Monthly Archives: October 2014


OPEN to CLOSE is a good example of not judging a book by its cover, though not in the way that one would ordinarily invoke that phrase. The fold-out covers, half printed in metallic ink, with its graphic outlines of various window shapes invites curiosity. It draws one in. The photographs of windows within, though, disappoint.

The minimal design of OPEN to CLOSE breaks the book into 8 chapters with chapter headings consisting of light blue spreads each with a different silhouettes of a window. Each chapter is also marked by a layout shift.

The two photographs that open the book hold much promise: a straight on view of a window set into a brick wall, its panes thrown open, sun streaming across the three flowers potted on its sill; a straight on view of a pebbled glass window set into a tiled wall follows. These two photographs are tightly composed and set a typological tone. The six photographs that follow these two begin to lose this tone as they lose the rigorous composition of photos one and two. And then it all goes to hell.

One window, two windows, three windows. Centered, pushed to the edge. Ground, no ground. Straight on, skewed. Isolated as an architectural or compositional element, incidental in a scene. Sometimes the windows are doors. If each chapter took a different approach, that would be one thing. Instead, it’s all helter skelter with only a general and inconsistent pulling back to define the visual narrative. The design struggles mightily to make something of the photographs. It cannot, however, overcome the deluge. A tighter edit would have made for a more cohesive and focused narrative. As the book stands, I have no idea what it is about. What ought I be able to see through these photographs? That buildings have windows? So what?

Design that extends the photography is common in most contemporary photo books. I’m thinking of books like Seung Woo Back’s Memento (or Utopia/Blow-Up), KyungJa Jeong’s In Between Something and Nothing & inVisible / Suspended Landscape, or Lee Duegyoung’s Two Faces. With OPEN to CLOSE there’s nothing but the design to give shape and meaning; the photographs bring nothing, providing neither a window on a greater truth nor a door to increased understanding.

OPEN to CLOSE will look good on your shelves. The only reason to OPEN it, though, is to CLOSE it.

Publisher: Storage Book&Film
Editing: Ang
Design: The Object

Cosmetic Girls, Hein-Kuhn Oh

Half a lifetime ago at NYU, I took a film class on post-colonialism. I remember few specifics of the course other than watching The Battle of Algiers and reading Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. What has stuck with me was the idea that societal systems create tiers of privilege. Reading theories of the way oppression works and seeing this play out in real life through film made privilege, and it’s cousin bias, very real to me. To this day I am aware of my own biases and the privileges that I enjoy–as well as the discomfort that they can elicit.

Hein-Kuhn Oh’s Cosmetic Girls elicits just such a discomfort related to bias and privilege. I’d seen the book on the shelves of bookstores for a couple of years before I could bring myself to purchase it. It seemed like a book I ought to have on my shelves, but I feel dirty looking through it. The photographs don’t sexualize the girls in them but certainly do objectify those girls. The photographs make these girls into something to be looked at–and the photographer has done so meticulously and mercilessly. The photographs are unflinching. No detail goes unnoticed. (And it is entirely proper to refer to the subjects as girls; none are older than 23, most much younger.) There is an apparent male gaze.

Let it be said, though, that this is not the male gaze of Miroslav Tischy or Terry Richardson. It would be a mistake to lump Oh in with these two. Oh’s interest is anthropological inquiry–he is primarily fascinated by the value Korean society places on girls and young women. His intentions are more to do with representation than with the girls themselves. Read that again; it is the minor chords that run through his work that are discomfiting rather than an explicit raunchiness or misogyny.

His earlier Ajumma project (past review here) was a humorous but nonetheless direct and unflinching examination of middle aged Korean women. One might read the photographs as simply a look at “ajumma style” if not for the the central hot spot lighting that focuses attention on the women’s faces and the confrontational gaze of the women makes these works far more about the women than any overarching concern with style.

Consider the street style books Fruits by Shoichi Aoki or Scott Schumann’s The Sartorialist: in these books the photographs are about fashion on the streets. The subjects are generally smiling or upbeat; they seem to be enjoying being photographed. The photographs themselves are nearly style-less; there is no obvious hand of the photographer at work. Both photographers seem genuinely enthusiastic and excited by their subjects. The photographs are endearing and fun if somewhat vacuous.

In contrast, Oh’s photographs are brutal. He controls absolutely the environment in which the photographs are made. He controls the space. He controls the background. He controls the lighting. He controls the framing. The subjects are found on the street and invited to the studio to be photographed (an assistant not Oh himself makes these invitations). The subjects may have come to the studio willingly, but they look at the camera uneasily. None of the girls wear shoes (except in three photographs made outside of the studio). In some photographs the photographer has closed in on small details or just the girl’s legs. There is a kind of implicit misogyny.

Oh himself says that the kind of typological method that he has employed is “highly unethical” and a “cruel field”. He has chosen this means of representation because his subjects have chosen entertainers as their role models. He in turn makes his choices in regards to “a certain lighting, viewing angle and convention of photographic representation.” Nevermind that the convention he has chosen bears little resemblance to the highly stylized and idealized convention of photographic representation employed with celebrities.

Never mind that nowhere in Cosmetic Girls do we see the “numerous middle aged male fans known as samchon (Korean for ‘uncle’) and obba (Korean for ‘older brother’) [who] are enchanted by a variety of sexy girl groups that have gained popularity….” Instead it is the “sensitive girls” who “learn girliness from [these girl groups]” who are spread through the pages of Cosmetic Girls. Oh concludes his statement with this line: “The girls we can recognize are merely their facade and images.”

The photographs indeed depict a facade, but it is not that of the girls. These girls may wear make up, they may have had petit surgeries, and they may be conspicuously conscious of their appearances, but the facade here is not theirs. Whatever ten dollar words Oh wants to trot out talking about the photographs, it is in his use of typological processes and his stylistic decisions that he has constructed the most apparent facade: that of his own male gaze. In young women’s choice of entertainers as role models he sees a crevice in the societal facade and is picking at that crevice. As we peer through the crevice he has worried open, however, what we see is a male artist staring back.

Cosmetic Girls
Hein-Kuhn Oh
Edited by Jeong-eun Kim
Editorial Assistants Mi-rae Song, Vo-ram Lee
Designed by studio Dwyane Wade
Translation Jee-sun Park, Young Kang, Meeky Song, Cecilia J. Park
Printed and bound in Korea by Munsung
Digital Image Calibration Tae-yoon Kim, Kyung-sub Shin, Jae-woo Choi, Sang-kyun Ahn, Won-jung Jun, Hyo-joong Yoon, Hein-kuhn Oh
Published by IANNBOOKS
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Hein-kuhn Oh, <Cosmetic Girls>, Kukje Gallery
Catalogue planning by Kukje Gallery
© 2010

Franticham’s Polaroid Correspondence

Printed Matter’s annual NY Art Book Fair was held at PS1 a couple of weekends ago. It was crowded and noisy. And there were a lot of people there too.

Several weeks before the fair, I noticed on the list of exhibitors one exhibitor from Korea: Antic-ham. I clicked over to the artist’s site–a mix of drawing, collage, printmaking and photography. It is by turns playful, sexy, political and personal. Weaving all of this together is bookmaking. I ordered half a dozen books on the spot, which I enjoyed opening immensely.

At the NYABF, I made a beeline to the Red Fox Press table, which Antic-ham shared with Francis van Meale of Red Fox Press. Together, Francis and Antic-ham are Franticham. They make art as individuals and as a couple. I purchased a couple of their joint books at the fair, of which Franticham’s Polaroid Correspondence was one. It seems like the perfect encapsulation of their relationship and bookmaking. Distance, cross-cultural dialogue, collage, mail art, and Polaroid photography mix with heady emotion.

On the title page of the wire bound volume, the book explains its genesis:

During 6 weeks Francis in Achill Island and Antic-Ham in Seoul exchanged by mail their experiences and feelings with A5 postcards with collage and using Polaroid pictures made with SX-70 cameras and color Silver Shade PX films from the Impossible Project.

Newspaper clippings, packaging, stamps, address labels, drawings and Polaroid prints are collaged together. The Polaroids are captioned with personal notes and dated. These were posted back and forth. They appear to be further collaged in the book making process. They make references to shared experiences in Seoul, hint at a future together in Achill Island and riff on the longing and quotidian realities of the six weeks that lay between the before and the ever after time periods.

Correspondance is a kind of oppositional companion to Oksun Kim’s Happy Together. Kim’s book of photographs of inter-racial Korean/Non-Korean couples is informed by her own inter-racial marriage but maintains a cool detachment through an anthropological process. It examines these relationships. Franticham’s book, in contrast, is entirely personal. It is messy, raw and emotional. Dada and Fluxus sensibilities are at play throughout. Happy Together feels clinical (or, perhaps, too close to home). Correspondence feels exciting, honest, alive.

The physical book furthers this sensibility. Like Franticham’s and Anticham’s other books, Correspondence doesn’t take itself too seriously. The wire binding, handmade collage front cover and roughly printed pages (color copier?) are loose, loving and playful.

[To be clear, their dedication to their art making and book making is entirely serious. While I would consider their art making to be more termite than white elephant, their large screen printed publications are amazing and beautiful, though unfortunately too rich for my budget. I highly recommend checking out these other books, which include London Palm Trees, Grand Bazaar and New York New York, if the opportunity presents itself.]

Franticham’s Polaroid Correspondence is delightfully earnest and heartfelt. Neither making grand claims nor engaging cosmic truths, it takes the reader on a voyeuristic romp through the couple’s long distance creative embrace. This author, for one, wishes them many productive years together.

Franticham’s Polaroid Correspondence
Franticham (Francis van Meale & Antic-Ham)
Red Fox Press
Edition of 69, numbered and signed

Elegy; Jo Sook Jin

In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to state right up front that Sook Jin is a friend. As she was making the photographs that became Elegy she asked me for technical advice. She gave me a copy of her book.

On to the review, then.

If only I could have many deaths. I would like to try my options. I would like to work up to my everlasting death; for it to be the best death. (How grossly bourgeois.) It would be like trying on a suit; does it fit? Perhaps another style would suit me better. I would like to ease into finality, into forever, into nothingness–absolute, as if I were inching one toe then the next into the ocean. We get no such courtesy. The reaper shoves us headlong into the deep blue black and we are gone. This would seem to me to be a cause for fear. And, I am afraid. It is a distant fear. I am yet young, though youth doesn’t guarantee death’s distance.

The light that falls across Jo Sook Jin’s photographs is austere, hard-edged and sharp. The sun is high. It falls across dilapidated grave markers and rakes the dirt with shadow–like a macabre sun dial. The grave markers hang this way and that. Wooden crosses are split and bleached; stones are broken; concrete crumbles. Plants grow thinly across the golden dirt. Tufts of grass anchor themselves in stone crevices. In the glare of the sun the grave markers are slowly being erased.

Jo Sook Jin does not seem afraid so much as contemplative in photographing these crumbling grave markers in the cemetery on Itaparica off the coast of Brazil. Here Jo spent several residencies making the sculptural installations for which she is known as well as photographing in the graveyard. Her approach with the camera is an extension of her artistic process. Elegy is as composed of found objects as any of her physical sculptures are. Her process of discovering and collection remains intact. The sequencing of the book is much like the stacking and interlocking through which she constructs her sculptures.

In her statement at the end of the book, Jo writes that she was drawn to the “somber beauty” of the disappearing wooden grave markers. In them and the dirt she feels peoples’ presences: “…not only those who were buried but also those who had buried them. They might be in a different time and space than me but it was as if I knew them. And so I traveled in a different time.”

As a reader, I’m not sure I feel like I’m traveling to a different time, but I’m certainly put into an appropriately contemplative mood. At the beginning of her statement Jo notes a line she found in a cathedral in Salvador, Brazil: “It is a true philosophy to meditate on death” which she mirrors at the end of the statement by quoting an old saying: “We come from the earth and go back to the earth.” The photographs contain both the marker and the abode of death.

Rather than a lament to the dead, Elegy becomes a catalyst of philosophic introspection. In feeling the presence of those who have passed and those who have mourned, Jo connects us to the inevitable flow of humanity. Elegy invites us to meditate on those who are lost to us and that we too will eventually pass on.

Sook Jin Jo
Essay: Richard Vine
Noonbit Publishing Co.