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Art Beat

Feb. 26, 2004


Suk Choo Kim


W HEN I VISITED MY OLD FRIEND SUK CHOO KIM [ photo below, left, by Linda Mitchell] in Bayside the other day to talk about his upcoming photography exhibit, it occurred to me that he isn't photo of Suck Choo Kimexactly a starving artist. He lives in a big house in an exclusive gated community, just down the road from Baywood Golf and Country Club, where he and his wife, Young Mi, are members. He has a fine art collection, his kids go to good schools, and he's able to travel whenever he wants.

"I have a very, very successful business," he said, referring to CPR Aquatic, the Arcata-based aquarium hardware company he founded 12 years ago. "I have plenty of money and a beautiful home that's all paid for. I'm a good businessman, but if that's all you are, it doesn't mean anything. You need a balance. My art gives me that."Photo of entitled Monk at Spring Water by Suk Choo Kim

Suk Choo, 55, says most people know him only as a businessman and don't realize he's also an artist. Since he hasn't shown his work professionally in more than 20 years, I guess that's not surprising, but it seems like a shame. For a long time, Suk Choo's identity as a photographer was firmly established in the international art world, and with good reason. His work is remarkable, and it has steadily evolved over the 40 years he's been obsessed with the medium.

He took me to an upstairs hallway and gave me a preview of the new "piezograph" prints he'll be exhibiting in March, in the gallery adjoining Consider the Alternatives Bookstore in Eureka. "They're carbon-based dye prints," he explains. "They're permanent when you use the right kind of paper, meaning they can go 200 years without fading. You get a nice tonal range with the medium."

The prints are from perfectly composed, richly textured images Suk Choo took of Buddhist monks and monasteries in Korea and Carmel 20 to 30 years ago. His parents were devout Buddhists and frequently toured the great Korean temples, so this is familiar territory. He knew the people and places he photographed intimately.

[Photo at right: Monk At Spring Water by Suk Choo Kim]

"My father practiced Buddhism in the true sense, like it's supposed to be practiced. Even though he was a layman, he was more strict than most monks." Suk Choo laughs, remembering. "He could get really angry at the monks -- he looked at how strictly people practiced, that's what counted."

His father was a successful businessman in Korea. When he retired, he founded the Sambosa Buddhist Temple in Carmel, where the entire family was actively involved.

Being in Carmel lead to Suk Choo's involvement with Friends of Photography, the nonprofit, member-supported organization founded by Ansel Adams and other well-known photographers in Carmel in 1967. "Being there opened my eyes," he remembers. "They had a beautiful gallery and workshops with all these incredible artists." The names of the artists Suk Choo was rubbing elbows with at that time reads like a who's who of photography. "I was a groupie. I worked there just so I could meet the photographers. I knew Ansel Adams in person, all the Weston's, Jerry Uelsmann, Ralph Gibson when he was just a young guy. Minor White used to send me letters when I was in the Army."

By the early 1980s Suk Choo was well on his way to a promising career as a photographer. He did free-lance work for magazines, worked as a staff photographer during his stint in the U.S. Army, founded Young Sang (the first and largest photographic magazine in Korea), published a book, Screamers, and exhibited his work in more than 70 shows around the world, including a major exhibition at the Oakland Museum in 1982. And then suddenly it was over.

Suk Choo says he quit showing professionally after the Oakland show because of bad reviews. "When I was younger, I was foolish enough to want to be recognized as a photographer. Everybody surrounding me was telling me I was a great artist, but I was basically doing copies of other people's work -- there's nothing wrong with that, but it's immature. I didn't deserve a major show. I wasn't ready."

He says he decided to turn his attention to making money. "Something else I'm good at," he jokes. I ask how many businesses he's owned. "Lots," he says, ticking off a few of them. "There was Amica [gallery, art supply, photo supply, graphic printing, publishing, fashion accessories], Sundance Leather Company, Lintec Corporation in Carmel where we made 3-D cameras, Barnyard Photo Lab, Kim's Restaurant -- lots of things."

With all these accomplishments, it's easy to forget he's also an artist -- until you see his archives, that is. He showed me dozens of black photo boxes, packed to the brim with prints, stacked up in his studio and a storage room, labeled in silver ink: Family, Army, Monks, Mexico, Korea, Arcata, Dreams, Screamers...

His archives reflect the evolution of his imagery, as well as his printing techniques, which are now almost exclusively digital. "Here's what's happening," he says. "I have a beautiful darkroom, but when you're doing the printing you have to set up the chemicals and you don't want to waste them so you stay there three or four hours, developing, washing, drying -- I don't have that kind of time. I want to be able to do it when it's convenient."

He says he's been playing around with digital printing for several years and that his style is changing with the technology. "I shoot different types of images now, because the medium I'm working with is completely different than silver gelatin."

Is he ready to begin exhibiting again? "Absolutely," he says, adding, "I have enough work for about 50 shows. The Monks show is just a teaser." He says it's no longer about being recognized as a photographer, though.

"I just make pictures now. I don't worry about making history. I made a commitment to myself that, as long as I'm home, I'll make a print every day, minimum. If I haven't made a print, I don't go to bed. This medium lets me do that. I don't care whether they're good or bad. If my work means anything after I'm gone, that's great. If not, who cares? I'll be dead."

Monks runs March 6-30 at Consider the Alternatives Gallery, 300 Second St., Old Town, Eureka. An Arts Alive! opening is scheduled for March 6.

Linda Mitchell can be reached via



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