Kim Young Gap gallery, Jeju, South Korea
Many visitors and residents of Jeju become enthralled by the natural beauty of this place and so try to capture the island’s essence through the medium of still photography. But most fail to do so, as they are limited by lack of skill and also patience to wait for the “golden light.” However, some succeed in capturing stunning displays of nature where you can almost hear the wind blowing through the tall pampas grass. Such a photographer would be Kim Young Gap.
The history of Kim Young Gap
Kim Young Gap photographed Jeju for over twenty years, starting in 1982 until his death in 2005. He had no training in photography but fell in love with the rural areas of Jeju and dedicated his adult life to capturing that beauty, even to the detriment of his health. In the words of Kim Ok San, another photographer on this island, “He was kind of crazy. He didn’t eat properly. He didn’t heat his room. Whenever he had money, he bought film and [paid the] cost of developing. He settled down in the middle of Halla Mountain and only took pictures. From time to time he came down to the city to get film and get some of his developed film. He had [a] hard life.” Apparently Kim would wait hours or even days outside for the right light to shoot a particular scene. A photograph of Kim illustrates this overwhelming dedication. The cuffs of his clothing are frayed and stained with mud from being out in the elements.
In 2000, at the age of 43, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS, a fatal neuromuscular illness where one slowly loses all control of one’s muscles. Kim was given three years to live and as he was becoming too weak to go out and take pictures, he started building a gallery to house some of his stunning panoramic prints. With the help of some of his photography lovers, he succeeded in finishing it before he died. Kim passed away on May 29, 2005, in a hospital in Jeju, at the same time an exhibition of his works titled “I Was There at That Island” was being held in Seoul. Over the course of his life he took almost 200,000 pictures. Kim did not use any kind of filters, dodge or burn techniques on his prints. The sky, sea, oreums and grass are as he saw them.
Step into the gallery today and one is instantly captivated by his work room, left eerily intact as it was when he died. In the next room the sheer size of his prints (120 cm x 40 cm and bigger) overwhelms the viewer. The volcanic rock piled around the edges of the gallery add to the raw, natural feel of the place. Take the time to stroll around the gardens attached to the gallery and check out the whimsical clay statues hidden in corners of the garden and gallery.
The gallery is located on the east side of the island, south of Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchubong), outside of the town of Sinsan. From Jeju-Si, take the eastward bound 1132 bus and disembark after Sinsan. The gallery is about a 30 min walk up a side road. For more information, try to find his book of photography in your local library.