Review: The Photography of Seung Jae Kim Captures Dramatic Views of Forests

Black-and-white photography has often been viewed as a powerful way to depict landscapes and nature. Unlike color photography, monochrome images can better emphasize the interplay of light and shadow, texture, and contrast, thereby creating dramatic and thought-provoking scenes. 

The current exhibition—Misread Affinity—at the Evanston Art Center features the monochromatic photographs by Seung Jae Kim.  On display are photos of various forests in the Midwest that are infused with emotional resonance, adding depth and complexity to the subject matter. 

Viewers are easily drawn into many of the photos because of the vibrant details—the texture of bark on a tree, the rambling network of branches spreading across the sky, and the wild growth of bush and field grass. All the photos were taken in what seems to be the autumn season because the trees are devoid of leaves, which gives the viewer the opportunity to appreciate the bare essence of trees.

Seung Jae Kim_Bones Placed in Field
Seung Jae Kim, “Bones Placed in Field of Straws, Ice Age Trails, Kewaskum, WI,” 2017. Archival pigment print on cotton based paper. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Kim’s photos touch the viewer on a visceral level—evoking various emotions within us. The first emotion that comes to mind is fear because there is an ominous quality in some of his photos. Kim is a master at creating moods in how he captures light and shadow. The dark shadows in his photos create a sense of unease, a sense of foreboding. Perhaps this is because we have a primal fear (buried deep within our DNA) that a dark forest is a place where danger lurks. Or maybe it’s not that complicated—maybe our fear of dark forests is due to seeing too many horror films. A good example of this is the photo — Bones Placed in Field of Straws, Ice Age Trails, Kewaskum, WI — where we see a group of bones in a small opening of tall grass. Another good example is Light on Passage Just Before Dusk, Indiana Dunes, IN where this forest scene reminds us of a setting in a Gothic novel.

Seung Jae Kim_Morning Lights
Seung Jae Kim, Morning Lights on Trees, Wyalusing, WI, 2017. Archival pigment print on cotton-based paper. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Besides suggesting the emotion of fear, Kim’s photos also elicit feelings of calm and peace. In some of his works such as Morning Lights on Trees, Wyalusing, WI or Warren Woods, MI we may feel that we are getting a glimpse into some magical realm where sprites and fairies exist.

When looking at many of Kim’s photos, we are immediately drawn into the scenes. We can almost feel the dampness emanating from the cold ground and the brisk wind chilling our bones. And if we focus even a little longer, we can hear the loud caws of crows, squirrels scrambling up a tree, and the creak of branches bending with the wind.

Kim’s photographs also show how the process of metamorphosis is always at play—how nature is always in a state of transition through the change of seasons and the birth/death cycle of plants, insects, and animals. And this in turn, reminds us that we as humans are also part of the metamorphosis process—how change is a constant dynamic in our life.

Seung Jae Kim_Looking Up Lights
Seung Jae Kim, Looking Up Lights on Hills through Bare Trees, West Bend, WI, 2017. Archival pigment print on cotton-based paper. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Misread Affinity is an enthralling exhibition because Kim’s photos make us examine our own relationship with nature while reminding us to appreciate the beauty that exists in natural settings. Kim’s work also reawakens an emotion that we may not have felt since childhood—a sense of wonder about the world around us.

Seung Jae Kim was born in South Korea and received his BFA in Korea. He later went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received an MFA in fine art photography. His work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Toronto, Azerbaijan, China, and Korea. He was awarded fellowships and prizes from Nippon Steel, the Vermont Studio Center (full scholarship), Beverly Art Center, South Shore Art Center, Northern National Art Competition (Award of Excellence) and Ahl Foundation. He also received fully funded scholarship artist residencies in Nebraska (Kimmel Harding Nelson center), New York (Catwalk residency) and Vermont (Vermont Studio Center). Kim is a working artist in Glenview, Illinois.

This exhibition will be on display through December 17 at the Evanston Art Center located at 1717 Central Street in Evanston. Hours: Monday thru Thursday 9am to 6pm; Friday 9am to 5pm; Saturday and Sunday 9am to 4pm. Galleries are free and open to the public. To learn more about other exhibitions, programs, and art classes, visit their website or call 847.475.5300.

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Thomas Wawzenek
Thomas Wawzenek