Intermarriage and Contemporary Political Retrenchment

Oksun Kim’s Happy Together has been on my mind lately. And not because my wife and I aren’t smiling lately. We’re fine, thank you. It’s been on my mind because I’ve been thinking about the state of our interconnected world at large and the way its ripples affect peoples’ daily lives.

The photographs in Happy Together are portraits of mixed race couples set in domestic spaces. The Asian partner stares into the camera lens while the Western partner looks away. No one smiles. The most positive of the women betray the barest hint of satisfaction. There are male Asian partners only as part of a handful of gay couples and just one female Western partner in a lesbian couple.

Kim maintains the even keel of contemporary photography’s dispassionate, detached bathos. The subjects give little hint of what they are thinking. They seem posed, or more accurately forced. It cannot be that all intermarried couples so glum. I can’t help but wonder if a more humanistic documentary approach might not have better explored the questions and concerns Kim begins with regarding the challenges of intermarried couples in Korea.

Yael Ben-Zion’s Intermarried takes this more documentary approach and broadly explores similar ground that Kim has explored narrowly. Ben-Zion’s approach places a broader range of intermarried couples at the center of a web of interactions, artifacts and offspring. There is a wholeness to this approach and still a contemporaneous aspect in its archival research.

In Kim’s photographs, it is only the cracks in her posed facade that allow us to see who these people may be and the lives they lead: a bowl of ceramic fruit and pastries on a kitchen table; two horseshoe crabs swimming alone along a wall; the drudgery of a pile of laundry waiting to be folded; the blur of a child not frozen by the camera’s strobe; a meal waiting to be shared.

In both approaches there is a kind of underlying current of unease. Kim’s unease is evident in the question that leads to the work: “Are you happy.” And Ben-Zion’s unease is present in her tracing intermarriage through archives; she may be looking to the future but can’t help taking glimpses behind.

Ben-Zion’s subtle looks back over her shoulder don’t seem unreasonable. The world is undergoing a kind of retrenchment domestically (in many countries) and internationally. The depths and the degrees of these retrenchments are yet to be defined. For those who thought that we were on the cusp of a new tomorrow it might be time to re-examine assumptions (and redouble our efforts).

Kim’s photographs are a useful reminder that while “Are you happy?” may be a silly question to start with it is never silly to look at and to show an unvarnished (if perhaps less posed) look at what togetherness is. It is not the fairytale that wedding photographs suggest. There is inevitably complication and toil. This is true no matter who one’s partner is. And it is no less true for countries and alliances as it is for individuals and marriages. It is through partnerships that we find strength and support.

Happy Together
Kim, Oksun
2006
Support from the Arts Council Korea

Intermarriage
Yael Ben-Zion
2013
Kehrer Heidelberg Berlin

Jonathan Goodman reviews Sook Jin Jo’s recent cross photographs

Sook Jin Jo recently forwarded me this review of her latest nighttime photographs of neon crosses in Seoul. It’s a nice first look at Jo’s new work (though a bit winding).

For anyone passing will be in Seoul next month, be sure to check Jo’s cross photographs at the 2017 Seoul Photo Festival.

2017 Printed Matter NYABF

Jut got back from the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA/PS1. It’s day one and crowded already. I brought home bit of paper as you can see.

If you’re into art, books, art books, artists books, photography, photo books, design, zines, typography, posters, art history, social justice, naked people, free stuff, expensive stuff or anything else, you’ll probably find something to entertain and delight you at the fair.

I enjoyed chatting very briefly with AnticHam at the Red Fox Press table and seeing their new work. As always, wish I had money for their big books.

Zoe at the Datz Press table recognized me after having met me only briefly last year at their bookstore/cafe/darkroom/printing shop in Seoul. When I bought Minny Lee’s Encounters, she texted Minny to come back to the table to sign it! Minny told me all about her book and the work she’s making lately, then walked me over to the ICP/Bard table to show me her more informal artist book there, My Walden–which I also got a copy of and she signed, of course. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Barbara Bosworth, who also was hanging around the Datz Press table. Her Fireflies scroll(!) was cool as hell and beautifully boxed. As a design object, it really sums up what Datz Press is all about. I also got a copy of Gap Chul Lee’s Black Wind.

Anyone who’s in NYC ought to go check out the fair, though I would suppose anyone who’s reading this blog probably already has plans to…

Protest, Park Seung-hwa

My last visit to Seoul came at an interesting time. My own country had just elected an orange-hued charlatan (but much loved by some, apparently) to its highest office, sparking immediate protests. Seoul was in the midst of weekly and growing protests each Saturday against an expanding presidential scandal. And multiple elections were approaching in Europe with right-wing parties gaining ground in polls. There are many people marching in the streets lately who want to see change. With all of this as a background, I came across Park Seung-hwa’s Protest published by Listen to the City in The Book Society’s stacks.

At first blush Protest appears to be straight documentary photography of the protests wracking Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They have all of the gritty hallmarks of documentary and journalistic photography. However, its narrative is diffuse. It begins in the middle, goes on relentlessly for 200 pages and ends without resolution.

The photographs run the gamut from dramatic confrontation to quiet determination. There are individuals acting alone and huge crowds of people acting in concert. We are shown moments of grace and moments of violence. On one page protesters look down from a rooftop at the police below. On the next page it is the police who are on the roofs looking down on the people below. The one constant is a sense of confrontation and anger, at turns explosive and subdued. The content of the photographs is mirrored by the divided compositions in contrasty and grainy yet richly rendered black and white.

Park draws from his own work as well as the work of the four other photographers who formed the National Photography Research Society (민족사진연구회). These five photographers, Kwon San-Ki, Park Seung-hwa, Song Hyeok, Lee Sohye, Lim Seok Hyun, came together photographing the protests. They gathered around an older photographer, Park Yong-su. Their efforts, specifically as culminated in the publication ofProtest, are a kind of extension of Park Yong-su’s 1989 book The Road of the People (민중의 길), in which he documented the events between the 1985 sit-in demonstration at the American Cultural Center in Seoul and Chun Doo-hwan’s going to Baekdamsa in 1988. Despite this added context, a straight documentary reading remains problematic.

Park’s introduction to Protest is helpful in reframing these photographs. He reveals that the contemporary making of the book, was an effort to “uncover [his] faded passion and shell of belief” represented by photographs made over two decades earlier. These photographs are personal. They project “a kind of political intention” and come from a “‘biased’ point of view.” The photographs are at once “records, commemorations and, in a way, propaganda.”

Park goes on:

Some people may not want to see them out of remorse and others may want to put the pieces of their memories put together[sic]. The fierce days of youth in the field of photography are forgotten now as they become sly oldies. Some of them have already lost their convictions. Even though they were politically pure in the beginning but now they are being misunderstood politically and contaminated non-politically. It was the time of immaturity and of glamour. It was, nevertheless, our past.

Protest then is a lament or reckoning rather than a dry documentation. It is a sober reconsideration of that time and where the flow of time has ultimately led. Despite having “walked so far away from the days of the photos…the day [Park] has dreamed of during those old days has yet to come.” He asks that the there be no mention of a “legendary saga” when reading these photos and notes that “the past [is] often glorified under the astute compromise.” We all, in order to live our lives in some measure of comfort, make compromises in our beliefs and actions; Park subtly suggests that if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps our compromises are really betrayals of our convictions.

In a similar vein, the book presents a kind of critique of photo-journalism and documentary photography. Park defines photographs as a “record of facts.” And yet he goes on to say that a myriad of photos can be created of a single scene. “These photos are all based on facts but far away from the truth.” Park does not claim to be publishing any kind of definitive view of these events. He goes so far as to call attention to the other photographers who were photographing these same events and whose photographs, if they could have been included in the book, would have made for “a finer and richer record.”

These photographs and Park’s view of their creation and value are appropriate to consider here in America in light of the protests happening in the present day. As may be self evident but certainly worth reiterating: protest in and of itself won’t bring about change. Those bodies in the streets lifting their voices may create the changes they seek or may simply gratify their desire to speak their piece. In order to effect change there must be concrete political action being taken before and after the marches, protests and demonstrations. Desiring change does not necessarily create change. It requires long years of hard work. It is equally likely that in thirty years we will look back and wonder where it all got them. Compromises for our own comfort will leave us “wandering around, or rather drifting away.”

싸움 Protest
Photographers: 민사연 (Kwon San-ki, Park Seung-hwa, Song Hyeok, Lee Sohye, Lim Seok Hyun)
Photo Editor: Park Seung-hwa
Introduction: Park Seung-hwa
Essay: Han Hong-gu
Publisher: Listen to the City
2016

Design Notes:
Protest is at once austere and lavish in its production. The cover is a matte black hardcover with paper wrapped boards; the title and publisher are embossed on its spine in white while the cover has only the years covered by the photographs, again embossed in white. This simple cover is wrapped in a asymmetrically folded dust jacket that folds out to a modestly sized poster with the cover imaging echoing outwards on the recto and an index of the book’s photographs on its verso. Within, the design gives structure for the images without calling undue attention to itself. The printing is richly done on a moderately heavy paper stock.

New posts coming

I am obviously behind on this blog. And now I’m more behind: I brought back a pile of books from my trip to Seoul back in November of last year (1, 2, 3). So there’ll be new content here soon.

In particular, I plan to write about Listen to the City’s Protest as I think it presents a number of useful things to think about in the current political climate. A number of the things I wanted to write about have already come to pass–major protests here in the US and considerations of how to maintain political action in order to effectively affect change rather than simply channel anger or disappointment.

And there are some fluffier books that are more fun to talk about.

And a new conversation about considerations when building a library for an academic institution. It’s been conducted, I’ve just got to find time to transcribe it…

Something for everyone.

Good stuff.

Slightly OT: Measuring North Korea’s Nuclear Progress from One Photograph

This piece at the NYTimes is a fascinating look at the practical intelligence value of closely read photographs. Max Fisher and Jugal K. Patel take us step by step through what experts have deduced about North Korea’s nuclear program by closely examining one photograph. They outline the way in which information is subtly coded into photographs like this one so that they can be read in this way.

To bring it somewhat on topic for the blog, the article calls to mind Seung Woo Back’s Utopia / Blow Up. As I wrote originally, “Back is looking to find truths that are hidden in plain sight and to question what is presented in an image.” To be clear, Back is circumventing limitations presented by clear prescriptions for what North Korea does and doesn’t want communicated. These limitations are imposed, obviously, by North Korea. Back is forced to lay the information between the lines. As readers of his photographs we must deduce the bigger meaning from what scraps of information he presents to us. He is as interested in photograph’s potential to communicate information as he is in actually communicating that information.

North Korea’s propaganda machine is interested only in its geopolitical machinations. It is not worried about the degree to which photography is truthful or untruthful. Its goal is to communicate information while maintaining deniability. The information it communicates is hidden such that only specific people will be able to find it. It is a kind of back door channel of communication. That it is possible to gather this much information from one photograph, albeit in relation to a larger set of photographs taken over time and in relation to existing knowledge, is quite impressive.

Another aspect of this that is worth noting is the continued acceptance by both the North Korea government and Western intelligence organizations of the informational value of photographs. Photographs retain a relation to facts in the real world. They continue to depict things in the real world that are true and that have meaning. While there is clearly much interpretation of the meaning of these facts, the photographs are valuable as information.

On a lighter note, the Times article also makes me wonder if perhaps not all is what it seems at Kim Jong Un Looking At Things. I’ve always read the Tumblr as a kind of absurdist theater–though who has that many photographs of Kim Jong-Un (and Kim Jong-Il before) except the North Korean government? (By all means, if you know who does, please let me know in the comments. I’ve always wondered.) I get a creeping suspicion that the irony hides an attempt to humanize the Dear Leader with youth in the West or at least minimize the perception that he is a scary, crazy dictator.

Han Youngsoo Exhibit at ICP @ Mana in Jersey City

Han Youngsoo photograph, Seoul, Korea 1956-63

Via Tumblr I saw that the International Center of Photograph is exhibiting Han Youngsoo’s photographs. The show is at ICP @ Mana through June.

Han’s photography has been discussed on this blog in relation to his photographs in Traces of Life. Kyusang Lee described Traces of Life as essential to understanding the development of photography in Korea. By extension, Han’s work is foundational in Korean photography.

Great to see it getting attention here in the States.