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.
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.