Interview: Miru Kim

Her nude self-portraits created in dilapidated urban settings have made this young photographer a rising star.

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Miru Kim is the shyest person you'll ever meet who also happens to take her clothes off in public places.

The 28-year-old photographer visited my office recently to talk about the images that are getting her lots of attention: a series of nude self-portraits taken in out-of-the-way urban locations, most of them in New York City. In person she is anything but an exhibitionist -- she makes herself small in a chair and speaks quietly. The digital recorder I use for interviews didn't pick up anything she said. Kim must be used to this, because she left me with a promotional package that contained a Q&A she did with herself.

Q: WHY ARE YOU NAKED IN YOUR PICTURES?
A: I was interested in animals that dwell in these derelict places in the city. The fictional character I wanted to create had to be universal, and clothes make the living being too culturally specific and time-specific. I started modeling myself because I couldn't convince anyone to get naked in all these locations, and getting an animal to do it was even harder. Then the performance aspect of it became very appealing to me, because I started noticing how these spaces transform as soon as I take off my clothes and walk around. They become much more familiar and peaceful.

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Kim's project, called Naked City Spleen, is named after Baudelaire's Paris Spleen poetry of urban alienation and Weegee's famous photo book about New York, Naked City. Its images are produced in the kinds of places around, above, and under New York that most city dwellers never see: Amtrak train tunnels under Riverside Park; a derelict power plant on the Hudson River near Yonkers; the girders of the Williamsburg Bridge; an abandoned nursing home in Queens. This type of adventuring has become popular among certain groups of (mostly) young people: they're called "urban explorers," or "guerrilla urbanists." Kim's own explorations happen to be done in the name of art.

Born in Stoneham, Massachusetts but raised in Seoul, South Korea, Kim returned to the United States in 1995 and attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. In 1999 she moved to New York to attend Columbia University, and in 2006 she received an MFA in painting from the Pratt Institute.

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Q: HOW DO YOU FIND THESE LOCATIONS AND WHAT ARE THE DANGERS?
A: In New York, I have some close friends who know every nook and cranny of the city. I usually call them up for tips if I'm not with them, but I've also found some places on my own. I'm mostly interested in these places for their visual aspects, but some are into exploring these structures because of history or certain industrial artifacts. Some do it for pure thrill. I don't go after danger, and that is why I am very cautious not to do things that would risk my health, such as falling through old floors, getting burnt in steam tunnels, breathing asbestos or toxic fumes, stepping on nails, getting into fights, touching mold, etc. If you think about it, just walking down the street in New York can be really dangerous, depending on when and where you do it.

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Kim's work has been featured in several magazines, including Esquire and FT Magazine. Most often the stories cast her as the literal embodiment of the urban exploration movement. (A New York Times article called Kim and her underground associates "Children of the Dark.") This month the photographer will present her work at the third annual Entertainment Gathering in Monterey -- a conference focusing on media, creativity, and technology. She has also made a short film with Isidore Roussel, called Blind Door, that is related to her Naked Spleen work.

No doubt that fact that Kim poses naked in her images adds to the interest in her work. But the beautiful and mysterious photos speak powerfully for themselves. She captures the patinas of old iron and the shapes of rusted structures (as well as her own shape) with lighting that a studio photographer would be proud of. But her studios lack amenities such as electricity, and sometimes she has to dodge oncoming trains. Usually she works alone or with the assistance of her sister.

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Q: HOW DO YOU TAKE THESE PHOTOS AND WHAT DO YOU BRING?
A: I mount my camera on a tripod and set its self-timer to 20 seconds self-timer. I do roughly five to 20 poses in one spot. If I have a friend with me, I might get some help in pressing the shutter button and lighting. The usual gear is camera, tripod, lights, plastic bags, disinfectants, napkins, and Band-Aids.

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Kim uses both Nikon D100 and Nikon D200 digital SLR bodies usually with an AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D wide-angle lens for her work. In above-ground locations she uses available light; below ground she uses halogen "hot" lights, and occasionally Nikon Speedlights with a warming gel. She says the most impressive location she has worked in was the Catacombs of Paris. For that shoot, she took along heavy rubber boots, helmut, and carbide lamps -- the kind of light that miners used in the 19th century. She found that they cast "a warm light that is also very powerful" and has used them many times since.

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Q: WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO CONVEY THROUGH THE NAKED CITY SPLEEN SERIES?
A: I often felt . . . a kind of alienation and anxiety in urban environments, and one of the ways I could escape the negative side of that was to visit forgotten, abandoned places in the city. The feelings of isolation and loneliness I've had may be related to having moved alone to the U.S. at age 13 without knowing the language. But I think most urban-dwellers understand these feelings regardless of culture.

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