Monthly Archives: September 2013

Utopia / Blow Up, Seung Woo Back

Cover of Utopia / Blow Up by Seung Woo Back

Seung Woo Back’s Utopia / Blow Up comprises his two related series of the same names. I purchased this book on a trip in 2009 and it remains one of my favorites. It is interesting not only for the images themselves, but also the conceptual framework girding them and the physical container they exist in. Each reinforces the others.

The physical book is 36 pages, oversized and printed full color with metallic embossed details on newsprint in an edition of 1000. There is a 3 page insert with essays in both English and Korean by Hye Young Shin and Pyong-Jong Park. Jeong Eun Kim edited the book, and Yeoun Joo Park designed it. U/BU was published in 2009 in collaboration with IANNBOOKS.

Utopia is Back’s fictionalized North Korea; by exaggerating, adding to and dividing the infrastructure in existing images he plays with the notion of an idealized society’s physical structure. His is not a glossy antiseptic ideal. The color palate is muted (exacerbated by the newsprint), the forms verge on the grotesque and unlikely, lighting can be garish and the skies become acidic. If this is what North Korea’s infrastructure might look like if it fulfilled the rhetoric and claims of its propaganda, it would still be a sad place. The streets remain empty. The scale remains crushingly anti-human.

If one reads the book from the opposite direction, Blow Up presents telling details extracted from otherwise anodyne negatives Back created on a month long stay in 2001 as a journalist in North Korea. Accepting the regime’s destruction of his “interesting” or “good” negatives, Back turns to the smallest of details in his remaining negatives to subtly lay bare the lie presented to outsiders. With an obvious nod to Antonioni, Back is looking to find truths that are hidden in plain sight and to question what is presented in an image. The photographs might be a kind of spying, a notion suggested by the military imagery which bind the two projects at the newspaper’s center point.

Alternately, in these images of war material and heavy bombing we can see a dividing line. If one has started reading from left to right, e.g. with Utopia, at this point we move from what might have been to what is

In both projects, Back is exploring the line between reality and fiction in the photographic image. By creating unreal images out of real images, he makes the real more apparent.

Black Midday, Taewon Jang


Taewon Jang’s Black Midday presents an unassuming face. Aside from a single thumb cut index and the heft of a brick, its exterior presents none of the turmoil within. I almost passed this book by, which would have been a mistake. Once the cover is opened, the book begins to present a rich and out of the ordinary experience full of terror and loss. In it’s colophon, there is this description: “the book examines the psychological situations drawn from reality and fiction, memory and oblivion, absence and presence.”

The book’s 340 pages are broken up into four sections: Text, Generic Landscapes, Plates and Victims.

Text contains correspondences between Jang and various Japanese friends (many of whom are photographers or others in the arts) after the Tohoku earthquake as well as an essay by Suejin Shing, who I have posted on previously.

Generic Landscapes comprises images taken in Japan after the earthquake. The images are dark and intense; they are printed full bleed or with black borders; this section is the only one with a gloss coating. The photographs were taken under moonlight and have an eerie beauty. In opposition to the beauty of the images is the fact of the desolate ruination.






Plates is broken up into two subsections: the first, on uncoated white pages, is a series of prints rephotographed repeatedly in such a way that the viewer’s sense of the image wavers in and out. The image disappears into the vanishing point of perspective. Mixed in with these are photographs of paper artifacts such as business cards, hand written notes or sales brochures that give the address of the plates in the second subsection–a sort of travelogue. The final image of this subsection is the image that has been buried beneath the process of rephotographing: a small building covered in and being subsumed into debris. The second subsection within Plates is printed on black uncoated paper. The images are of interior and exterior spaces that Jang visited while making this work: offices, shops, homes; courtrooms or government hearings; landscapes, people in the street. The damage of the earthquake breaks into this through a photograph of a large ship on dry land and a desolate lot with a framed image from the previous section.

Victims, the final section, is a series of installation shots of mixed media portraits. These portraits–presented first as a thumbnail image for reference, are photographs mounted to wooden forms which have been folded and otherwise manipulated. The portraits are fragmented; the subjects likeness is deformed.

Of all the photography books I’ve acquired in Korea, this is among the most ambitious. We begin with the fear of loss. Jang is reaching out to confirm that those close to him are not lost to him. Conversation confirms existence. The book continues on into terror. The landscape photographs of the sites of the disaster are terrifying in their affirmation of the power and irrational destructiveness of nature. Even at a remove of days, weeks or months, the fear of potentiality or eventuality remains. We cannot remain in a state of terror or shock, however. Plates transforms terror as it dissolves into ongoing everyday life. The rephotographed image is a stand in for the oscillation of fear over time as we are removed from its immediacy. Everyday life eases our mind. We are left with the image to remind us. Victims brings back the terror, but does so in a way that reminds us that this terror is not nature’s alone. These portraits are of Japanese people in New York; they are not victims of the earthquake. They are victims of the artist: it is the artist who has deformed their likeness and associated them with the earthquake.

The earthquake is not the subject of this book. It is our response as human beings that Jang is interested in. How do we see? How do we remember? Do we respond to, create or invent reality?

Dashwood Books in NYC has this book, as does Photo Eye in Santa Fe. It is also easily available at Book Society or Your Mind Bookshop in Seoul.

**This post was first published in a “Book Notes” post on the daily_up.
***I stole the book cover image from Photo-Eye because I haven’t had a moment to shoot a picture of the book. Sorry Photo-Eye.

First Post: About this Blog

Many photographers collect photography books. I am one.

I began collecting photography books soon after graduating from college. My purchases were few, though, and my curatorial eye was undefined. That creating a collection of books could be a serious sort of avocation had not yet occurred to me. When I was managing the studio of another photographer, an omnivorous collector of photography books, I began to find some direction in my collecting.

While I tended towards small presses (a sort of tautology with photography books), highly personal visions, photography drawn from the real world, and physically smaller books (storage is always at a premium in the City, even in Brooklyn), my collection was still all over the place.

My collecting grew very much in tandem with the boom in photography book production and collection in the first decade of the 21st century. While photography books have been made since the early days of photography, there has been a veritable surge of photography books since 2000. There are almost too many to keep track of.

That is the problem that my collecting began to run into: there are too many good books out there (and far more dross that one must wade through to get to the good stuff). I could afford neither the monetary nor time cost of trying to collect everything. Even if I only bought the books I saw in person and that fit my taste, I could still not afford to buy everything.

As a solution, I decided to place a limit on my collection. My wife is Korean, and we travel to visit her mother roughly every year. On my first visit I bought a stack of Korean photography books. On my second visit, I bought an entire suitcase full. And that is now the primary focus of my collection: Korean photography books. I do not place a strict definition on this, but my basic tenets are that the book has to have been made by a Korean individual or collective, it must be an object in and of itself (so generally no exhibit catalogs), preferably it will have been published in Korea by a small press Korean publisher and photography is at its core. Sometimes I will bend a rule. Sometimes I kick myself for not bending a rule…

This blog is a series of short reviews of the books in my collection. It is not definitive; even with this tighter focus, I couldn’t possibly purchase, see or review every Korean photography book published. I haven’t the time or fiscal resources to do so. With at best only an annual trip to Korea, I will miss many books that are published and go out of print quickly. While I am a working and exhibiting photographer with a degree in the field, I am not a critic.

My hope is that this blog offers a small insight for a Western audience into the ways in which Korean photographers are using the book form in conjunction with photography to tell stories, share ideas, describe the world and stake out our place in it.