Seoul Lunar Photo happening now!

If you’re in Seoul this week, check out the Seoul Lunar Photo festival events. Wish I could get there for it. Best of luck to the organizers and participating artists!

Here’s what it’s all about:

Seoul Lunar Photo Fest is an event that brings to life the meeting place between people and photography. In an era of the advent of smartphones and the diffusion of hundreds of thousands of photos a day, it was inevitable that concerns over the way in which we encounter photos and discern good images would arise. Moving beyond the exhibition space of uniformly hung frames, it’s only natural that the demands of the contemporary world would expand the definition of images include music and other video media. Centered on the Seochon(West Village) area, Seoul Lunar Photo Fest seeks to convey the beauty of these new channels of images through experimental, free-form displays. Diverse work will be explored through collaborative efforts by photographers, musicians, sound creators and visual artists.


OT: Photography of China

Marine Cabos runs the website Photography of China. For those interested in photography practice across Asia, it will certainly be of interest. The site covers the full gamut from contemporary practitioners to historical figures and includes a mix of galleries, interviews and video. Check it out.

And stay tuned here because KPB isn’t gone, just buried with the commercial projects that keep the train on the tracks.

Life’s been busy; the blog’s been quiet

To any regular readers who feared KPB had disappeared, it hasn’t. My professional life has been busy the last couple of months, and I’ve not been able to carve out enough time to efficiently produce reviews on the schedule I’d like to be. Case in point: The review of Red House has been in progress for three weeks now.

At any rate, we’re still here. There are numerous reviews in the pipeline. The blog schedule remains every other week for a new review. Given my schedule the next couple of weeks, it might end up being monthly, though.

Please stay tuned.

Red House, Noh Suntag

In a recent New York Times Magazine On Photography column, Teju Cole wrote, “the apparent neutrality of photographs can conceal as much as it reveals–especially when the subject is violence or prejudice.” Cole’s column explores the layers of opportunity for misrepresentation through photographs due to their supposed “facticity”. Noh Suntag’s Red House examines exactly this dynamic in photographic representation using North Korea as a foil.

The Korea Artist Prize describes Noh as producing “photographs that detail real-life situations directly related to the division of Korea” and showing “how deeply the division has permeated the daily lives of the Korean people and has thus distorted the entire society.” Red House explores these themes from a subject’s presentation to the act of representing that subject with the camera through the use and consumption of the resulting photographs. Further, Noh’s photographs (and more specifically his text) acknowledge that this distortion is personal–his use of the camera in relation towards his subjects functions as a kind of mirror of his own biases.

North Korea is a particular subject that amplifies Noh’s themes. Despite the obviousness of the statement, it is necessary to note that there are few if any other places in the world where two countries’ identities are so intertwined with such fraught political, cultural and historical push and pull. Furthermore, the North’s near obsession with image and the way it presents itself to the South and the larger outside world is similarly unique. This exaggerated manipulation of its own image leads outsiders to a particular kind of fascination and creates an intense need to record what is seen. These three ideas form the basis for the three chapters in Red House.

Everyone has seen the kinds of photographs that comprise the book’s first chapter: the masses of people participating in the DPRK’s Arirang Festival events. Any reader will almost certainly have an image of thousands of people in synchronized motion come into their mind’s eye. Most of these images are interchangeable because the subject has been designed to present a particular message to do so by being seen by the camera. The scenes are an elaborate propaganda construction. Noh’s color photographs of the brightly colored Arirang Festival in 2005 are, on first glance, as interchangeable as a typical tourist’s photograph or a photojournalist’s photograph. As one flips through Noh’s photographs one becomes aware of a modulation of push and pull between overarching vistas of hundreds of people and relatively intimate tight shots of a dozen people. Within the small groups one can see variations in the individual participants’ movements. Looking back to the broad vistas these variations remain in one’s mind and the intended view is broken. Noh makes the underlying construction of the spectacle apparent. This opening set of photographs recalls Seung Woo Back’s series Utopia and Blow Up. Like Back, Noh is seeking interstitial truths within tightly controlled state spin.

With the subject as construction firmly argued, Noh moves next to the thought or thoughtlessness that occurs in the recording of this scene. Despite the almost certain knowledge that this careful grooming of particular scenes–even mundane scenes, shapes what they see, foreigners nonetheless are eager to record these scenes and their trespass into them. In this chapter Noh switches to a stark black and white reportage style which is often exaggerated through the use of an on camera flash. Noh wants us to see that he is now looking critically at the spectacle of the spectator turned witting or unwitting collaborator. The black and white is a visual marker that he is looking in a way that is significantly different than the tourists with their point and shoots that he is photographing. For him it is the almost desperate desire to record the experience of being here in North Korea that is of interest. The scene that elicits this desire is secondary.

In the final chapter of Red House, Noh turns his attention to South Korea and the way that the North becomes manifest within the South. The North becomes a straw man, a bogey man, a savior. Its role and meaning shift depending upon who is invoking it. In this way the North becomes a mirror for a range of opinions and viewpoints in the South. The one failing in this set of photographs is the need for extensive caption information to know what one is being shown; without the captions, which are often interpretive, many of the images are oblique. The upside to these captions is that Noh’s own biases are suggested. The reader is faced with having to revisit all that he has seen to this point to consider the manipulation inherent in all of the preceding images.

Throughout Red House, Noh has shown that photographs are slippery. As he says at the start of the second chapter, “I know about North Korea. However I do not know what I know about it.” His photographs show a great many views of and toward North Korea–and yet how definitive or true any one of them is remains questionable. This is intentional. How can one trust a photograph when it has been manipulated since before it was even made? Everyone manipulates the photograph: the subject, the photographer, the publisher and the viewer. At no time is the meaning of the photograph fixed. In a situation like exists between North Korea and South Korea this manipulation is highly political. Yet, as Noh’s photographs of amateur shutterbugs and political protestors show, this process can be equally apparent in the personal realm.

Red House
Noh Suntag
Publisher: Jung Jongho
Design: Avec_ Noh Younghyun
Translation: Kang-Baek Hyosu
Publishing Co.: Chungaram Media Ltd.

[Sidebar: Nearly ten years after Red House was published, photography as a driver of social media has shown that this manipulation is pursued no less aggressively by individuals than by rogue regimes. Manipulation of our recorded lives in photographs intended for sharing on social media is commonplace. Wanting to show our best selves, we push the bounds of truth.]

Korea Week at Lenscratch

Aline Smithson’s Lenscratch is in the midst of Korea Week, curated by Joanne Junga Yang. This year the blog is featuring the work of Myoung Ho Lee, Seong Youn Koo, Jeong Lok Lee, Seung Hee Hong, Sung Seok Ahn, Won Chul Lee and Nanda.

I found Ahn’s “Historic Present” particularly resonant in its mixing of so many different photographic modes. He dips into historical archives then blends those images seamless with the photographic present. He slips smoothly back and forth between high concept and narrative. He tips his hat to predecessors such as Stephen Shore and Tseng Kwong Chi. And the photographs are nice to look at, to boot, and reward long looking.

Winter Break

I’m out of town this week and part of next, so we’ll be on hiatus for this week and next. Reviews will return the second week of January.

Thanks for reading! A very Happy New Year to everyone.

Traces of Life, Chang Jae Lee & The Korea Society

Kyusang Lee described Traces of Life: Seen Through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992 to me as being central to understanding Korean Photography. He felt so strongly about this that he literally chased after me following our interview to give me the book. Published in conjunction with a 2012 exhibit at The Korea Society in New York curated by Chang Jae Lee, the book outlines the post-World War II beginnings of a nascent autonomous Korean photographic tradition.

Photography first came to Korea through missionaries and other Western travelers and was later used by the Japanese as a tightly controlled political tool during the colonial period in Korea. Photographic representation of Korea and its people before 1945 was thus defined by an external perspective even when created by Koreans. In the politically charged environment of post-liberation Korea, the shift to self-representation by Korean photographers was dramatically felt and marked stylistically by an adoption of “life-realism”. This shift meant that “Koreans could finally see themselves from their own perspective,” according to Sun Il. Continue reading

A Conversation with Sangyon Joo of Datz Press

Portrait: Sangyon Joo, photographer and publisher of Datz PressOn October 26th, Sangyon Joo of Datz Press came by KPB HQ to talk about her experiences as a publisher, curator and photographer. We’d first met during Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair at PS1 when I stopped by the Datz Press booth. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MNM: Sangyon, thank you so much for making the time to come out to Brooklyn for this conversation. I am delighted to have you here and looking forward to the conversation.

SYJ: This is the fifth issue in our magazine, Gitz. Our conversation reminds me of somebody we profiled in the magazine, a Korean book collector who collects books about Korea. The books he collects were made by Western people who came to Korea in the early years, a hundred years ago. They saw the Korean people and culture and archived their observations in books. They collected and spread exotic cultures in their home countries. He goes to Western bookstores to collect these books about Korea and brings them back to Korea to show to us. It says a lot to me about how books work and how books can go around sharing culture. I think it is a very interesting job mixing Western views of Korea—we can see ourselves through their eyes and can find ourselves through their eyes. Something really great can be done with books.
Continue reading