By choosing “Impermanence” as the title for his ongoing series, South Korean photographer Seung-Hwan Oh cemented its impact on anyone who views this brave and haunting body of work. Once you understand the rationale behind this series, you’ll understand what makes “Impermanence” one of the most compelling statements you’ll ever see in the world of film photography.
Taking film soup experiments several notches up, Seung-Hwan, who also goes by the name Tonio Oh, makes use of microbial growth to create a surreal effect on his film photos “as a means to explore the impermanence of matter as well as the material limitations of photography.” While this daring and often unpredictable process takes a lot of work and produces a low yield ratio, we film photographers can’t help but see why he’s up to the challenge: it’s about conveying an array of emotions, more than the portraits or even the process itself.
“The initial focus was on the persistence of decay. However, after taking thousands of portraits, what became more important was to evoke an existential pathos in the viewer,” he explained.
In yet another insightful interview here on Whattaroll, Seung-Hwan gives us the pleasure of learning more about the goals, processes, and ideas that fuel his acclaimed and widely published body of work.
How did you get into photography? What kick-started photography for you and what elements are you drawn to?
It was somewhat by chance that I ended up doing photography. I studied film in school and initially found photography to be an interesting tool in understanding frame composition and Mise en Scène in cinematography. However, the difficulty of finding a good team to work with as a film director made being able to do photography with just a camera and lens very attractive to me.
What gave you the idea to make this series? What was the original goal for you? Did this change and evolve along the way?
I wanted to realize entropy theory, the second law of thermodynamics, as a conceptual idea, not just a fact. The initial focus was on the persistence of decay. However, after taking thousands of portraits, what became more important was to evoke an existential pathos in the viewer.
Your photo series is very unique, in looks and technique; could you share a little about the process of how you make an image?
I use medium format color reversal film. I take portraits of people and develop the films. Then, I cultivate microbes on the emulsion side of the developed film. The key is to provide an ideal setting for microbe to propagate.
Your work utilizes bacteria and soaking films in it for long periods of time, sometimes years. How do you prepare such work, and mental patience? What drives you to use such a technique which many would dismiss as “laborious?”
Once the developed film is put in the homemade incubator with microbes, it is out of my control. So, it isn’t difficult to just wait and check them every two weeks. The most difficult and frustrating part was to find out the extremely low possibility of a satisfactory image of 0.2%, and wasting so much slide film. However, the patience comes from the fact that the process is imbued in the image and that it might deliver the idea of impermanence of matter.
It took a lot of time for your work to come into fruition. How did you initially promote it, and how did galleries come into the mix?
I intentionally had a solo exhibition entitled “Impermanence” with 8 images in an empty commercial space in Seoul, September 2013. Afterwards, I started to participate in international art fairs, photo festivals, and competitions until early 2014. In addition, I used social network sites and fine arts platforms online to expose my work in the long run. As a result, I began to receive feedback and interest in my work from all directions, including galleries.
Which contemporary photographers are you drawn to? Whose work excites you?
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Dioramas’ series and Atta Kim’s ‘Long Exposure’ series… and so on.
What motivates you besides photography? Which external sources of inspiration do you have a keen interest in?
My main motivation is the fact that I have only one lifetime as me, and it inspires me to preserve interest in any possible ideas that may reduce the violence in mankind’s nature.
In the “digital age”, why do you still choose to use film? Why do you think it’s important? Do you believe there is still room for film photography?
I didn’t choose to use film but I needed it strictly for the project. I think it’s important for more possibility to have both rather than just one. But, I’m afraid that it won’t happen like we all wish in the future.
If you had to describe your work and style in as few words as possible, how would you describe it?
I’m afraid that I can’t name it. “Once you name it, it doesn’t mean it any more,” Lao Tzu once said.
What would you say has been the most memorable thing you’ve heard about your work so far?
“This creates an aesthetic of entangled creation and destruction that inevitably is ephemeral, and results in a complete obliteration into intangible atoms that dissipate into something else.” – Be Han
What do you love most about what you do as an artist?
There are many things about what I do as an artist but it’s hard to describe it or put it into words.
Can you share any details on any upcoming projects with us and our readers? Anything on the horizon for you?
I’m doing nude photos project with the same method. It will take two or three years to see some results from now on. Or maybe I won’t have any.
To view more of Seung-Hwan Oh’s work, please head to the links below: