Kim Yong-kwan, Korea’s Most Famous Architecture Photographer
Just how do we enjoy architecture of cities without traveling there? It’s easy. You can Google up names of buildings you’d like to see, and the search will take you to the other side of the world. It’s all through photography. Kim Yong-kwan is a photographer who takes pictures of buildings. He has captured Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, the old National Museum of Korea, the new building for Seoul City Hall, and the Stone, Wind and Water by Jun Itami. Kim has documented many of Korea’s famous buildings, including ones in Seoul, which has been going through rapid changes, with the rapid rotation of construction and demolition, since Kim began taking architectural photos in the 1990s.
On an early summer day in 1990, Kim Yong-gwan, then in his early 20s, boarded the first train bound for Daejeon from Seoul Station. He was carrying with him a new camera, which he’d only learned how to operate the previous day. About six months had passed when he took a colleague upon his offer to learn photography. Known for his diligence, he was working in the editorial department of the architectural monthly “Architecture and Environment.” “I never even touched a camera before, and I thought this was a good opportunity,” Kim said. “For about six months, I was carrying the bag for my coworker. When he was taking photos, I stood by his side and observed what he was doing.” The next day, Kim, with butterflies in his stomach, showed his photos to that coworker, who said, “You must be genius. These are great shots.” Just like that, Kim’s first architectural photos were published in a 10-page spread in that month’s edition of “Architecture and Environment.” The following month, Kim’s photo made the cover. Another month later, the entire magazine was filled with his photos.
Kim knew exactly what he wanted to do now: to keep taking architectural photos. After working for “Architecture and Environment,” Kim was the exclusive photographer for the architectural monthly “Space” from 2004 to 2011. With his photo of Rodin Gallery (currently Woojeong Art Center), Kim became the first Korean recipient of a prize from the American Institute of Architects. In addition to his 30-year career in architectural photography, Kim is running the architectural publishing firm Archilife and puts out the architectural magazine “Documentum.” We sat down with Kim in his Archilife office, filled with designer chairs, lighting fixtures and vinyl records of many different genres. Kim calls his works commercial photography, but they evoke admiration reserved for high art. He spoke about his career, projects he’d like to work on, and the landscape of Seoul as created by buildings.
흐린 날 촬영한 서울시 신청사 © 김용관

New Seoul City Hall building, taken on a cloudy day © Kim Yong-kwan

비오는 날의 안양 알바로 시자홀 © 김용관

Alvaro Siza Hall in Anyang on a rainy day © Kim Yong-kwan

안개 낀 아름드리 미디어 © 김용관

Arumdri Media behind fogs © Kim Yong-kwan

Q. So you made the cover of “Architecture and Environment” on just your second attempt at photography, and you took over the whole magazine from there.
A. I was fortunate. When I heard compliments, I was so happy and I wanted to do even better. I went out to shoot many, many times. When others would go for one day, I’d go for two days. When they went for two days, then I was determined to go three. (laughs) It doesn’t sound all that exciting, but I just kept at it and stayed on this path without any distraction. As I gained experience, I became better and better, and my name started getting out a bit.

Q. Some compliments gave you a start. What fueled your passion for architectural photography afterward?
A. For freelance photographers, it is all about brand. Today, people throw out the terms branding and marketing. But back in the late 1990s, I was thinking in those terms, too. I felt that, if I were to succeed in this industry, I had to offer a certain value. That way, I’d be paid as much as I felt I deserved to be paid and I’d be able to work with good people. That would lead to opportunities to work on some great new projects. I thought I was supposed to have people point to my photos and say immediately, “This is Kim Yong-kwan” or “This is very Kim Yong-kwan-like.” I felt that’s where value came from.

Q. There are some very ‘Kim Yong-kwan’ photos, like Alvaro Siza Hall in Anyang on a rainy day, the new Seoul City Hall on a cloudy day, and Arumdri Media behind fogs. These photos have some hazy feels to them and capture the atmosphere of the surroundings of the buildings. How did you come to develop such identity?
A. At first, I learned photography by the book. I took pictures of buildings under a bright blue sky while following the direction of the sun. I even carried a compass with me. So photos that were published in architectural magazines all looked quite similar. When I was younger, I didn’t know any better and I just kept plugging along. When I became a freelancer, I wanted to have my own identity. When it comes to weather, I prefer a cloudy day. When you have that kind of backdrop on buildings, they looked so poetic. You know, buildings have expressions, too. So why should we only take pictures of them on a sunny afternoon? So I tried taking photos at different times of the day and I attempted a few different things. All the while, I wanted to highlight buildings’ architectural merits.
건축사진가 김용관

Architectural photographer Kim Yong-kwan

그가 좋아하는 의자와 조명, 음반, 책으로 가득한 아키라이프 사무실

Archilife’s office, filled with Kim’s favorite chairs, lighting fixtures, records and books

Q. I’ve seen you referred to as a photographer who seeks to offer thorough reinterpretation with architectural photography.
A. I don’t consider myself an artist. Many people use that term loosely. But I am not the type of photographer that holds exhibitions to tell stories. I am a commercial photographer. But I take pride in being a photographer who has his own identity.

Q. What’s been the response from architects and clients?
A. They pay me to have photos taken because they want to purchase unique sensibilities that I offer. I’d like to think that they enjoy working with me. And I am not exactly easy to work with. I am more expensive and I tend to be pretty particular. (laughs) I have never once compromised when people would ask me to take pictures in certain ways. Being confident in my abilities is one thing. But I just think it’s the right way to do it. I am being paid to do the work, and I am trying to do the best I can to earn my keep. I don’t go around taking random pictures. I take my time carefully and then I only put them out when I know I won’t feel embarrassed by them.

Q. How is architectural photography different from regular photography?
A. Here’s how I explain architectural photography when I have lectures. It entails transferring a three-dimensional building into a two-dimensional surface. An architectural photographer is a messenger, someone who helps the public see a building for the first time. Architectural photography has a clear purpose, and it has to feature a distinctive identity of its photographer. That’s why I go out to see buildings as often as I can. If I want people to appreciate buildings through photos, then I have to have firsthand experience of those places myself. And then I’ll have to rely on my expertise to capture those buildings. Architectural photography also documents the work of architects, a process that brings creative minds together.
건축 전문 잡지 <다큐멘텀>. 현재 6호까지 발행됐다.

Architectural magazine “Documentum.” Six editions have been published so far.

아키라이프에서 처음 출판한 책, 덴마크 건축 회사 BIG의 작품집.

A collection of works from the Danish architectural firm BIG, the first book published by Archilife

Q. How long does it typically take to shoot a building?
A. Barring any particular situation or scheduling conflicts with the owner, I spent at least three to four days on a building. Sometimes I come back without taking any pictures on a bad day. No one has told me to do that. I just want to have the right moment to present my photos. That’s how I’ve always done things, and that’s how I’ve become the photographer that I am today.

Q. Is there a sense of pride in documenting the works of architects?
A. I didn’t think I realize that when I was younger. This was just a way of making a living. Now that I’ve been doing this for a long time, I realize I am doing something rather important. Architectural photography is obviously important to me, and it’s also the chronicle of another creator. I’ve worked with some architects for more 20 years. That means I’ve been documented their lives all along. If you step back a little, you’ll see that architecture is part of the city and its culture. It could be the history of a person or the documentation of an era. As I get older, I am becoming even more careful with how I approach my craft.
이타미 준이 설계한 석 미술관 © 김용관

Stone Museum designed by Jun Itami © Kim Yong-kwan

이타미 준이 설계한 풍 미술관 © 김용관

Wind Museum designed by Jun Itami © Kim Yong-kwan

이타미 준이 설계한 수 미술관 © 김용관

Water Museum designed by Jun Itami © Kim Yong-kwan

Q. There are many photos that define your style, but I, like a lot of others, am really impressed with the photo of Jun Itami’s Stone, Wind and Water Museum. You’ve once said the photo of the museum with silver grass blowing in the wind is one of the top five photos of your career. And I heard you got on a flight to Jeju after watching weather forecast just so you could take the picture of the Stone Museum covered in snow. It’s a fascinating story.
A. Actually, I shot the Stone, Wind and Water Museum in the summer. Then one day, I figured the Stone Museum in snow would cut a powerful figure. I just had that vague idea on my mind when I visited the place. And the Water Museum didn’t used to have all that silver grass. I was in Jeju for some other business, and when I was passing through that area, I saw that grass had grown tall because no one had thought to cut it. I just grumbled a bit and turned around to see it again, and it was just a gorgeous sight of silver grass blowing in the wind. And then the building came into the view. If you see the photo of the Water Museum, the building itself takes up maybe 10 percent of the frame. And it’s against the light. I tried to cover the sun and capture the scene exactly as I saw it. I had no idea the photo would come out like that.

Q. How did you end up working with Itami?
A. When I was working for “Space,” we did a feature on Itami. There were some issues. For instance, he wanted his photos to be taken by his own photographer. So he wanted to send us the photos. Itami hadn’t worked with any Korean photographer, and he had a long-time Japanese partner. But I have my own identity, and “Space” was a magazine where it really mattered. Our writer convinced him. Itami later said he wanted to meet me before I took his photos, but I turned him down. I wanted him to experience my photography without any outside influence. In the past, I never met with architects before taking pictures of their buildings, because I didn’t want to be influenced in any way.

Q. How did Itami like the photos when they came out?
A. He said he was shocked that Korea had such a great photographer and that I had taken certain angles even though he hadn’t offered any explanation beforehand. There were some pretty impressive photos in that edition, and I had taken extra effort to really highlight the architect’s distinct features. From then on, he would always come to me for projects in Korea. That’s how I ended up shooting the Stone, Wind and Water Museum.

Q. Do you have your personal favorite photographs?
A. I’ve enjoyed working with Itami. More recently, because I am a commercial photographer, I particularly enjoyed shooting Southcape in Namhae and cosmos in Ulleungdo.
1995년에 지어진 밀알학교 © 김용관

Miral School built by 1995 © Kim Yong-kwan

공간사옥. 1970년대 지어진 구사옥부터 1990년대 지어진 신사옥, 2002년에 지어진 한옥까지, 이 사진 한 장에 모두 담겼다. © 김용관

Office for Gonggan. This photo sums up its history, from the original building from the 1970s to the new building from the 1990s to the hanok-style building that went up in 2002. © Kim Yong-kwan

Q. You’ve been doing this since the 1990s. What are your thoughts on how Korean architecture has evolved over that time?
A. I have seen it evolve but I don’t think I am able to define it, for I am not an academic. But I can talk about what makes ‘good architecture.’ I believe a good building is a place that allows many people to have positive experience. As people experience new things, they recognize the importance of architecture. That’s why public architecture is important, and it lays foundation for civil architecture to grow. Depending on programs, you can still have memorable experiences through civil architecture. If a building has just the perfect design and has the perfect surroundings, it may be called great. But if it’s not open to the wider public, it’s not a ‘good’ building.

Q. What are some ‘good’ Korean buildings that you’d recommend to travelers?
A. I get asked that question quite a bit. And my answers haven’t changed much. Among open buildings, I list Leeum, the Seoul hall of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Changdeokgung, Jongmyo, and, though it’s not necessarily a building, Seonyudo Park. The park used to be a filtration plant. There was some work done, but it seems as though the architect didn’t want to reveal too much of himself. It’s got some wildness to it, and that’s what makes it natural and comfortable.
리움 미술관 © 김용관

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art © Kim Yong-kwan

김용관이 전 사무실 건물에서 촬영한 눈 내린 창덕궁 © 김용관

Changdeokgung covered in snow, taken by Kim Yong-kwan from his old office building © Kim Yong-kwan

Q. You have taken photos of Leeum and they are in the museum’s collection.
A. It’s a polarizing building, but I think it’s still one of the best in the country. It was done by some renowned architects (the three buildings were designed by Mario Botta of Switzerland, Jean Nouvel of France, and Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands), and the museum has outstanding contents inside. All you have to do is to pay your admission, and you can experience all that. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is one of the greatest pieces of Korean architecture in recent years. In terms of location and symbolism, it’s second to none. Considering the density of Seoul, it’d be difficult to top this project inside the four main gates of Seoul over the next several decades. This is one of the country’s best museums, located in a neighborhood that defines Korean culture, and it offers spectacular art collections inside. You can still get a close look at the inside of the building without paying admission and you can spend some time in the front yard.

Q. Of many different palaces, why would you recommend Changdeokgung over others?
A. It’s a personal favorite of mine. My old office was in a building across from Changdeokgung. Whenever I could find a few minutes, I always went there for a walk. It has the beautiful garden called Huwon, and the whole palace is just so pretty. Jongmyo has Jeongjeon, and that alone makes a visit to Jongmyo worthwhile.
인왕산에서 내려다본 서울 © 김용관

Seoul viewed from Mt. Inwang © Kim Yong-kwan

Q. You once posted photos of buildings in Seoul and wrote they were the “expressions of the city.” I also tend to think that buildings create expressions for their cities. How does Seoul look these days?
A. Seoul is constantly dynamic. (laughs) When I first took interest in architectural photography and cities, Seoul was already a fast-evolving city. And that was quite fascinating. When I have time, I climb up Mt. Inwang and looked down on Seoul below. My job as an architectural photographer is to find good buildings and places in cities. In some ways, Seoul seems to be a disorderly and frail city where apartment buildings ruin the landscape. But if you go up a little higher, buildings seem to blend in nicely with their surroundings. Then I can maybe go a little easier on Seoul and take a bit of a liking to it. I think to myself that maybe I’ve been too hard on Seoul and this city is actually not too bad. It’s a pretty dynamic place.

Q. You’ve been taking architectural photos and making architectural magazines for 30 years. What are some things that you’d like to try your hands on?
A. Since I am a commercial photographer, I work when I am asked to work. For a few years now, I’ve wanted to do the kind of work that I would do of my own volition. I tell people that I am doing some visual training now. I’ve rarely gone out to look for objects or scenes on my own. I think it’s quite different to approach photography like that. I think I need to have more experience in that regard. I don’t know if I can do that well, but I’ve been a photographer for quite some time. I don’t think I’ll be that bad. (laughs)
그가 시각적 훈련을 하며 만난 장소 중 가장 좋았던 곳으로 꼽은 가파도. 원하는 시간대를 맞추려고 가파도에서 하룻밤을 보냈다. “사람은 아무도 없는 곳에서 청보리가 휘날리는데, 정말 감동이었어요.” © 김용관

Of all the places he’s visited for his visual training, Gapa Island is Kim’s favorite. He spent an entire night there to get the right timing. “Blue barley danced in the wind with no other soul around. I was so moved.” © Kim Yong-kwan

August 2020 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Photographer:Ahn Garam

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  • August 2020
  • Editor: Kim Hyewon
  • Photographer: Ahn Garam
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