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Building Blocks

By Jacqui Palumbo


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© KANG KIM
Galician Octopus dish from New York Magazine editorial on Spanish cuisine.


New York City-based photographer Kang Kim says he was first interested in photography because of its simple and fundamental nature. “You see something and take pictures,” he explains. “Of course, later on, I realized that it’s not simple to make pictures through which I can create something valuable and make a living.” Still, he is able to create his images through simplifying, often breaking down the elements of his food and still life subjects and reorganizing them to make compositions that are fresh and unexpected. He frequently contributes toNew York Magazine and is sought after by top publications like Bon Appetit, Prevention, Food Network Magazine, Time, InStyle and Martha Stewart Living.

Kim relocated from South Korea in 1993, attending Rochester Institute of Technology for his BFA and School of Visual Arts in New York City for his MFA. He chose to focus on food and still life early on, finding himself much more fascinated by objects than faces, but his work is autobiographical in a way. His works are a complete reflection of how he views the objects he photographs. “Still life photography is about how a photographer feels and thinks about the subject, the composition and the lighting,” he explains. “This kind of egoism is not necessarily a bad thing. Since people are so similar to one another, my feeling and story easily becomes another person’s feeling and story through the help of a little imagination.”

Kim’s images are distinctively his own, but he doesn’t strive for an aesthetic. He draws his inspiration from the subject itself, and he explains it in a cut and dry way. “Here is a picture of egg for an article about egg whites,” he says on an image for Prevention, but it’s the decisions he makes that change the egg whites in simple ways from something visually uninteresting to something dynamic and transformative.

He achieves this by taking the individual elements and enhancing them, emphasizing the texture or creating a certain quality of light, embodying sculptural elements in two-dimensional form. He spends time with his objects, looking at them in an effort to understand the details and the essence of what he is shooting. There is often tension in his work, a sense of transience between one moment and the next.

For a recent shoot for Domino, Kim was commissioned to shoot a series of tablescapes. Working with a large team consisting of a market editor, a stylist, an art director and set builders, Kim’s role was to work with the team to create the most dynamic composition while showing off the individual items. His goal was to give “gravity” to each object and opted to set up a more directional and focused lighting rather than broad and soft lighting. Each form is sharp, colorful and deliberate.

Whether working alone or on a large team, Kim’s compositions flourish. Sometimes before shoots, to clear his mind, he looks to Irving Penn still lifes, such as Frozen Foods, 1977, where various foods have been frozen and reshaped into blocks. Like the structures of Penn’s still lifes, Kim also leans towards using his subjects like building blocks. “For food, I have a tendency to break or destroy it as long as it makes sense for the assignment,” he says. “We eat the food. We break, destroy and digest the food.” Kim deconstructs and rearranges rapidly for all possible combinations until the design interests him, a process which becomes faster as he gains more experience. Ultimately, he makes his compositional decisions based on instinct. “There seems to be some mysterious aspects regarding how our mind reacts differently to different compositions,” he explains. “It’s about how you feel in front of the composition.”

For a feature on Spanish dishes in New York Magazine, Kim was assigned to work with chef Alexandra Raij of Tia Pol and El Quinto Pino on the chef’s signature dish, Galician Octopus. They first arranged it as it was served in restaurants but it wasn’t as appealing as Kim would have liked. They traded in chopped pieces for larger and larger portions of octopus and potatoes, then poured olive oil and paprika on the dish, giving Kim a limited amount of time to shoot a few 4” x 5” chromes before losing the composition to the expanding oil. Kim works organically, trusting his instincts and allowing his objects to exist in a constant state of flux.

Food photography can tend to lean on the optimistic side: warm, inviting and comforting. But Kim prefers to let the physicality of the ingredients speak for themselves instead of setting ambience. “Sometimes, we don’t need to hide the fact that, to the octopus, it’s not a happy moment. It’s kind of a reminder that our living should not be so dull when even a small food dish can show this kind of urgency and vividness.”

Kang Kim is represented by Glasshouse Assignment. For more of his work, visit his Web site.

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