Korean-born, American-raised, Paris-based photographer Jehsong Baak has been widely published, exhibited, and collected. But his greatest challenge is maintaining the child-like passion he had when he began photographing. Learn more in this honest interview.
Arrow, Rue de Varenne, Paris
BtF: How did you begin your work in photography? Was there a "decisive moment" when you knew it was a special medium for you, when you felt truly committed to it?
JB: It happened during my senior year of high school—a place which was very competitive, filled with brilliant students. At the time, I felt quite alienated. Fortunately, I had noticed a few students walking around with cameras, taking pictures for the school yearbook. It occurred to me that having a camera would offer a certain sense of identity. So I bought a camera and volunteered for the yearbook.
People started to immediately pay more attention to me because they wanted me to take pictures of them. The camera became a bridge, of sorts, with the students around me. I would have never had any contact with them had I not had a camera.
The Hurricane, The Pretty Girl, The Helicopter
BtF: When you were beginning photography, were there any people, artists, books, films that served as essential inspirations? How about now—any sources of creativity you discovered recently that give you that jolt of "beginner's" passion?
JB: At my local library, right around the time when I started taking pictures, I discovered two photography books: one of Bill Brandt (of nudes, portraits, and landscapes he did with an extreme wide angle lens) and the other of Edward Weston’s sand dune nudes of Charis Wilson. These two books hit me like a ton of bricks. I had no notion that such beauty could exist.
My life growing up in suburban Washington D.C. was very bland. Shopping malls and endless rows of fast food restaurants did not provide my eye or my heart much stimulation or excitement.
These pictures by Brandt and Weston opened up a whole new world of possibilities of visual beauty and poetry. Some people who grew up in a similar environment end up learning an instrument to become a musician, others become an actress or a writer. Me, I became a photographer.
Reaching for the Clouds
This year, I had the great fortune to see the exhibition of Gerard Fieret at Le Bal, here in Paris. I had heard of Fieret before, from a photographer friend in Amsterdam, but it was the first time that I was able to see a sizable body of work by this Dutch genius.
His pictures were so free, as was the manner in which he printed and presented his work. You could see that he was an unencumbered soul operating only through his primal and playful instincts. He was not paying attention to what the establishment was dictating as what "good" photography should look like. He was shattering all rules being imposed upon him.
It was an invaluable lesson for me to free myself of all rules and constraints, to forget about what the market is supporting and what the critics and curators say is the important kind of photography today. As you said, a jolt of inspiration.
BtF: Cartier-Bresson famously said, "Your first 10,000 shots are your worst." Can you share a humbling moment that happened to you recently with regards to your photography? A moment when you realized, like all of us, that there's always much more to learn?
JB: Just a few days ago, I discovered the work of a 25-year-old Belgian photographer, Lionel Jusseret. He has made some remarkable images of autistic children that he works with. You can see and feel the purity of his approach, the innocence he has towards his subjects as well as to the medium of photography itself.
This, I have found, is the toughest challenge for myself—how to protect and maintain that child-like enthusiasm and passion that I had as a 17-year-old wanting to create beautiful and moving images.
When we go to big photo fairs and prominent galleries and see the kind of work that is being promoted by the establishment, it is easy to lose sight of what drove us in the first place to want to grab a camera to make images that come from our heart.
—Jehsong Baak, interviewed by behindthefra.me