My Photography, My Life

I grew up around oil paints, smelly thinner in brush washers and stacked canvases cluttering the walls.  Our house was in Osan, Korea with an art studio on the first floor.  My father was an artist, a painter of expressionist works.  Even to this day, I get nostalgic from smelling fresh oil paints.  I used to watch my father paint everyday on his wooden easel inside the cozy studio space.  Art was a regular part of our family’s life and while growing up, I believed I was destined to become a painter.  

It was 1977 and I had barely turned nine years old when our family immigrated here to the United States.  My father struggled as an artist and coudn’t enjoy the same success in our new country. He had difficulty supporting the family, so my mother started working a full time job to keep us afloat. Living through the financial struggles during my teenage years dampened my desire of having an artistic career.  

My life became relatively stable after I set out on my own and found a good paying job, but it was a place absent of any creativity. I put together a small studio space inside my garage where I painted in my spare time.  This went on for many years.  Once I moved to the East Bay in 2002 and into an old warehouse turned loft space, there was finally enough room for me to paint comfortably. I had couple gallery shows and sold some paintings, but I didn’t have enough passion or the aspiration to seriously pursue it as a profession.  Painting was just my way of relieving the artistic itch. The satisfaction was always fleeting.

Artist Ralph McQuarrie in Pak Han’s studio, 2004 | Photo: Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde

Artist Ralph McQuarrie in Pak Han’s studio, 2004 | Photo: Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde

In 2008, I bought my first pro-grade DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera, the Canon 5D Mark II.  The expensive investment was made after I fell in love with photography. It all started one afternoon, when a photographer friend generously let me play with his Leica M8 rangefinder.  He looked at some of the shots I’ve taken and gave me some positive feedback.  After that day, I knew photography was the missing piece in my life.  Holding that camera to my face and hearing the clicking sound of the shutter gave me a euphoric rush. I was hooked. The unusual thing is, I already owned an old Canon AE-1 camera my father gifted me on my 18th birthday, but I only used it occasionally.  I also never felt any enthusiasm for photography all that time I had it. Perhaps it’s all about the timing or I just needed someone to nudge me. 

Few months after I got my Canon 5D, I took it with me to Japan.  I spent most of my two weeks there getting lost on the streets of Tokyo and taking photographs of people going about their lives.  I loved every minute of it.  Street photography was my calling. My passion for photography blossomed very quickly and I began building my portfolio. The following year, one of the shots taken during my trip was published in The Japan Times newspaper, and two other photos became part of a group exhibition in Tokyo.

Walking Home, © Pak Han 2009. Published in The Japan Times

Walking Home, © Pak Han 2009. Published in The Japan Times

Photography opened up a whole new creative outlet.  It has given me an opportunity to tell stories through captured images and share my eye with audiences who might feel a connection to them.  Painting inside a studio by myself was sometimes a lonely process, but photography took me outside, made me interact with people and the surroundings.  It also gave me a fresh perspective of the world, where I became more aware of the subtle nuances of everyday life that I used to ignore.  Photography turned into a profession and it fulfilled my need for creativity in a satisfying way.  

Promotional photo shoot for Choreographer Nina Haft’s King Tide, 2015 | Photo: Nina Haft

Promotional photo shoot for Choreographer Nina Haft’s King Tide, 2015 | Photo: Nina Haft

My photography led me on an unexpected artistic journey.  By quite accident, I became a Performance Art Photographer, photo documenting rehearsals, doing production and promo shoots for theatremakers and choreographers.  I did this for ten years.  In that time, I took on a yearlong personal photo project called, Transfiguration and had my first solo show in San Francisco.  Although I was working professionally as a photographer, I was also a student at the same time, learning literally on the job.  I’ve learned many valuable lessons through the experiences and challenges, which made me a better photographer today.  Hopefully the learning will never stop.

Last year, I decided to step away from performance art.  It was a difficult decision to make, because I really enjoyed collaborating with so many wonderfully talented folks and I was also getting plenty of work.  In the end, I felt I’ve hit the peak creatively and wasn’t growing anymore as an artist. I made a decision to give my full focus to what I love the most, street photography.  This is where I feel comfortable right now, but who knows where my photography will take me.  I never actually had a clear master plan as an artist. It was my art that navigated me through its twist and turns, letting me see where I was going. There’s one thing that’s crystal clear to me. I’m the happiest when I have a camera in my hand and my feet pounding the pavements. Each day is an opportunity to find that great shot and that’s really exciting to me.