The Photography of Hyounsang Yoo

Interview with South Korean photographer Hyounsang Yoo

Ambit: You were born in South Korea and started your photography studies in Seoul. From there you moved to the USA where you graduated BFA and MFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago. Would you make any distinction between the impact made by your native Korea and that of the US in the context of urbanisation? How does the urban environment impact on your practice?

Hyounsang Yoo: I was born and raised in Seoul. I was living in a country house with my family at the centre of the city during a real growth period. At that time, Seoul was a developing city comparable with New York or Chicago. I experienced undeveloped places being reconstructed to artificial places. Most people around me moved away. I became interested in collectivisation and the modern concept that urbanisation eliminates people’s aesthetic, emotional and personal identities. I decided to move to Chicago because of the city and the Art Institute. One of my Korean professors at the SAIC taught photography differently. I remember he was more focused on context than technique and on the why.

Ambit: Construction and staging is evident in your photographs. You hint at the classical in your titles and compositions – Still Life, for example (see print issue for image) – and then juxtapose it with the contemporary. Can you expand on these relationships?

HY: Yes, most of my works deal with constructed set ups but without any photoshop manipulation. Even though the visual of the final product is often heavily staged, and stripped of contextual information, the generated images are still made out of physical production instead of post-production.

Although the images have been physically manipulated, I want the work to portray the political and historical context. Still life, for example, was created when I was in a residency in Columbia, Bucaramanga in 2014. I was amazed that they still used the traditional practice of still life in photography, painting and sculpture. So I found artificial fruits and fabric pattern and decided to set up my own still life in the garden. I photographed the props with a photo colour checker which are mostly used in commercial photography production. Despite making my own contemporary still life, I wanted to emphasise how the still life practice in art education is over done. However, the image of a still life will always be immortalised.

Ambit: What is the role of props in your work? To what extent to they give your work a social context?

HY: My working process involves extensive research. I collect resources from the media and select props to give my photographs a historical or social context. I am exploring how the individual or group that produces mass media are responsible for imprinting a contextual memory on the images associated with these political events. Consequently, it is impossible to produce an unbiased image, thus even when manipulated, my final images are still capable of triggering memory for the viewers.

Ambit: There are often human hints in your photographs. Sometimes there may only be part of a hand visible. In Ajumma/Ajooma (Korean) from the series The Green, for example, the woman’s features are hidden under a chequered tracksuit. Do you portray the human body like this as an allusion, to refer to another condition or circumstance? What are the reasons for treating the human body as you do?

HY: I am interested in the mass media’s representation of humans. The Green woman
was inspired by something in the Korean media press called “Ajumma”. Ajumma comes from the Korean word Ajoomeoni, and is a respectful word for a married, or older woman. There is an indication that the word means “wife of a professor” in Korean history. It is most often used to refer to middle-aged or older woman because referring to an elder by name without a title in Korea is not socially acceptable. The word ajumma can also have negative connotations of being unfashionable. I was really interested by this social issue of gentrification of Korean middle age woman, which includes my mother. So, I collected images from the media of how they showed the Ajumma and re-staged and photographed her with a chequered tracksuit, a green screen and a suncap.

Ambit: Your series The Event includes a few familiar objects yet the photographs have a sci-fi quality. They appear as if they could be virtual compositions. Can you talk more about this series and how you go about the process of layering imagery?

HY: As I briefly mentioned before, my working process involved staging. I take photographs, print the images, and re photograph the work with the printed images.Then I either draw or paint by hand with a design tool and collage the images which gives the photographs a material quality. So, there is no start to end point of perspective or image structure. It’s more the infinite circulation from one thing to another within the field of photography.

Ambit: We have ended this feature with an image of C LC VM VLM Y LK LLK PK and MK (see print issue for image). It appears to have been staged, documenting a live event more directly than in the rest of your work. What lead to this piece and could you decipher the mysterious title for us?

HY: I made C, LC, VM, VLM, Y, LK, LLK, PK and MK (2014) at midnight around -24 to -30 Celsius in the mid-west. I tried four times to get this image and finally succeeded. This large-scale construction brings the practice of studio photography out into the landscape. This is a reflection on process – each cloud like pillar mimics the individual colours found in contemporary digital photographic printers including the Epson Stylus Pro 11880 that was used to produce the print. The title is the ink code from largest inkjet photo printer Epson Stylus Pro 11880.

Hyounsang Yoo (b. 1986, South Korea) lives and works in Chicago. He has exhibited extensively in the USA as well as Korea, Germany and the Netherlands. This year he was the winner of Art Slant’s Showcase Photography prize. His photographs are held in collections including Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, Wisconsin, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago and Oolee Institute of Photography, Seoul. He is currently a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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