FARGO — By the time Leo Kim came to North Dakota, he had been pushed out of China where he was born to Korean immigrants, fled to Hong Kong, then Macao and then Austria. His father died before he was born, and his mother died in a plane crash when he was 20.
"Maybe the complexity of my background helps me to see the simplicity there, the quiet and the solitude," Kim told Chuck Haga of the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2000, discussing his North Dakota photographs.
Kim captured the simplicity and solitude of the state with elegance and depth in photos remembered vividly by friends after the photographer died on Sunday, Aug. 18, following a period of declining health. He was 73.
“Leo’s photos had a spiritual side to them and Leo had a spiritual side to him,” recalled fellow photographer Dan Koeck. “He once told me that nature was his religion and I saw that in his work. He really felt comfortable out there. You could tell that he really felt at ease outdoors.”
Kim made a living in the Twin Cities as a commercial and art photographer until his failing eyesight forced him to put down the camera.
He came to North Dakota State University in the early 1970s to study architecture, but was also drawn to photography as he worked at the NDSU student newspaper, The Spectrum. He would intern at The Forum before graduating in 1975, going on to work as a photographer and graphic designer before moving to Minneapolis in 1985.
“He had a great sense of design and a great eye,” said Dave Wallis, a longtime former Forum photographer who also worked for Kim at the Spectrum.
“Leo would pit me against Nick Kelsh, giving us the same assignment, saying whoever returned with the better shot got paid. Nick got paid more than I did,” Wallis said.
He also saw that Kim had the highest-quality standards, sending film away to Chicago to be processed and printed with great results.
Those high standards were shown in a series of North Dakota landscapes Kim started taking in the 1990s. He wanted to showcase the collection in a book, but his high standards meant high production costs. Kim created an exhibit of the works to show in galleries and garner support for the project that toured the area, including a show at the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks.
“When he took anything on, he gave everything he had to it,” Koeck said.
Kim even sold equipment and personal belongings to finance the project. The book, "North Dakota: Prairie Landscape," was published in 2003.
“The Minneapolis-based photographer captures the visual tension and parity between what's on the earth and what's in the air,” The Forum wrote of the book. “The jagged surface of a hay bale stands rigid under clouds wisps above Stanley. The rolling hills outside Kenmare are cut by a snaking black train. In the state's man-made landscapes Kim plays with the duality of work and worship. The architecture of an elevator in Pillsbury is reflected and contrasted pages later in the shapes, shades and angles of St. Peter's Orthodox Ukrainian Catholic Church in Belfield.”
"When people start feeling with the heart, they start seeing differently," Kim told The Forum in 2003. "That's how I make photographs, not just trying to make things pretty."
“He had enormous patience to wait for the right shot,” according to Kevin Carvell, who met Kim at NDSU.
He recalls visiting a farm in Sharon, N.D., when Kim saw something in the sunset that would make a good photo. He went off for two hours and when he came back, he said the sun was never quite right to make the shot.
“That shows the infinite patience, to wait two hours and not take a single photo,” Carvell said.
In 2016, Carvell, his daughter Tasha and Karen Stoker hosted a benefit for Kim at Stoker’s Hotel Donaldson, where his work has been on display in Room 8 ever since the downtown Fargo boutique hotel opened 16 years ago.
“He was a real treasure as a person and an artist. I feel his work will always put North Dakota in a light of which we can all be proud,” Stoker said.
Asked why he thought Kim still felt so strongly about the North Dakota landscape despite not growing up there, Carvell stopped to think.
“Maybe after his parents died and he had to fend for himself and attended NDSU, maybe he felt like the state had taken him in, put an arm around him. It’s an interesting story about bouncing back after a rough start in life,” he said. “North Dakota was awful lucky to have him. North Dakota is a state of immigrants, and he was a late arrival but added immeasurably to the culture of the place.”