It is something I’ve never done before, or attempted, at least not in any connection with a camera. That’s probably true of most or possibly all of the other participants, as well, and I do recall one of the others, after hearing about the homework assignment, commenting that, well that’s going to be a new thing, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. “But that’s why we do this, isn’t it, to get out of the comfort zone.”
The instructor is Ulla Reimer, and she has spent her entire life in photography. You can read her CV on her website, but it appears that she bagan as a freelancer, and did celebrity portraiture and some commercial work before turning to Fine Art Photography in the mid-80s. I’m not sure how long she has lived in Seoul, but apparently long enough to have produced some art studies of Korean Buddhism. Mainly, what she has done from the start, and what I am only beginning to do, is to show work to the public, to people who are not just friends.
We’ll be meeting Sunday afternoons, usually from 2 until 5, and my own motivation for signing up seems a bit shallow when I look at it – I’ve been using the camera almost daily for almost a half dozen years and never looked for any instruction about it aside from the odd thing here and there found on the internet. I live in a non-English speaking city and there are only a few places available to learn photography in my language.
When I ask myself what it is I want to learn, only one answer that makes sense to me: I want to learn about things I presently have no conception of the existence of, which makes it impossible for me to say precisely ‘This is what I want to learn.’
Our first meeting was April 6, and she started by taking us to a gallery in Gangnam, where she displayed some of her own work projected on the bare walls. (The place seemed to have been to between exhibitions, and I suppose she was acquainted with the owners.) At least some of what she’s done takes inspiration or directly imitates the canvas works of Magritte, Ernst and Chirico, which I found amazing and a little puzzling. After some thought I realized the intent: to show that the camera can produce similar illusory and non-realistic results as can be done with a canvas and paintbrush.
It’s not the kind of thing that would ever occur to me to do, but then, photography has had a struggle to be considered a worthy tool for Art with a capital A, so I suppose that is in the background of that mimetic project. Also, I’m not European, and I don’t possess the worshipful adoration of Classical and Modern Art that seems rather more common over there than in the California suburbs of my youth, so I’m as likely to give equal standing to Stan Lee, and Maurice Sendak and R. Crumb and H.R. Geiger as I would to any of the Great Masters that are studied in classrooms.
However, the fact that I might lack a common set of sensibilities with our guide doesn’t mean there is nothing I can learn from her – on the contrary, this is rather more likely where the leading edge is likely to be found, a new way of seeing, which is what photography is all about, of course.
After the gallery, we walked around the outside of Seoul Arts Center which was nearby. We were looking at levels, the steps between foreground body and background areas of images, also textures, but today especially the shapes distorted in reflective surfaces. We were talking about composition, mainly, only a bit about technique, and nothing at all about gear and technology, and I am glad, because the mechanical side of things tends to bore me very quickly.
(I was amused that although several other students had brought multiple cameras and an assortment of lenses to carry around, the teacher used only a small pocket Nikon – she had said earlier that you don’t need a big expensive camera for art photography, and the course prospectus indicated that even people wanting to shoot with a camera phone would be welcome.)
Our weekly homework: find out of 10 of our favorite shots that we took that day, edit and process them, and send them to the teacher. Also, ten more, a B-File, and send those along too. Art is all about choices, so perhaps something we’ll learn is about making better ones.
The second meeting took pace April 13th at Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a recently-opened structure that replaces a decrepit and inconvenient stadium that occupied the site when I first moved to Seoul a decade and a half ago. Without this workshop I‘d be viewing this place purely in social, historical and economic terms rather than aesthetic ones, and for an excellent account of the DDP through such those lenses I’ll recommend this article by Jon Twitch.
The venue for this class was changed from a planned visit to a natural park due to concerns about weather, but it turned out to be a bright sunny day – in fact, the light was rather harsh and too direct to make me happy when I arrived at 2 p.m.
Ulla made an appointment for me to meet her and a couple of other students in one of the cafes, then I started wandering.
The most unsurprising thing I heard at the critique session: “It’s a good photograph, but it’s not art.” And I wanted to laugh because, of course, I’ve never thought of myself as an artist, and I’ve never been entirely sure what it means, really – but I’m here to learn, so I will listen and I won’t argue.
The workshop began in April and it is ongoing, though I believe it might be limited to the people who are currently engaged in it. Unfortunately, I needed to take a break for the month of May due to some conflicts with my schedule, and the group has been continuing without me. I’m still not sure if my own circumstances will allow me to return in June, but I’m hoping for that.
I’m writing this some weeks after the events for various reasons, but primarily I wanted a little time to to assess and reflect. I feel like I’ve already learned quite a lot in a short time, and the photos I’ve come up with are quite unlike what I’ve been doing on my own.
And guess what, I’ve only described the first and part of the second session, so expect another installment of this quite soon.