Youngsuk Suh's concepts of photography

Art Insights features Korean photographer

By: Matthew Montgomery

Youngsuk Suh, professor of photography at UC Davis, offered thoughts on both photography as an art medium and art in a wider sense at Thursday's Art Insights lecture.

Suh, who is originally from South Korea, said he decided to enter the field of photography after studying biology at Sogang University in Seoul, so he moved to New York City in 1994.

New York City was his first view of the United States, Suh said.

"The image of the city was the image I had of this country," he said.

Branching out from the metropolitan area influenced his photographic style, Suh said.

"It was pretty interesting to see other neighborhoods," he said. "Somehow, it made sense for me to look into those areas. I looked into those neighborhoods and cities for ideas to make images."

A big influence in his work, Suh said, grew from how he would reach his photographic destinations.

"Driving and traveling became very important elements to my work," he said. "Sometimes I didn't know what I was doing, but I just kept going and found things."

From his traveling, he developed an interest in public parks, Suh said.

"I was particularly interested in parks as this public space built for the use of a community," he said.

That interest led him to spend time searching out community parks, Suh said.

"I would go out to these small towns every weekend," he said. "Driving around and taking pictures became a very important move in my work."

After earning a bachelor of fine arts degree at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., Suh entered into the master of fine arts program in studio art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University, according to his Web site,

An important influence in his work, Suh said, is rooted in the photographic tradition.

"One thing I learned from the history of photography is to distance yourself from your subject," he said. "One move I made was to keep the distance at a certain range - you can't get too far away, or you lose the details of action."

Before venturing into his current styles of photography, Suh focused on finding the "great moment" to capture as a street photographer, he said.

Departing from that perspective, Suh said he decided to focus on a more traditional style of photography.

"I decided I would take the landscape and photograph what came into the frame," he said. "It was a big decision to get into this more traditional photography."

Traditional photography was less about art and more about exploration, Suh said.

"A lot of photography produced (in the 19th century) was not necessarily art, but surveys of what exactly was out there," he said. "In the past, it was about finding out what was out there, and now, it's more developed. With all this rich tradition of surveying the land, I felt like I was running out of options, so I became interested in this idea of travel."

Suh said he decided to work with national parks and their use as his subject matter.

"I was interested in this sort of place with national parks where your imagination is engaged," he said. "My interest was not just these national parks, but also how they are used and the institutional aspects of how they are used."

Such institutional aspects of national parks were of interest to Suh, he said.

"(I was interested in) the idea of making boundaries taken away from the nature of things," he said. "Another interest of mine was how we define nature these days."

"They use a lot of measurement to control how these parks are viewed, so that was another aspect I was interested in," he continued. "There is this presentation side of nature that's engaging - it's the pure idea of nature, collided. My interest in the national park system is in the conflicting side of it."

From those ideas, Suh developed ideas in his photography involving national parks, he said.

"It was important for me to photograph these human interventions that are placed in a natural setting," he said. "My interest always comes back to the way the parks are used and how they are viewed."

The process by which Suh finds locations and takes photographs involves human interaction in a certain sense as well, he said.

"Once I found the right place, I would absorb what was going on," he said. "In a way, I wanted to make this landscape with human figures. I wanted to make one moment where the tourist is experiencing this place."

Digital alteration of his photographs to make composite images from multiple negatives became important to his process, Suh said.

"I wanted to populate this space but give this collective experience, so I decided to digitally alter my images - create landscapes with a longer time frame," he said. "In a way, I wanted to concentrate on our collective experience."

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