DPP: Where does your approach to dramatic portraiture of musicians and actors come from?
MJ Kim: There’s an expression in Italian, “chiaroscuro,” which means the use of strong contrasts between light and dark. I start in the darkness and build the light bit by bit. I often use beauty dishes with grids. An early inspiration for lighting for me wasn’t a photographer, but the 16th-century painter Caravaggio. It’s similar to Rembrandt lighting, but more dramatic. I like a bit of dark, moody lighting.
DPP: For your monochromatic images, are you shooting black-and-white film or shooting digital and removing the color?
Kim: They’re shot originally in color with digital because the celebrities and their management want the ability to give instant approval at the shoot. I convert them into black-and-white later.
DPP: How are you able to get these big stars in the mood you want to convey with your camera?
Kim: Celebrities tend to be very busy so photographers don’t usually have much time with them. The most important time is the first couple of minutes when you meet them. I have to get across that they can trust me and that we can achieve something nice in the short time we have together. I might show them a couple of my photos before the shoot. Also, their publicists have seen my work in advance and know who I’ve photographed in the past. That helps. A good attitude is also important. It’s a simple thing, but easy to forget. No matter how famous or infamous, they’re still human beings. You have to treat them person to person. I’m very polite and give a little bow when I meet them. I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to London in 1995 at the age of 22.
An early inspiration for lighting for me wasn’t a photographer, but the 16th-century painter Caravaggio.
DPP: What brought you to London?
Kim: I went there to study filmmaking, actually, not photography. When I was in Korea, I worked in the TV industry a little, but never thought about being a photographer. While I was studying film in London, I was aware of the many similarities between film and still photography. So I bought a couple of books on photography to study on the side and borrowed an old Pentax camera from my roommate that he had sitting in the closet. The more I took pictures, the more I fell in love with still photography.