How to read Jungjin Lee’s Deserts

by Youngjune Lee (photography critic)

 I am writing this to help reduce the embarrassment of spectators from the photographs of deserts by Jungjin Lee. Jungjin Lee's photos bring about embarrassment, because they do not retain any conclusion. For instance in the book Landscape as Photograph (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1985) jointly written by Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist, the authors classified landscapes into four categories, "Landscape as God," "Landscape as Symbol," "Landscape as Pure Forms," and "Landscape as Popular Art," which are a conclusive list of landscapes. However, Jungjin Lee's photos cannot be classified into any of them, and avoid decisive conclusion. For example, in the chapter of "Landscape as God," the co-authors discuss Ansel Adams' sublime landscapes and fixedly conclude the landscapes of Ansel Adams for being godly magnificent, closing the door to the possibility of reading his artworks with any other viewpoint. 
Then what should we observe in the photography of Jungjin Lee. In her photos we see the deserts that are shoddy and recessed or cut into pieces and incongruently reattached, instead of the one, magnificent, bleak and desolate.
Nowhere in her photos appear the grand sceneries of the deserts. Just stumps, holes in the sand, pieces of stones not even lumps of them. And a part of her body mixed with them. They are the things in Lee's photos. But even with a complete list of the things, the question still remain what on ear they are. It is because they were taken from the deserts but are not about the deserts. 
Reading the deserts of Jungjin Lee can be initiated by juxtaposing her photos with the works of other artists. There have been many photographers, beginning with William Henry Jackson in the olden days of exploration of the West up to Richard Misrach of today's post modernism. We should find out in which part of the list she belongs or where she has deviated. Thus appreciation of her single photo on the deserts is quite difficult, because it is not in a self-sufficient and isolated structure that contains all the tales with the images. (Not a single piece of artwork in the world is self-sufficient and isolated.) Also her photos deviate from the tradition of the desert photos at many points rather than sitting down somewhere in the list waiting to be specified. 
In any case, it is certain that she wandered about in the deserts with her cameras pretty much and that her photos were the outcomes of her moves. The first motivation or the initial point of her deviation is the fact that the deserts in the West of the U.S. are beautiful. Even anyone who has never been to a desert would be able to guess easily that the deserts contain grotesque and unique sceneries, hardly imaginable in the small country of Korea. But Lee Jeongjin's deserts are not beautiful or grandiose. Nor are they even unique. 
Probably Lee disliked the epithets attached to the deserts or felt uncomfortable with them.
 If you insist upon comparing Lee with the existing photographers, she is close to William Henry Jackson who took the desert scenes not as art but as the record of natural history and exploration, rather than Ansel Adams, Edward Western and Richard Misrach who defined the beauty of the deserts to us. at least in terms of the outward appearance. In a word, Lee's photos contains something that refuses the other ones that say, "The deserts are beautiful."
As explained previously, the problem is not such decisive conclusion but the fact that by that conclusion the photo works of the great masters shut the lids on the vessels overflowing with significant objects and texts. The act of shutting the lid is called "closure" in terms of semiology and it is pretty much risky. 
When a certain object turns to a text, it can have indefinite significance like ever erupting pressure, which is expediently closed with arbitrary epithets such as "beautiful" or "magnificent." Anybody can imagine the danger of shutting off a greatly pressurized vessel. Therefore the method Jungjin Lee has taken is to loosely close the lid with holes, so that the pressure of significance could properly escape. 
The looseness of Jungjin Lee's techniques is very helpful for the strategy. For example, instead of conventional printing paper she uses Korean paper or hanji on which photosensitive emulsion has been applied, that help make equivocal statements. 
The boundary of the photograph is unclear and coarse and brings about an effect of a makeshift hedge rather than a wall that confines the object in the frame. It makes one feel that one could see over the boundary. This was also made possible by the characteristics of the medium, hanji. 
 In the series of her works where three shots of photos are attached side by side, part of her own nude is inserted. In this case again, it is such a fragmentary image that you can hardly tell which part of the body it is, simply as a deviating device from sensual imagination. Talking about sensual association, the images that call forth sensual imagination occupy the central importance in her photos surreptitiously. Not only her own nude but also stumps, holes and pieces of stones that resemble female bodies apparently lead us to sensual association. But even in handling of these objects, she avoids specifying, "This is a stone that takes after a male genital, and that is a stump resembling a female genital," thereby preventing attachment of an object to a specific substance. 
It does not necessarily mean that Jungjin Lee has found the deserts not beautiful. She once went to a place called Artist Pallet in Death Valley for example, and recalled that the place is ineffably beautiful and mysterious just like a painter's pallet on which various colors are laid down and mixed up. However, she never submitted those photos to this exhibition nor even did she turn them to photo works. Perhaps she took some snap shots but did not upgrade them. Actually such an attitude is somewhat against the artistic instinct of a photographer. Whether it is a desert or a nude, those whoever face an indescribable beauty for the first time, especially photographers, would have a desire to take the pictures and preserve them. Behind such desire, there exists a fear that the beauty may disappear. 
In spite of all the recording media, the scenes before eyes are ever changing.Though the object may remain there as it is, the solitude you feel in the glow of the setting sun or the wind that wraps you around may never come back again. 
 That is why the photographers try not to miss a bit of the aura. But unfortunately the photos always show too much or too little. Nevertheless the photos are full of the tricks of pretending that they show the most appropriate portions only. The tricks are the codes or the promises that exchange the symbols. Photography is something like a freighter train filled with all kinds of symbolic promises such as the promises for beauty, those for ugliness, etc. If you wish to stay on the train, you are supposed to keep the promises. But Jungjin Lee daringly ignored the promises and jumped off the train. 
Facing with the beauty of the desert did not increase her desire to keep the scenery to her own by any means, but to the contrary, she realized that photography is too weak a means to express the beauty of the desert. That made her jump off the train. It was not the weakness that could be resolved by taking photos of improved tones and colors using better quality cameras and films. As mentioned before, the symbols named photography are not a matter between the object and the image but a matter of promises among human beings mutually recognizing the symbols. That is to say, what Lee attempted to overcome through photography was the cunningness of the promises. 
In photography, the most fundamental code in those promises is the frame.
Besides, a way to get out of the desire for possession is to remove the frame that declares 'from here to there is my territory.'
But since total elimination of the frame is physically impossible, the best alternative would be to reveal the fact that the frame is not a simple boundary but an significant element that shapes up a photograph. Perhaps it rather is disclosure of the frame than denial of it. 
  Because most of the photographs (same as movies, television and even literature) are deceitfully hiding a process so-called naturalization of symbols by Roland Barthes. 
The photographer is supposed eliminate not merely the frame itself but also the concept that the frame is indispensable. 
Jungjin Lee's success wholly depended on whether she could remove the frame. The frame is of course one of the promises but it is not an insignificant one.
For the human society maintains the strict system to keep and control the codes of the promises of language. 
If someone keeps talking nonsense, he or she will be confined in a lunatic asylum. An artist who does not observe the promises of art will never be selected in any art contest and will be forced to eventually leave the art arena. In spite of this risk she attempted all kinds of techniques such as printing on Korean paper, hanji, abbreviation of the boundary area, application of Chinese ink on the printed photo, attaching multiple frames continuously, etc., in which she tried to remove the frame, or at least, claim that the frame is not so critical in photography. 
Accordingly we no longer observe American deserts in Jungjin Lee's photography. Nor are we noticing any of her claims.
We just look at the evanescence of the symbolic promises called photography we believe in. I am not saying that this is the conclusion on Jungjin Lee's photography but that we should appreciate her works with these things taken into consideration at least.