The Image outside the Context

Myoung Ho Lee … Present and Represent

The illusion in Myoung Ho Lee’s photograph stirs an intense curiosity: everyone checks again as to whether the tree at the center of the picture is a real tree or an illusory image. Even after checking, some may mistake it for a painting or another photograph. In this way, provoking an oscillation between the real and illusion, Lee raises questions about representation itself.

Trees © Myung Ho Lee
Trees © Myung Ho Lee

To make his works, Lee installs a large-scale white canvas behind a tree in a natural environment, and then takes a picture of the tree-installation including the surrounding natural context. As a result, Lee creates two divided spaces in his picture. He engages the general conception of painting as an image drawn on canvas, and so the viewer easily concludes that the tree in front of the canvas is painted thereupon. The artist’s intervention has the effect of isolating the “space” within the canvas, distinguishing it from the adjacent real space. This juxtaposition of two conflicting spatial qualities lends Lee’s photographs a surreal effect.

Viewers tend to regard the surrounding natural space as “here and now,” whereas the mind’s conditioning suspends the space within the canvas from its temporal and spatial context, thereby rendering it a space of illusion. In case of the photograph-within-a photograph, an image-within-an image, the sign of the outer frame interacts with that of the inner frame. On the other hand, Lee’s canvas space is devoid of any (con)text, and so there is no interaction between inside and outside. The tree merely loses its real quality as soon as it enters into the unreal/non-contextual space Lee has created, and viewers can simply perceive the tree at the center either as real or illusion without disturbance of the signs from outside.

Returning to the problem of the image of the real versus the illusory image, photography’s perfect representation was often denigrated as simple copying when it was first invented. Many feared losing the illusionistic joys that painting had provided for centuries. Despite those fears, for two hundred years, diverse photographic images have beggared our imagination, and in the digital era of this 21st century, the photographic image is threatening the world of real imagery. The visual confusion about Lee’s tree image might have occurred on the part of viewers who have become more used to photographic images—photographic illusion. If we see the real but do not conceive it as real, seeing has no relation to objectivity and facts.

What, then, would photographic representation mean in today’s visual environment? The canvas space within Myoung Ho Lee’s photograph is an experimental apparatus and the whole photographic process, from searching for place to set up, taking pictures, and finishing may be his visual research project on photographic representation.


Written by Jeong Hye Kim


November 2009
Exhibition at the Soul Art Gallery
Busan, South Korea


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