven dark, Earth yellow. or The Heaven is dark, The Earth is yellow " Here, the power of color is used to express the boundlessness of the universe and its myriad phenomena. The oreum pictures have a deep flavor, as though the photographer is using the light and shade of India ink. The same is true of the Gyeongju pines: the foreground is heavy and dark, the image brightening the deeper one goes into the frame. As the eyes move from the concrete to the vague and distant, the viewer leaves behind the heft of the body and sinks into the mystical feeling of becoming part of a profound universe. As National Museum of Contemporary Art curator Park Young-ran put it, it triggers an "Eastern immersion experience with nature." Bae's photographs are not simply a means of representing objects; they are the product of a meditative view that sees into the depth of objects within the landscape.

[Photo courtesy of Kim Atta]

Lee Jin-sook / Art Critic

Lee received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Seoul National University’s Department of German Language & Literature. She received another master’s degree dealing with Kazimir Malevich at the Russian State University for the Humanities’ Division of History of Art. She runs the programs “Between Russian Art and Literature” and “A Thematic History of Western Art” and teaches at Dongduk Women’s University, Yonsei University, and Chung-Ang University. She regularly contributes to columns such as “Lee Jin-sook and Artists of Our Era” (Monthly Top Class) and “Lee Jin-sook’s In-depth Reading of Art Books” (Joongang SUNDAY). She is the author of the Russian Art History (Minumin, 2007), an introduction to Russian painters, The Big Bang of Art (Minumsa, 2010), a criticism on young Korean artists, and a collection of art essays called Depending on Beauty. 

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