Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a group of emerging image-makers, chosen from hundreds of nominations by international experts. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout September, BJP-online is sharing their profiles, originally published in issue #7898 of the magazine.
There is a sense of surrealness that permeates the dynamic portraits of Korean photographer, Gi Seok Cho. In every carefully constructed image, the colours, lighting and props transform the model into a fantastical character, oozing with narrative and spirit. Born in Seoul, where he is based, Cho’s beginnings in graphic design – a degree he began to study in Seoul but eventually dropped out – have inevitably translated into his ornate photographic style. “When I was young, I wanted to be an art director,” he explains. “In order to do that, I thought that I could become a better art director if I could do all the fields. So with graphic design, I liked making things by hand, so then I also began to explore set design. After that, I started to work as an art director, and then I started taking pictures naturally, because I wanted to create my own images, and I wanted to work through all these processes.”
Though each photograph is distinct, on closer inquiry there are a number of recurring motifs among Cho’s imaginative creativity. Butterflies and flowers, particularly orchids appear often. Orchids are not only among the most highly regarded blooms in Korean culture, but also represent harmony, longevity and the spirituality of Ying and Yang because of their many unusual qualities. Their arrangement is used sparingly, but notably, and a way for the photographer to express purity of beauty. “I think [flowers are] the easiest thing to find that anyone around us can think of as beautiful,” he says. “It’s like taking a portrait for me. By transforming and recombining them, I try to express my own thoughts through them.”
Cho muses that over time his practice has evolved to “pursue fundamental beauty”. Most recently, this development has led him to explore the nude. “For me, I think it is the closest thing to the most essential beauty”. In one personal project, With Dawon & Emyung, two nude bodies bind and fold into each other, interacting with four grey stones. There is an exchange between the living and the dead, united in the smoothness of surface and skin, creating a poetic scene stooped in Korean cultural folklore.
“I was thinking about beauty that can be engineered,” says Cho. “I wanted to work with two models in the nude and tried to move according to the time of the day. By chance, I saw the round stones near the studio and brought them in, because it seemed like they would go well with them.” For his personal work, it is important to Cho to work with Korean models because he is best able to communicate with them and read their emotions. This, as well as the emphasis of representing Korean culture within his work.
Born in 1992, the photographer has grown up with the Internet generation. In less than a decade, the virtual and digital pool of imagery has transformed the way we comprehend the physical world. Sitting alongside his traditional influences, technology and its advancement has become a fundamental source of inspiration, from which he extrapolates ideas for his sets and projects.
“I like the beauty that comes from the harmony of opposites,” he says. “I find old things in flea markets, where accidental things are very good inspiration to me. And on the Internet, I am inspired by various materials and images when the galleries and materials available in Korea are not so diverse.” In his series Humanoid, this juxtaposition, of the natural versus digital, is exploited with a series of otherworldly figures. “I thought about what factors would make up a person today,” he explains. “I thought about the surrounding nature and current technologies together, and tried to express these qualities through a human form.”
Nevertheless, Cho’s vibrant style, which naturally lends itself to creative and high-brown fashion editorial, has not gone unnoticed. His work has been commissioned by Vogue Korea, Elle Korea, Esquire Korea, Adidas, Solid Homme, Cartier and many other renowned fashion brands.
As well as benefiting him commercially, his knack for fashion is a playful challenge where Cho adds just enough of his own personality to compliment his client’s briefs. The Korean photographer also has his own luxury clothing and jewellery label, Kusikohc, for which he is currently preparing the fourth collection. The brand is something that he hopes to dedicate more time to in the future, as well as continuing his personal work that is searching for beauty – something he hopes to exhibit for the first time next year.