Bottineau, N.D. 1999
Early in his U.S./North Dakota/North Dakota State University experience Leo Kim and some friends drove down to a Mom and Pop restaurant for lunch on what is now University Drive in Fargo. One of the establishment's specialties was "homemade soup." Curious, Kim ordered a bowl. When the server arrived with his bowl of soup, Kim observed with an air of mild incredulity, "and you brought it all the way from home!"
That may have been just a sample of his somewhat wry sense of humor, though he denies that today. But with regard to Leo Kim, it has a bit of added significance.
To a person who had batted around the world like a ping-pong ball for the first 20-odd years of his life, learning several wildly different languages along the way, something described as being "homemade" but served in a restaurant, may have sounded a little strange. On the other hand, Leo Kim sees quite a few things a little differently from those of us who grew up in this largely plain-white-vanilla part of the world. And it's a trait that has stood him in good stead in his work as a photographer.
People have been taking pictures of North Dakota before and ever since it became a state. Most of them tend to fall into two categories: 1. Somewhat romanticized, if not quite totally honest shots of people happily sailboating on Lake Sakakawea, or rugged-looking Marlboro men on horseback; or 2. They're largely documentary photos that capture what the state looked like back in the days of the dust bowl, a bit more honest perhaps, but not very flattering.
Leo Kim's North Dakota landscapes seek and find a happy mid-ground between those two extremes. They're pictures of North Dakota as it really looks, but which also skillfully capture its beauty. They are the product of a trained artist's eye for shape, form, texture and light, rendered with a great sensitivity to North Dakota as a place, and at a high level of photographic craftsmanship.
Thirty-five large matted, framed photographs make up a traveling exhibit that opened last winter at a gallery in Bloomington, Minn. Those photographs have since been making the rounds of numerous art museums and galleries in the upper Midwest. At every stop so far they have managed to strike a responsive chord among members of the public and critics of the photographic art as well.
Early last spring Kim was invited back to the campus as one of seven alumni masters, each representing one of NDSU's academic colleges. During a lecture to a class of art and photography students, he explained, "I try to look at things as though I've never seen them before. I try to see them for the first time. I strive not to be influenced by other people's preconceptions of how things ought to look." The approach is plainly evident in both the work Kim does for his commercial clients and his acclaimed set of North Dakota landscapes.
NDSU Orchesis, 1971
Some years ago a prominent American editor speaking at a convention of budding journalists, advised them: "All of life's experiences, good or bad, are all part of your education as a journalist." In Leo Kim's case that message comes through in his work as a photographer.
Born to Korean parents in what was then Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China, roughly 55 years ago, Kim's life got off to an unpromising beginning. His businessman father died just a month before he was born, leaving his mother with four young children in a country where Koreans weren't welcome. Bade by the Chinese communist government to "get the hell out of China," with the help of missionaries the family made its way to the Portuguese colony of Macao.
Of course the Kims spoke Korean at home, but by the time he reached the sixth grade Leo had gone to schools taught in French (first grade), Chinese (second and third) and Portuguese (fourth and fifth). He was first introduced to English when the family fled to Hong Kong, when Leo was in the sixth grade. And that was just the beginning of his world wanderings.
With help from the International Red Cross and their church, the Kims were able to cross to Hong Kong, but the then-British colony wouldn't let them stay longer than 72 hours per visit. For a while, the family shuttled between Macao and Hong Kong, keeping one jump ahead of authorities.
A second major tragedy occurred in Leo Kim's life in 1966, when a British Airways commercial airliner crashed on Mt. Fuji in Japan, as the pilot banked the plane to give passengers a better look at the mountain. Leo's mother was aboard. He was in the Hong Kong terminal waiting to greet her when word of the crash was announced. He was now a bona fide orphan.
Luckily, as it now turns out, he had an older sister studying in Vienna, Austria, and was able to join her there, having finished high school in Hong Kong. He enrolled in art history at the University of Vienna (where the classes, of course, were taught in German).
Although money was now beginning to run a bit thin, it was at that point, two years after coming to Austria, that Leo made the decision to move to the United States. That was 1969. He was 22 at the time. In a U.S. Information Service Library in Vienna, Leo studied possible places to land. Two things intrigued him about North Dakota: It appeared to have the lowest tuition and living expenses among bona fide universities, and it had a total population of 540,000 people on 74,000 square miles of land (compared with Macao, with 58,000 people per square mile). "Wow!" he recalls, "It looked so peaceful and less stressful," clearly a place where a fellow would be free to swing his arms and not hit somebody else in the nose. Leo Kim never lost that first impression of North Dakota.
Informed he was too late to enroll in architecture classes at NDSU that fall, he was advised to go down to the State School of Science at Wahpeton, which he did for a year after discovering it had no taxicabs at the railroad station.
Then to NDSU, initially taking pictures for The Spectrum at $4 per accepted print (pretty thin gruel for a guy trying to work his way through college), but things improved after that. With classmate Duane Lillehaug as co-editor of the '71-'72 Bison Annual, his part-time wages went up to a princely $240 a month. From there it was part time during the school year and full time during the summer of 1972 at The Forum, then to editor of The Standing Rock Star on the Ft. Yates Reservation, a position he held until he wrote an editorial about a possible waste of government funds, which netted him a firmly stated invitation to "be off the reservation by sundown," just like the old Hollywood cowboy movies.
Since his departure from NDSU, Kim has supported himself contracting as a professional photographer. For a time he worked as a designer/photographer for then Lutheran Hospitals and Homes in Fargo, helping to produce several award-winning annual reports. He moved to Minneapolis in 1985 and has been there ever since, living the kind of feast or famine existence it requires to become established in a major metropolitan market.
Although, on balance, he has done well in the world of commerce - for awhile he was driving a leased BMW and living in a condo behind Orchestra Hall - he confesses it's been a roller coaster ride. Lots of competition and to keep a diverse assortment of clients happy and coming back; taking assignments that, given a choice, he would just as soon decline, all the while managing to keep bread on the table.
That's the reason that one summer day he loaded his camera gear into a battered Ford Fiesta and drove back out to North Dakota just to look around and catch his breath.
Lake Sakakawea, N.D. 1999
There's probably no secret to what makes his North Dakota show unique and brings uniformly good critical reviews. For the most part it's just very skillfully executed photography. But there is a philosophy behind it that comes through in the photographs. "It doesn't really work to plan a photograph, then go out and take it. Somehow that just never seems to works. What I do is go to a place I think might be interesting, then try to have the patience to let the photograph come to me. Sometimes it takes a couple of days of waiting." But when that split second (photographer Henri Cartier Bresson once termed it "the decisive moment") occurs, it draws on all of the experience that constitutes Leo Kim's education, growing up in other parts of the world, learning different languages, studying art history and architecture, commercial photography and photojournalism.
There are no people in this particular set of photographs. That was deliberate. Many of the subjects, roads, cultivated fields and country elevators, constitute evidence that the people of North Dakota have been there, but these are photographs of the place, not the people. Albert Einstein once wrote about the impossibility of imposing one's will upon the chaos in life, but added ". . . if you are patient, there may come that moment, perhaps while eating an apple, when the solution will present itself and announce 'Here I am!'"
Leo Kim doesn't take a sack of apples along on his trips across North Dakota, but he keeps his camera gear ready so, when a picture announces politely, "Here I am!" he's ready.
To contact Leo Kim, go to www.leokim.com