Physicists seldom get second acts. Their legacies typically secure at retirement age, as a result of explaining the secrets of the universe, one might not expect a scientist to move on to art. Yet Kee Woo Rhee, who lives in Silver Spring, decided to follow her passion for photography full-time after bidding adieu to her life as a government-employed researcher.
“I actually dreamed of being an artist ever since I was young, but after high school, somehow, I went into physics,” said Rhee, who came to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, in the 1970s to earn a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “I’d been very fortunate in getting [educated and pursuing] the scientific adventure. But I always longed for an artistic outlet.”
Rhee began taking photographs within the past decade, and found the courage to submit some of her own images to National Geographic. Some of her images of the abandoned Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru, located at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, were selected for the prestigious publication.
“I think the special angles that I was shooting [Machu Picchu] from [were] the main reason for them to pick mine” over thousands of other photographs of the Inca city that we submitted, Rhee said.
“Milky Way over Trona Pinnacles,” Mojave Desert, California
Courtesy of the artist
An exhibition of Rhee’s photography, titled “Time, Space, Matter and Beyond,” is on view at Gallery B in Bethesda from Nov. 30, and the artist herself will be on hand Nov. 8 for a public reception and to answer questions about her techniques for capturing the waterfalls of Iceland, the deserts of California and the wonders of New Zealand’s South Island. “Time, Space, Matter and Beyond” will be her third solo exhibition.
Rhee now spends about half the year traveling the world — frequently alone — to capture images with her Nikon D850 and Nikon T200. It’s tough to spend time away from home and her family, but she said her family supports her later-in-life virtuosity.
“In the field, once you lose the opportunity of light changes, it’s difficult to recover,” she said, explaining why she chooses to bring both a telephoto and a wide angle lens into the field which allows her to adapt for sudden changes in the quality of natural light. “Also, sometimes you [have] some accident and you need a backup.”
Among Rhee’s subjects of choice is Iceland, where she has traveled nearly 10 times so far, and is planning another photography expedition for 2020. One of the images to be showcased in “Time, Space, Matter and Beyond” is a waterfall scenescape in rural Iceland called “Brúarfoss,” which translates as “bridge falls.” “It takes about two and a half hours from the international airport [to reach Brúarfoss],” she said.
“That is my favorite scene: winter with the snow,” Rhee said. ” “There are a lot of icicles on the waterfalls.”
The photographer said she is similarly fond of capturing the Canadian Rockies during the height of winter, acknowledging and ignoring the icy roads that make driving to remote areas particularly hazardous.
She also talked of her trip to a lonely pinnacle of rock outcropping in California’s Mojave Desert, located about halfway between Los Angeles and Death Valley. “I was so careful being there. It’s pitch black dark and I’m by myself,” Rhee said.
The photo she took there in the lonely high desert of the Golden State is featured on one of several promotional postcards Rhee is using to draw attention to the “Time, Space, Matter and Beyond” showcase in Bethesda. “That was [captured] at 1 a.m.,” she said of said photograph. “You wouldn’t believe how beautiful it is.”
Given that Rhee has taken thousands of photographs around the world, culling the crop of her work down to a displayable size for her exhibition proved somewhat daunting. She previously had a showcase in Korea, but the smaller space of Gallery B forced her to select only a few dozen of her prime images. “I have too many,” Rhee said, “[but] it’s going to be very pretty.”
Furthermore, Rhee looks forward to conversing with the public at the Nov. 8 reception at Gallery B, where she said she will share personal tales behind the images in the exhibit.
“I have a lot of good stories,” Rhee said, adding that many of her best photographs happened by accident. “But I don’t want to go into” how precisely that happened, she said. “I would rather explain the artistic concept and the photographic process.”
Photographer Kee Woo Rhee’s “Time, Space, Matter and Beyond” is on view through Nov. 30 at Gallery B, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda. Gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. A public reception with the photographer is set for 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8 and an artist presentation wil take place from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 16. Visit Bethesda.org/bethesda/gallery-b-exhibitions or call 301-215-6660.