"In this picture I show Israel's sad beauty," the Korean photographer Jungjin Lee says, as she looks at one of her recent works. Lee, who turned 50 this year, is one of three women who took part in the "Shooting Israel" photography project, in which 12 leading photographers from around the world spent a lengthy period documenting Israel through their lenses.
Lee took this picture about a year ago at Midreshet Ben-Gurion in the Negev. As elsewhere, here too she tries to describe through photography thoughts that she cannot express in words. The viewer must adopt an introspective, meditative sort of gaze, the kind Lee has personally used in recent years.
"I think this photograph shows how I interpret the Land of Israel as a metaphor. Not as a representative of the real world, but rather as something that can be anywhere," she says. "My work is not just about the photograph; it is also close to poetry. Not a preoccupation with a topic, but rather [a means of] exposure of internal emotions."
Lee visited Israel three times over the past year, for several weeks each time. This was her first time here. At first she toured the country, including the West Bank, in search of subjects to photograph. Jerusalem, the coastal road, the Golan Heights, Nazareth, Masada and Mitzpeh Ramon were some of the sites on her list. In January she set up shop in the desert, and the result is before you.
Lee does not want to be treated as a photographer who documents a particular place and time, as photojournalists or portrait photographers do. Her thoughts and feelings while working on a picture are no less important to her than the photograph itself, she explains.
She prints her photographs in large format on handmade rice paper. This paper is thin but highly durable, and has been used in artwork in Korea and other Asian countries for centuries. In printing the photo - a manual process that takes place in a darkroom, with a special brush - she creates uniquely textured prints that have the qualities of a painting.
"Lee is a master of intuition, who knows exactly where she is going even though she has no written destination. She has been gifted with an internal GPS system, and it's hard to say where it came from," says Israeli photographer Galit Aloni, who was one of the people who assisted Lee in her work in Israel, alongside a Korean artist who is studying for a master's degree at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
"On one occasion," Aloni recalls, "she disappeared into the bushes, as though she had chosen to disappear into herself, in search of something she knew about beforehand. And then she came back with this picture. She made me see Israel like I had never seen it before."
While most of Lee's local work focused on landscape photography, people and houses were also frequent subjects.
"I wanted to photograph the layers of history: to see the stones and the houses built from them, and the ruins of these houses, and the modern homes," she says.
She also toured the West Bank and photographed Bedouin. "I still haven't reached a conclusion regarding Israel. I love the people here, but it was hard for me to accept what goes on here. It's too complex," she explains. "I tried to understand Israel in the course of the work, but I decided not to be judgmental and refrained from involving my thoughts about the politics and society."
Lee, who was born and lives in South Korea, was the sole Asian participant in the project. She too knows something about political conflicts, walls and separation.
"I thought about it a lot: Both you and we have separation, except that in Korea it is a lot more obvious. We don't see the other side at all. In Israel you sit inside each other, and one next to the other. In Jerusalem, for example, you really feel it in the street. It's a different story," she says.
As a child she specialized in calligraphy; later she studied ceramics at Hongik University in Seoul. She was introduced to photography while hiking. That was also when she discovered her attraction to wide-open spaces, to landscapes and emptiness.
"I like to photograph things that feel empty, like a wall or the corner of a house. I am a very private person, and prefer to be alone," she admits.
After graduating university she tried her hand at different photographic works. One was a series of pictures she took on a mountainous island, where she found an old man who had been living in an dilapidated cabin for 10 years with his wife. He had devoted his life to searching for a medicinal plant, which he never found. Lee returned to the island to document this man over the course of a year. The result was her first book, "A Lonely Cabin in a Far Away Island," which came out in 1988. After it appeared, other photographic books came out in rapid succession: "The American Desert," "Dissolving Landscapes," "Wasteland," "Desert" and "Wind."
Lee went to the United States at age 27 to pursue a master's degree in photography at New York University. Later on her works were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as at museums in Europe and Asia.
Early in her career she worked as an assistant to the famous Swiss photographer Robert Frank, and it may be from him that she drew the parallel between photography and poetry. In 1951 he told an interviewer from Life magazine: "When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice."
Read this article in Hebrew: מקוריאה לישראל: יופי עצוב
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