MJ Kim: Shadow Of Light

There are dream jobs, and then there are dream jobs. Seoul-born, Los Angeles-based MJ Kim has spent much of this year on tour with the legendary Paul McCartney as the former Beatle’s personal photographer. Rather than resting on his laurels while he’s home between tour dates, Kim heads to his studio to work on intimate, carefully crafted portraits.

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.

Recent Best Actor Oscar® winner and True Detective star Matthew McConaughey.

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.

Musician Kid Rock doing some lighting up of his own.

DPP: How did that evolve into a career?

Kim: While I was in London, there was a huge economic crisis in Korea in 1998 so my parents couldn’t support my studies any longer. I stopped my film studies at the university and started working as a photographer trainee at a very small news agency in London. I was just trying to survive in the UK. There were four trainees in the agency; I was the only foreigner. At the end, they hired me and a British guy as full-time photographers. The agency specialized in court cases. In the UK, you can’t take cameras inside the courtroom by law so our agency was photographing people involved in big cases going in and out of court.

DPP: It was kind of like being paparazzi for the legal system.

Kim: Exactly. I worked there about a year, then got a freelance job shooting for The Daily Telegraph for about a year, then the Press Association, which is like the AP in the U.S., offered me a job. Eventually, Getty Images offered me a position as senior entertainment photographer in London. I was with them in that position from 2004-2007. In 2008, after years of working in the photography field, I did my MA in Fashion Photography at the London College of Fashion. I didn’t have to first finish my BA because of all my practical experience in photography.

DPP: You felt you were still missing something in spite of all the experience and success you had enjoyed in the field?

British actor Bob Hoskins in one of his final roles, posing for Kim.

Kim: Yes, I did. I was becoming more and more interested in portraiture. I knew how to do live-action shoots because I was a news photographer. That was good, but at the same time, I wanted to create my own images, but I didn’t know how, so I decided to go back to school and learn. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was in school and working at the same time.

I think you can learn technique such as studio lighting fairly quickly, but I think the more important thing to learn is the understanding of what’s behind the images, why you think this image is beautiful, why you want to create these kind of images. I had a lot of whys—question marks in my head—that’s why I decided to go back to school.

DPP: And did the experience in school answer most of them?

Kim: Yes, and maybe the most important one—getting a reference before the shoot. When I did a portrait session with someone before I went back to school, I just wanted to create a beautiful image, but didn’t really appreciate what a beautiful image was. I didn’t know how to prepare a shoot. I learned that in school. I also learned to look at not just photography, but painting and architecture, as visual inspirations. It was in school that I learned about Caravaggio. I could then apply this awareness to the images that I wanted to get. I gained much more depth in photography at the London College of Fashion.

DPP: How did you end up becoming Paul McCartney’s personal photographer?

A live candid of Paul McCartney in concert. Kim is a big fan of the high-contrast appeal of chiaroscuro lighting. He says that he prefers to start with shadow, building a portrait from there.

Kim: While I was a senior entertainment photographer for Getty Images, I covered a lot of international events, such as the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals and many movie junkets. I built a lot of relationships with public relations and artists’ management companies during that time. That helped when I went freelance at the end of 2007. The first assignment I got as a freelancer was to photograph the Spice Girls reunion tour. During the four months with the Spice Girls, I met a lot of important industry people such as Simon Fuller, manager of the Spice Girls and creator of the Idol franchise. The publicist working for the Spice Girls, Stuart Bell, was Paul McCartney’s publicist, as well. So after the Spice Girls tour, he introduced me to Paul’s people and Paul looked at my work, liked it
and started using me in 2008, and here I am now on tour.

DPP: What’s in your camera bag when you’re shooting a concert like the ones you’re doing on the current Paul McCartney tour?

Kim: I have two Canon 5D Mark IIIs, three zoom lenses—a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm—a 50mm ƒ/1.2, a 35mm ƒ/1.4, a 15mm fisheye, an 85mm ƒ/1.2, a 100mm macro lens and a flash in a Think Tank bag. Shooting concerts, there’s usually a lot of light, and with the modern digital cameras, I’m able to pump up the ISOs backstage. I like the digital noise.

MJ Kim’s Gear
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L
Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L
Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8L Macro
Canon EF 85mm ƒ/1.2L
Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.2L
Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L
Canon EF 15mm ƒ/2.8 fisheye

Mamiya RZ67 Pro-IID with Leaf digital back
Mamiya 65mm ƒ/4, 110mm ƒ/2.8 and 180mm ƒ/4.5 telephoto

Eastman Kodak 2D 8×10 camera with a Schneider 300mm ƒ/5.6 Apo-Symmar lens for shooting wet-plate collodion

Profoto Pro-7a power pack
Profoto 6a power pack
Profoto Pro-B2 battery-powered
power pack
Profoto Acute B2 600 battery-powered power pack

DPP: At what ISOs are you normally shooting the onstage performances?

Kim: Usually at 400 for onstage, but I’m not afraid to shoot at ISOs as high as 6000 for other situations, such as Paul before he goes onstage. Just before the show starts, everything goes really dark except for a lot of flashlights. I can catch really nice moments illuminated by just the light from a flashlight being held by one of the security people or the production crew. In Photoshop, I make it more grainy using a film grain plug-in such as Perfect Photo Suite or Nik Collection software.

DPP: Is there a typical shutter speed at which you’re shooting for the stage performance?

Kim: If I’m going for a normal stage shot, I won’t go less than 1/200th because they’re moving, but sometimes I go much slower because I want to convey a sense of movement. The blur can work.

DPP: What attracted you to photograph musicians, both onstage and in studio setups?

Kim: Onstage, musicians produce amazing energy, which you can’t expect from a studio session. It only comes out onstage. During the live performance, you can capture that energy, but you don’t have any control. You’re a photojournalist capturing whatever is in front of your lens. In the studio, you can influence the image by your lighting setup and you’re directing the subject to get something out of them. Both approaches are very different, but equally fascinating.

You can see more of MJ Kim’s work at www.mjkimpictures.com.

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