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James Shin: A Floating Reverie

A Parallel Planets piece by Erin Nøir - old account
It's been about three years since I went to South Korea and I can still remember how I thoroughly savoured almost every food that I devoured there. Apart from eating though, I really wasn't able to see “the soul of Seoul” the whole couple of months I was there: I went there for work and didn't have the chance and time to go around and take a lot of photographs.

That part totally blew, especially since I was more than lucky to share that life chapter with my boyfriend, who started photography earlier than I did. Although we do have some pictures of us at the coin laundry and at this local restaurant that sells unforgettable pyo haejang guk. The rest is just memories for us to keep.

About three years later, I found James Shin's gallery of South Korean seascape photographs and they look nothing like the Korea I saw and experienced, which drew me so much closer to such black & white goodness. At first scan, I sensed an instantaneous sweep of solitude over me. It was calming and, somehow, soothing to the soul.

James’ film photographs justify the phrase, “less is more,” because the more I look at them, the more I became curious to what kind of photographer he is: lonesome and solitary like his pictures or is it the other way around?

The bodies of water in the world that we live in are dark and deep and sometimes, when you let yourself loose against the currents, deadening. James' approach to seascape photography, austere and placid, transports me into a fluid trance: an open, passive space where I, even just through my laptop’s screen, can search and possibly find my own soul. They send me into a reverie of fleeting (or more appropriately, floating) memories: a blurry blurb of nothingness that turns into something strange yet very pacifying to look at.

What fascinated me even more is how most of his images look like composites. The dramatic reflections and repetitive ensembles add more to his works’ sophisticated simplicity and meditative mystery. There’s not a need for extravagant vignettes nor excessive dust and grains—James’ black & white film photographs are as good and authentic as the bare eyes can see.

In my very recent Q&A with James Shin below, you will learn about what he does to sustain his film photography needs, his reason for naming his black & white pictures as plain as they present themselves, his biggest inspiration, his alternating usage of old school & new age cameras, and his musings on the photographic community in Busan, where he “creates” most of his timeless photographs.


Hello, James! It’s great to have you here on Parallel Planets. Tell us about yourself as a photographer and before you became one.

Hello, Parallel Planets. It’s a great honor for me to have such a nice interview. I am a 42-year old Korean photographer. I work mostly with medium-format black & white films and Hasselblad analogue cameras, but I also use digital cameras for some commercial events. I also work for Samsung as a new product reviewer for their digital cameras. My main career is that I'm a high school teacher. I’ve taught for 17 years in various high schools in Busan, Korea.

How long have you been into photography? Compared to then and now, was there a significant change in your sense of style and/or in the message that you’d like to communicate through your pictures?

I started to photograph landscapes around 2006 when I bought a used Nikon D70 and an 18-70mm lens, hoping that I could take better pictures for my young son. A friend of mine from my workplace, who was using a Canon 300D, suggested that I join amateur photographers’ online community. This made me interested in splendid and colourful landscapes. Taking photos and sharing the results were quite fun.

In 2009, I came to know the great photographer, Michael Kenna, and his analogue black & white works, which became the turning point of my photographic work. I sold my Nikon D3 and other lenses and bought a used Hasselblad 503CX with 80mm lens set and developing equipment. Then, I started to take only black & white film pictures.

The titles of my black & white film photographs are quite simple, objective, and boring -- such as ‘a tree’ and ‘three sticks in water.’ To me, the photographic messages must arise from the heart of the beholder not from the photographer, who is just supposed to set the imaginative stages for viewers. (I mean this not for photojournalists but for artistic photographers.)

You shoot mainly in black & white film. What do you love most about monochromes? How do you relate your personality to the moods and tones of your photographs?

I do know that the recent digital cameras and edit-soft-wares are good enough to make awesome black & white images but there is still kind of difference regarding the emotional factors derived from the overall tones and grains when I use film. To relate my feeling to my pictures, I try to be exposed to some kind of emotional and sentimental elements, like good piano music, books, and other great artists’ works, all of which contribute to my works as great motivations.

Most of your works are seascapes. Why do you choose this as your usual subject? Is it a challenge to produce good pictures especially since nature photography is usually done in colour?

The reason I chose the south-western Korean seascapes, specially the tidal mudflats, is that they are very unique photographic materials and are very uncommon to the westerners. The people there set sticks and fishing nets onto the mudflat and gather fish when the tide is out. The sticks and nets that become exposed out of water when tide rises are great subjects to me since through the long shutter by ND filters, I can make the very minimalist images that I long for.

Colour images are ideal for nature photography, which used to be a challenge to me. Especially when I see the sky burn gorgeously with uncommon twilight, I feel somewhat  distressed, but once I start to use colour films again and insert them into my portfolio, the feeling of established black & white images fades, I think. But when I work with digital cameras given to me for reviews, I delightfully enjoy the splendid colours with no hesitation.

According to you one of your online profiles, you are based in Busan, South Korea. How is the photography subculture there? Have you tried shooting a series of photographs in other parts of the world? If not, where do you dream of shooting next?

Busan is the second biggest city of Korea and it's a quite busy and crowded city, which makes it hard for me to do my works in or around this place, from which the places where I usually take my pictures are quite far (around 3 or 4-hour drive).

Most of the professional and amateur photographers in Busan use digital cameras. The amateurs here are very interested with the situation that they pay great attention to their equipment. Many of them have been so obsessed by the so called 'full-frame (1:1)' cameras that they sometimes don't regard the 'crop-bodies' as genuine cameras, even though their results (mostly the sunset, sunrise, city night-scenes, etc.) never seem to have any relation to whether it's a full-framed or not.

When you happen to come across them at some photographic sites (they usually move around together in groups and the results are very hard to distinguish between themselves), you'll be very surprised to know that most of them are holding Canon 5D MK3 and Nikon D4 series. It's not only the subculture of Busan photographers but also of the entire Korea. But there are still good amateur digital photographers who have great senses here in Korea and I love appreciating their emotional and motivational works.

Ironically, the professionals who majored in Photography tend to have a very hard time making their living, especially since only a very small number of pure art photographers here can live with what they earn with their work. I have a main job as a teacher and that's why I can shoot.

How does analogue photography affect your lifestyle? Why do you prefer it more than digital?

I need to buy my own black & white films and developing chemicals, which means I need more budget and effort than the time when I just used digital cameras. This has made me very serious when shooting because one miss-shooting of six by six format film that I'll never put into my portfolio means the loss of 50 cents and some effort for developing.

Before each shoot, I imagine the result in my mind and if it seems to be perfect or good, I take about three different shots at the spot and choose one of them after developing the negatives. When I shoot for two-day schedule, I usually get two rolls of film (24 cuts) and if the situation is really great, I sometimes get three or four rolls.

The reason I prefer film more than digital is very simple. The results are much better than digital, specially with black & white's.  One reason why people who are even very interested in using film cameras are reluctant to start is that they can't watch what they've just shut immediately, but as a photographer (who loves long exposure shots), I would like to say that the film results are more reliable than digital ones. On sunny days, those who use digital have a problem with 's identifying the instant results due to their camera's LCD back screens. But with film, I can make use of exposure-meters and some easy calculations, including reciprocity failure, so I can be sure that I've just shot a great one.

Which iconic photographers do you look up to and how do their works influence and inspire yours?

Michael Kenna is my idol and role model. His perspective, framing, and minimalism themselves are great motivations and inspirations to me. The reason why I fell in love with the south-western Korean coasts was actually that they were also his favourite places when he came to Korea to shoot his ‘Shinan’ series.

To you, what makes a photograph worth framing and hanging on the living room wall?

To me, I would choose black & white photographs that are calm, simple, and emotional and that have marginal space for the viewers' imagination.

Aside from taking pictures, what other creative pursuits are you interested in?

I mostly leave for two days once or twice a month with one or two friends who have similar photographic interests. I'm not sure it's creative pursuit or not, but I enjoy drinking with local delicious dishes with them after first day's shooting schedule, which is quite fun and very helpful for shooting. Life must be fun~

If you were to pick 3 for each, what are your all-time favourite books, films (cinema), and songs?

I would like to name three authors rather than books. I love Murakami Haruki (Japanese), Jo Jungrae (Korean), and Frederick Forsyth (English) -- all of their books are just great. Three of my favourite films are quite easy to answer: Cinema Paradiso, Taxi Driver, and Once Upon a Time in America. I love various kinds of music that I can't select just three. When I drive or shoot, I mostly listen to the music from Korean and Japanese new-age pianists.

In this planet that we're thriving in—
What is your power animal? 

As a photographer, I've never related any animal to my works, rather I give a huge meaning to any kind of lone tree or any material under water surface, which seemingly means nothing, but if well-composed in the frame, they can do and affect a lot.

Who is your alternate ego? 

My alternate ego is a photographer who travels a lot for his works. Because I support my family's living with my teaching career, I shoot at most once or twice a month including both my own film works and digital camera reviewing works, if I could travel more often and more wider, well, I can get much nicer photographs? At this point, I can say that Michael Kenna is again also my alternate ego. (laughs)

In an alternate universe where photography does not exist—
What would you be doing instead? 

I would teach high school students just like now doing some other kind of artistic activity, like music, perhaps.


Perhaps it is my personal, albeit short-lived, encounter with Korea, my biased liking for monochromes, and our common fondness for Travis Bickle that made me feel somehow connected to James’ photographic works. But as I thoroughly read his answers to my questions, I become more enthused with the painstaking process he went through from advanced digital to basic analogue.

Basic is good. And good is beautiful. He may have gone back to the future but it certainly seems that he knows what he’s doing. I only wish that he would continue this for as long as he finds meaning to every photograph he shares with the world to keep his viewers stay afloat in sea-dreams.

View more of James Shin’s work on his website, Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram.

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