Stained Ground (interview)

Letter to My Father

024_SG U 221_ 2013_ Inkjet print_ 169x127cm.jpg

Letter to My Father: Interview with Taewon Jang

Suejin Shin


What was your main objective for this project?


The photographs that are in this book are industrial landscapes that I started working on from 2007 until 2013. When I first began this project, I went around looking for ongoing or suspended large-scale construction sites to photograph in Korea, Japan, and the United States, but gradually expanded my area of interest to trace the process of changes that a city underwent vis-à-vis the transformation of the industrial infrastructure. I wanted to show, visually, the inherent power, which is not necessarily tangible, for example, like the economy or politics, yet one that exerts a great influence on human life.


Since the project took seven years, your photographs must express diverse viewpoints depending on when you took them. What are the changes you experienced in terms of your thought process or approach to your subject matter?


In the beginning, I concentrated on the specific topography or the architecture, or perhaps a structure, or construction equipment, thinking that these elements could reveal the strange tension I felt at the site where the construction was going on or the former construction sites that were abandoned for reasons that are unknown to me. Consequently, I found myself concentrating on the outer appearance of these complex scenes and producing many images that I had distilled visually. But then as I continued working on this project for a long time, I came to realize that what I saw was only a very small part of a larger picture. From the standpoint of an Industrial Revolution, seven years is not by any means a long period, but the places I photographed have changed beyond recognition or have even vanished from the map. As I experienced such phenomena, my interest naturally shifted to the city itself.


Do you mean you began to focus on how the industrial landscape transformed the city?


Yes. At first, I was in search of the landscape itself, but later on I began to look for cities that showed specific changes that took place as a result of industrialization. Hence, some of the photographs in this book show cities that were developed two hundred years ago and have a historical significance or places that started out as crucial industrial cities during the First Industrial Revolution but that now serve a different purpose, or some other cities that were a habitat for countless people, but have fallen into ruin in the present day. Just as urbanization took place with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the changes taking place in the industrial structure, even at this moment, are continually transforming the characteristics of the city where we live. Thus, my photographs serve a role in recording these changes that are still ongoing.


Could you distinguish the differences in the topography and industry of the United States, Korea, and Japan?


Perhaps because America is such vast country, it’s still common to see the birth of a “new” city with the construction of a factory and where the factory is no longer in operation, the reconstruction does not take place at the same site but at a different place. In fact, some dilapidated factories are abandoned and new factories with the newest technology get built right next to them. That’s why it’s possible to investigate the traces of time at the same place, which is unimaginable in a small country like Korea. One can see constructions taking place wherever you go in Korea, the country where I was born. In Korea, demolition and rebuilding at the same site is such a common practice, it is quite rare that one can actually trace the past history of the place. In contrast, the Japanese have done a great job of documenting even an abandoned place, if it has historical significance, not to mention how well they have preserved and maintained the site.


A photograph has a tendency to show the present. However, your work is about probing into the history of the transformation of an industrial infrastructure. How did that become possible?


As I continued working on my project, it dawned on me that my photographs tended more toward the documentary genre. Although an image can be very deceptive in a digital age, it still is the most credible medium. In other words, the intrinsic capability of the medium, which can induce people to believe that it is real, is still very much intact. But even in a straightforward documentary photograph, a picture shows only a facet of reality. Even if one tried to show multiple facets of a situation with a series of pictures, an image is only an image and not the truth of reality. Hence, a photograph showing only the present time shows an interpretation of one single perspective that I captured.


I don’t think that my photograph unveils only the exteriority of the present. If a place I photographed remains in ruins and one is prohibited from entering it, then that implies that this place served a very important function at some point in the past. The way I go about picking a place as a possible subject matter is similar to an approach taken for a documentary. First I come up with the list of important industries in accordance with each period, then I investigate the particular places that are relevant, devise a systematic plan, and then I embark on the shooting of the place.


Once I start taking pictures, I try my best to put aside any photographic preconception that I might have from the information or knowledge that I obtained prior to my actual shoot. In order to capture the most truthful visage of the site that I encounter in the middle of the night with my camera and without being bound by any rules, I bring my attention to a full focus. In this context, what I mean by “truthful” is of course from the perspective of my own viewpoint. At every site I photograph, there always exists something unique in the sounds and air, so to speak. It is perhaps impossible to convey this with what is seen with the eye only. One can unearth a whole range of beauty and undergo a moving experience, such as the thunderous effect of light illuminating a factory or a deadly silence of a city where no one lives anymore.


Before a vast and unfamiliar industrial landscape I always took my time, scrutinizing it in order to capture the most fabulous image. There are always numerous photographic options. Just as one would try their best to reveal a different kind of beauty of a model depending on the look or the aura of the person, I, too, explore many aspects of the scene to make the place stand out. And when I move on and shoot another place, I leave behind all my previous choices. Except for the fact that I shoot at night, I concentrate on what I am going to photograph without any preconceived ideas. Therefore, strictly speaking, my project is portraiture of the buildings or the scenes that are the result of industrialization. As I continued to work in that vein, different pictures of mine were shot according to each circumstance, and took on a look of human portraiture, faithfully revealing the traces of their lives.


Hence, you ended up presenting work that is different from a traditional documentary, which sets out to provide diverse viewpoints, or the likes of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose work was about industrial landscape.


The works of the other photographers were not on my mind, thus, I did not harbor any intention of distancing myself from their works. I simply pursued my own interests. I did not predetermine the size of my subject matter or the angle from which I was going to photograph it. Of course, my photographs reveal the plasticity derived from the architectural function, like in the works of Bernd and Hilla Becher. I don’t repeat a process just to demonstrate an objective point of view. Furthermore, I don’t like to present a specific city or architecture in a series, simply for the purpose of a three-dimensional view. In the photographs that are reproduced in this book, there is hardly a work where more than two pictures of the same place are shown. As I haven’t set down any stipulations for myself from the beginning, as to how I should perceive an object, I knew that my approach to a project would be formed by way of a long and arduous journey. The only rule I might have had was that I would photograph at night.


It was, in conclusion, your unique attitude and perspective that helped define the meaning of your photographs. So then, let us talk about shooting at night. Why then, nighttime?


When I first started working on this project, many people told me that my photographs looked more like a  painting. The color scheme was different, because I photographed at night. But the fantastical look of my photographs that some people have noted is somewhat expected. Human beings are not used to the nighttime. Since electricity was invented, we have spent more active hours at night, but it is an artificial light through which we view the world. The nights that are captured in my photographs are the sceneries that cannot be experienced by the human eye. That is due to the nature of the camera, which collects light. Therefore, even if it is a familiar sight, the camera will reproduce it in a completely new way. Half of the places I’ve been to are devoid of any light whatsoever. When I photograph at such a place at night, I can’t even see the edge of my foot. As I wait patiently for the moon to provide a scene, I can feel the kind of beautiful things that were totally invisible to the eye slowly take shape. Even if my eyes can’t make them out, I can sense them.


I like the night because the objects I photograph look much more pronounced at night. During the day, when I go scouting for places to photograph, things look frantic and unruly and not at all appealing. Also, I don’t get the same feeling from them. Everything in my purview during the day receives an almost equal amount of light. In comparison, at night there is light only in the places where it is deemed important. The object of my gaze exists solely of its own accord without any disturbance at night. The beauty that I am in search of is produced under such a circumstance. To me, this is very important.


Factories that have been shut down are shown in my photographs, but even if they have been closed for a long time, they were in full operation just a century ago or so. In daylight, one can only see the decay of the place. But at night, one can feel the kind of strength not too different from a present day brightly lit factory in these places. For example, the sand factory that I shot in Wyoming was side by side with a decrepit factory. The two buildings look dramatically different when you view them on site. A factory that is well lit is actively in operation while the former factory is pitifully neglected in the dark. But I can show both of them in a same ambience in my photograph. The capacity of the camera to process light makes such a vision possible. All the sceneries in this book are like that. If one were to visit the place during the day or to view it with a naked eye at night, one would glean the meaning and the value of only the present time. One would get just a glimpse of how the place is functioning. But such a difference vanishes in my photograph. One can physically capture the moonlight much longer in a photograph. I can relate to how such a process allows you to focus not only on the present, but also to visualize the transformation in time.


I find your photographs quite startling in that they show unfamiliar sights that are essentially very beautiful. From this dialogue, I am discovering that that was made possible from the outlook you had toward your subject matter.


These landscapes look very ordinary during the day. Even if a structure is of an impressive scale, though, if it’s seen from a far distance where one can have an overall view of the city, it’s going to lack a dramatic light effect and thus will appear dull. Conversely, it is possible to have a selective view at night. One can zoom in from one’s personal vantage point, be it a place where someone has decided to light it up, because it is still of value or a place that is in the dark, having been deprived of its functionality. As I was moving from one place to another for my shoot, I could make out how the light at present could one day be extinguished and be shifted to a new place to serve a different purpose. Just as the Industrial Revolution did not end up as a radical reform of an era, and people’s life that the industry has transformed continues, somewhere a new light will be turned on, then off, then on again; this transformation is taking place even at this very moment. I find that very moving.


In other words, you thought the technique of long exposure was appropriate for showing the colossal current of light being turned on and off in specific buildings then on again, somewhere else. But how is it possible to work with an 8 x 10 large-format camera at night when you can’t predict the result?


It is virtually impossible to foretell the results. Yet, it would be the same even if the place had light. I work in places where I can’t make out the details; I therefore rely on the silhouette. I consider factors like the size of the moon, the whereabouts of the clouds and how high up they are, and the proximity of the city light to determine the exposure time. Color, in particular, is absolutely impossible to gauge. Notwithstanding these factors, there is a reason why I insist on a large-format camera.


An 8 x 10 large-format camera allows me to slow down quite a bit. No matter how much I’ve checked out the place, and made sketches during the day, I still have to walk around the surroundings, double check the area, feel it out, so to speak, and to decide on the spot where to place the camera when I am photographing at night. Whereas it’s possible during the day to tell the colors apart or the subtle difference in the degree of light, at night, it isn’t so; therefore, it takes a long time for me to set the focus or adjust the sharpness by searching for the boundary of the sky and the silhouette. I actually enjoy this meticulous process.


But that doesn’t mean that I want to shoot only with film. If I use a digital camera, it cuts down on my shooting time from four hours to four minutes. Too many failures while working with film have made me appreciate digital technology. Besides, it is becoming more and more difficult to get ahold of large-format film. As I worked on this project, using both a large-format and a digital camera, I felt the experience was perhaps similar to the unlit city I am photographing and the brightly illuminated city.


One can view your photographs as praise for the achievements of modern industry that has provided the basic tenets for contemporary life, rather than an ode to specific industrial structures of a certain time period.


It was of paramount significance to me that in this project I overcame the handicap of looking at the object solely from the present day viewpoint. In the beginning, I often felt overwhelmed by some completely unfathomable force that was inherent in these enormous structures, but gradually I was able to acquire an eye that allowed me to see them in a different light. I began to view both the extravagant grandiosity and the decrepit desolateness as something beautiful that make up who we are in the present day.


Modernization, which was triggered by the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, provided humanity with astounding affluence through tangible industries like steel, oil, and textiles. As an artist, who has not undergone aforementioned processes, in what ways do you think these past industries have affected our lives?


As I was working on this project, from time to time, I was reminded of my father who worked for the same company all his life. After graduating from college in the nineteen-sixties, he had worked non-stop for forty years and now he’s retired. In the beginning his company was a small Korean company, but like many other corporations in Korea, it grew into a large global conglomerate during the time he worked there. Like most fathers of that period, he lived a life in which work meant everything. I don’t remember every having a meaningful conversation with my father or spending leisurely time with him during my adolescence. When I visited Korea to pursue this project, in order to be able to spend time with my father, I mustered up the courage to ask him to accompany me on my photography shoot and he gladly obliged. During the long ride in the car, my father, who was sitting in the passenger’s seat, talked endlessly about his experiences at work as a young man. As I heard him talk about the countless challenges he encountered and how he had to work ferociously to overcome them, I felt a lump in my throat. What moved me the most was not the story he told but the sparkle in his eyes as he told them.


The Industrial Revolution has brought about only partial successes. There is nothing that is perfect. Development takes places with the precept that it is the best possible thing in that given era, the evaluation of it can only vary in later times. However, without the strenuous efforts of those from that period, this affluent era that we are witness to could not have come about. My father, my father’s father, or his father’s father’s father have all given their utmost in the manner that was asked of them during their respective eras. That is why when I see the remains of what their times have left for us, and I feel deep respect for them.


A Third Post-Industrial Revolution, which is based on knowledge, is taking place in our present time. How does it differ from the industry in which machinery and architectural structures dominated?


When I am photographing at night with a large-format camera, it can take anywhere up to eight hours of exposure time to take a single picture. On average, it takes about two hours. While I am waiting with the shutter open, I have a myriad of thoughts crossing my mind. It is something that busy urbanites can’t imagine doing. These days, everyone is in a rush. They are busy day and night, on the phone, checking their e-mail, searching for an incredible amount of information on the Internet. I am the same. But during the several hours I am in front of my camera, when my shoot is taking place, the things that are going on within the apps on my iPhone seem trivial. It’s convenience, which I marvel at during the day, that becomes all of a sudden unreal. The Internet and other technology that shares knowledge and information have provided us with dazzling convenience. But convenience, strictly speaking, is not a prerequisite for survival. However, what I behold before my very eyes has given us all the foundations of our lives that we now take for granted. It is that grandiose and overwhelming power that moves me to no end.


The world is always paying more attention to something new. But your work seems to stem from your respect for things that are not novel.


I find myself boundlessly mesmerized by what I see before me when I am photographing at night. Of course, my assistants are wrapped up with their smartphone apps, even amidst these scenes. There is a moment when I am overcome by such beauty leaves me indescribably gratified. For centuries, artists and photographers have captured the industrial landscape in their art. Thus, humankind has been a witness to its own accomplishments, occasionally with astonishment, at times with terror, and sometimes with concern. I can’t offer a full explanation as to why I am doing this project and will continue working on it. But I can say that my work is an homage to the beauty of an era that I was privileged to be a part of.