An empty space can feel stark, like a jail cell, but the right amount of curation and careful balance can strike the most intense feelings.
Paul Jung is a photographer who perfectly balances the opposition between a search for deep insights and aesthetics stripped to the bare minimum. He draws inspiration from everywhere except other photography. During his strolls through his current city of residence—New York—and his travels through the world, he always looks for something he describes as the negative space, the non-space around objects, a vivid and relatable form of geometry.
This aspect, once you focus on it, can be found everywhere in his work: it may be his rigid but poetic focus on silhouettes or the hard shadows of his black and white photography, or sometimes embedded into the soft gradients of whites and greys. Yet most of the time there is nothing between black and white; the visual impression is absolutely clear. But the emotional impression? It lingers between the beauty of melancholy and the intensity of sadness, between the idea of opening up and the creation of visual shells of protection.
The work of Paul Jung is this: visual clarity that describes emotional complexity. We had the pleasure of getting to know a little more about the man behind the lens.
Why did you choose photography as your form of expression?
It was the most immediate and direct medium at the time. At first it was a fast recording medium, then I realised that it was also a very good way to construct pieces of information, rather than just a recorder. Assorted pieces of information, such as uncanny moments of memory and feelings, like a sort of déjà vu, baked in with carefully extracted vocabularies of an environment. This then is primed to deliver a tickle of an idea, such as longingness, exasperation, destitution or inclination.
In which way did your education as a graphic designer influence your work as a photographer?
Education in most parts of the world today is still built on the foundations and the needs of the Industrial Revolution. Though even now, I feel that it is very important to teach not only the basics of literature and STEM subjects, but also design thinking and philosophy. Graphic design, or perhaps in a broader sense, design in general, helped me to navigate and provide active feedback on everything that we do in this world, in the contemporary world. The education in design helped me to break down information and in turn, reveal all the elements which were invisible before. So being educated in this area was very helpful to understand the vocabulary and the grammar of communication visually.
Your style is very reduced, but personal, almost peculiar, at the same time. How do you find the balance between those ostensible contradictions?
Without this balance, things can easily fall into the category of boring or unnecessary. I still would like to bring a focus and sting, which is highlighted by the lack of distractions. Each element should have a reason for participating in the work. Of course, an empty space can feel stark, like a jail cell, but the right amount of curation and careful balance can strike the most intense feelings.
How do you relate to the following terms: Black, White, Silhouette?
These are the bare minimums and starting points, building blocks from which I start. I wouldn't necessarily say that either black or white is superior or more important than other shades, in fact it's all really a matter of perspective, whether we're dealing with additive or subtractive colours. In either case, it's really a matter of balance. Colours are extremely beautiful, and need to be appreciated in the right way. Situations where colours are just abused without much thought and reason, it's quite painful to me, like a cluttered home.
Your work evokes strong emotions in the viewer. Do you experience these strong emotions yourself while creating the images or videos? Or do you need to see what you do from a certain distance?
In some way, I find it necessary to be utterly calm and meticulous to create and perform the works that I do. Though I wouldn't necessarily say the same about the people displayed in my work. It is important for the person or the object portrayed to be in a specific mood, or to be treated or respected in a specific manner. That way it’s possible to fully extract and record the right feeling.
Are you a calm and contained person in general? If not, how does your role change from work to private life?
I can come off initially as very calm, though I do have very strong feelings about certain subjects. Those emotions can be so strong that it can take over my entire being especially when there is focus.
Does your strong collaboration with Melitta Baumeister influence your work? If so, in what way?
Our conversations are very influential for one another—whether we agree or disagree, it is about finding a tension within the conversations. We are constantly influencing people around us, willingly or unwillingly. For us, there is definitely a sense of challenge in our perspectives, which we would then need a period of time to reflect, internalise and decide: do we believe it or do we want to challenge it? I learn a lot about chaos and disorder from Melitta, the beauty of it. The beauty of the roughness and brutality as well.
You say that it’s most important to draw your inspiration not from the business you are working in—like fashion—but from somewhere else. Where do you look for inspiration?
Everywhere. It could be from a scene in a novel, or just a mundane event in your memory; whether it's about a certain way that someone sat, or looked at you, it stirs something within you. I try to be in the moment of whatever I'm doing, as it may create a very important memory for years to come.
How do you manage to be in the moment as much as possible? Do you have techniques not to be distracted by worries or thoughts about to-do-lists and deadlines?
Yes, this can all be very contradicting. To have a conscious plan, a logical and reasonable to-do-list, to organise and structure one's life and be creative at the same time—it can seem totally counterintuitive. A few years ago, I would really force myself to work, to be creative, to push and push and push. You can definitely get through a lot that way, and sometimes, half the battle is just showing up. Though this definitely can take its toll. Nowadays, I embrace more of waves, and rhythms. Working with the body and the environment as much as possible. Sometimes when you're at the bottom end, like at the very depth of a well, you have to just lie there, and sink to the lowest point, and wait till it's time to rise, to really shine and get to the top. On a daily basis, I just try to maintain as much of a healthy routine as possible. Then at unexpected moments, when the feeling is right, I totally go the opposite and do whatever I please, sometimes almost in a destructive manner. It really is this balance between structure and freedom, never letting either way dominate the life, otherwise you end up either a lunatic, or a boring organiser.
You work on the boundary between art and design. How do you define art and design?
Art is this dimensionless, free-spirited world where one should and can explore and express without boundaries or needs. Design has a certain boundary and restriction. A need to be efficient, efficiency in commerce, or practicality, or just ease with life. It feels the same with the way I view life, finding that balance between both. Art for art’s sake can be extremely decadent and ephemeral. But Melitta and I often speak of things that are too 'designed', by which I mean things that are purely for the sake of shallow functions, efficiency or commerce, and without joy nor surprise.
Your images—both still life and fashion—quite often relate the impression of an intense motion frozen in time. Would you want the world to stop for a second from time to time?
Time is such an elusive concept that I think we all are struggling to understand and grasp. It's perhaps one of the most beautiful phenomenons there is!
Did you get closer to a personal idea of understanding the phenomenon of time over the years of your work?
Looking at possible variations of the time from different perspectives is a fun exercise; it's easy to want to suggest that from one possible point of time, a myriad of variations can split from it. But no, mostly I don't think I am progressing my understanding of it at all. It just gets more confusing and more questions arise as time goes on.
You once said that long periods of your childhood were filled with quietness and wonder. Do you still have periods like that today? Would you need them? Would your time allow for them?
Yes! They are wonderful. Sometimes, without the hint of time passing by, a moment and situation could seem infinite if we were to not measure it. Within that mini universe of space and time, we can fill it with quietness and wonder.
You’ve seen and experienced a lot of the world: Born in Taiwan, raised in Australia, you wandered the world from Milan to Beijing to New York. Are you planning to settle down in New York for good?
I think for a lot of people, we are still in a time of transition, or a mode of becoming. I'm looking forward to the next period of time where people are able to travel wherever they'd like without the oppression of borders and political problems.
This interview was originally published in Minimalissimo Nº2