There is a sphere of photography based mainly on the exploration of fundamental elements of the photographic process, such as time and light. They are indispensable in the production of photographic image and present in each and every photograph. Some artists concentrate on them and use them as basic means of shaping form and content. The use of light in this respect is obvious and frequent. Not so obvious and not so frequent is the use of elongated exposition time as the means of shaping both form and content. One of the artists who employs this method is Kyungwoo Chun, whose technique is based on long exposition time, as well as its formal, informative and creative consequences.
His unconventional approach to exposition time as to one of the technical parameters of photographic registration is not, however, a self-contained experiment. Long exposition of the negative - lasting in his case from a couple of minutes to half an hour and longer - is the core of Chun's method of photographying mysterious, intriguing portraits.
Taking advantage of extremely long exposition time opens new possibilities for the photographer and puts the portraitee in a new position. This method allows the photographer to arrive at a representation of unique formal qualities that serve to express content which makes us reflect on the relations between individual existence and universal time, and on what links a person with his/her photographic image. But in Chun's photographs the situation of the model also changes - because a person's subjectivity comes afore much stronger than during a quick click of a shutter when the model remains but a passive object of representation. Here not only the photographer, but also the portraited model is forced to concentrate hard during the recording of the image which lasts incomparably longer than in ordinary photography. The simple demand that the model does not move during the process results in his intensive experiencing of the slow passage of time and makes him almost contemplate it. This is true of both the portraiter and the portraitee. Their focused participation in the long, photographic process creates an intimate link between them as they are both disinterested in problems of everyday life and submerged in time - for the time being.
The personal relation between the model and photographer becomes almost physical in some of Chun's photographs. Working on one of the series of his portraits he mounted a camera on his body. Thus the camera linked directly with the artist's body became, in a way, the photographer's external organ that registered not only what he wanted to contain in the picture, but also how his body directly influenced the final shape of the image. Slight movements of the body which cannot be helped during such long exposition time influenced the ultimate content of the image as did the similar movements of the portraited people.
Long exposition time not only influences the intensification and sublimation of relations between the photographer and his model. It also directly influences the form and content of the images. Two apparently contrasting features may be found in them: extraordinary vividness of what they represent - and the obscurity and ambiguity of representation itself. Certain details in those photographs are clear and legible, others dark and nearly illegible, while the presence of still others we may only guess at because they are lost in a shapeless abyss. Chun's portraits resemble mirror or dream images in which a face surfaces from the obscure deep, like a background or surroundings without detail. From the point of view of perspective such photographs are flat. Long exposition has deprived them of all details darker than the model's face. And deprivation of all concrete, identifiable spatial localization deprives those images/spectres of all relations with the world's materiality although their existence is rooted in material photography, in a process in which physics and chemistry influence the final effect. Looking at these photos, devoid of all perceptible spatial relations, we nevertheless get the impression that the figures emerge from an undefined, velvet deep or - sink into it. Motionless images make a paradoxical impression of movement, emergence from the depths which seems to belong not to the three dimensions of space but to the one linear dimension of time. But Chun's photographs also register another specific kind of movement, as the portraited person moves in time between the opening and closing of the camera's shutter. The form of these pictures, which serves to present the model in some obscure localization in space, allows us to experience the aspect of time more fully. They suggest the image of something that actually cannot be represented by means of an image, namely: amorphous time. Time is invisible. And the experience of time and space is not sensuous. Our senses cannot put us in direct contact with time and space, all they can do is make us feel the indirect consequences of their existence. The common experience of time and our orientation in it is based on the belief that what clocks and calendars show us is
a concrete point in time in which we have just found ourselves. However, we are not certain if we can accurately define this point nor if it is the one and only one. Knowing the infinite nature of time we do not really know where we are in it because we cannot assess its length from the beginning nor the end of infinity. However, we can claim with all certainty that we are moving along the line of time within the limits marked by the beginning and end of our individual existence. Each photograph confirms this situation on a fractional scale, defined by time which passes between the opening and closing of the shutter. In this extremely short moment which usually lasts a fraction of a second, photography confirms that we exist. Stretching this time, as Chun does, from a few to a few dozen minutes, the artist offer us a greater chance of preserving our existence in a photograph. The hope of taking advantage of this opportunity underlies both the photographer's and the model's behaviour.
Chun's works are effective because they are based upon one of the most mysterious and most obvious features of portrait photography, namely the manifestation or proof of human presence. More often than not we would think here of the presence of the characters in the photographs. However, seldom do we realize that those images are also the proof of the presence of the author of the picture, i.e., the photographer. Due to long exposition time Chun's photographs intensify the presence of the photographer and the model in given time and place, registered by the camera, in the here-and-now, concrete and unique in each photograph. This fact often escapes us, the viewers of photography, especially when we have to do with photographs taken with artistic intent. But this fact is at the same time obvious and significant in reportage and commemorative photography. The latter, next to the commemorative content of the image, important for the author of a photograph (of people or places), also contains the proof of his presence in the concrete there-and-then - into which the photographic act transformed the individual and unique here-and-now of the moment of registration. Exhibiting such a photograph in another time and place allows the photographer to claim undisputably that he was once in a concrete there-and-then, not in an obscure somewhere-and-sometime.
Vivid human presence in Chun's portraits is a direct result of his synthetic method of long exposition. The method is synthetic in two senses: on the one hand it allows to show within one image the sum of momentary and elusive changes in the features of the model's face, as they add up during long exposition; while, on the other hand, the exposition which lasts from a few minutes to more than an hour becomes an original synthesis of time, its condensation in a single image. In both those cases the portraits represent something that escapes direct perception.
Chun's search for synthesis is directed against the snap-shot nature of photography that shows the object in a fraction of a second and therefore concentrates on its analysis - as synthesis is usually based on the reduction of means. However, in Chun's case we have to do with something apparently different - with the intensification of the means, which in this instance is time. Time in Chun's works gains a significant formal meaning because, while serving synthesis, it also creates formal effects that are important for the expression of all existential aspects of the contents.
Kyungwoo Chun's portraits, full of peace and harmony, are not only an intriguing kind of representation (of individuals), but they also contain a universal message. They refer to the phenomenon of simultaneous experience of passing and being, very important for our existential insight; they show what passed forever and what so suggestively lasts in the photograph.