Monthly Archives: January 2015

On the Rocks, Kyoungtae Kim

OTR cover 20150125Let’s start with the conclusion: Kyoungtae Kim’s On the Rocks is an amusing, clever and honest book but not a grand one. That conclusion can be drawn from its subject matter: close-up macro photographs of small, everyday stones–roughly 2cm to 10cm in length. The bulk of the book is single pages in which each stone, floating in studio limbo, is enlarged to fill the page. Every singular stone is richly textured, wonderfully abstract and evocative–and yet humdrum.

A single paragraph of text provides the following three facts: 1. The stones come from South Korea, Italy, France, Spain and Switzerland. 2. They were collected between 2005 and 2013. 3. Kim made these photographs in May and July of 2013.

OTR 1 20150125Those three facts make me think the book came out of two questions: 1. When I travel to Europe, what can I bring back with me? 2. Now that I’ve got all these stones and pebbles sitting around, what can I do with them?

The photographs are precise. The stones are sharp top to bottom and front to back. They’re so sharp, in fact, that it is apparent that the line screen of the book’s printing is the limiting factor in the detail that can be read of their surfaces. One is tempted to see the photographs as some kind of geological survey or ancillary research outcome, though there are no captions to identify where each stone came from specifically or what type of rock they are comprised of nor an essay to give any context to support such a notion. The stones are just objects, and the photographs are just pretty pictures.

There are two additional ways that these photographs are presented. The wrap around cover, first page and last page crop the images to full bleed extreme micrographic close-ups. Scale dissolves and it is hard to tell if one is looking at rock or an aerial image. The stone in the cover image appears to be encased by a thin layer of ice–though it’s just its crystalline surface.

OTR 3 20150125The photographs are also placed in grids in which the stones are seen relative to one another. On the inside covers, the stones are scaled to a single uniform size and printed in grids. In a nice touch, one must open the inside flap of the cover (onto which the full bleed cover image does not extend) to reveal the grids. A similar gridded spread follows the colophon page; on this grid the stones are scaled relative to one another and there is a scale so that one can determine how large each stone is in reality. This grid is repeated on a pull out poster on which the stones are printed life size (at 1:1 scale).

OTR poster  20150125

OTR 4 20150125There is one outlier image. At the top of the colophon page is a photograph of two rocks sitting heavily on a paved street. These are rocks not stones. They’re large, roughly a meter square. This is entirely unlike any other photograph in the book and yet this photograph is the key stone supporting the entire structure or the rosetta stone that rearranges our understanding of the preceding photographs. We have spent the book looking and looking at these small stones as aesthetic objects divorced from any context. In this one image we are brought back into the world. We are shown two rocks. They have not been made by the photograph into anything more than they are. And yet one’s first impulse is to lean in close to look at them, to examine them. What magic is hidden in these most quotidian of objects?

On the Rocks isn’t grand or ostentatious but it is wonderful nonetheless. It is full of the wonder that is the reward of close looking. It reminds us, in the closing image, that we can find such rewards through examining closely our banal every day world.

On the Rocks
Photographer and Designer: Kyoungtae Kim
Publisher: Your-Mind

A Conversation with Suejin Shin

Michael N. Meyer: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and writer of; I am sitting here with Suejin Shin, who is the Creative Director of the Ilwoo Foundation, and a Research Professor of Yonsei University.

Suejin Shin: Right.

Jimin Han: And a director of Lamp LAB, brand-new [laughter].

MNM: And also with me is Jimin Han, who is translating for me and interjecting follow up questions. Suejin, let’s start with your background. You have multiple degrees in photography and in psychology. How did you come to bring those two things together? How did you come to use psychology as a lens to understand and expand upon photography?

Suejin Shin, Lamp LAB, Seoul

Suejin Shin at Lamp LAB, November 2014

SJS: My first major was psychology, and my second major was photography. I then got a master’s degree in photography and a PHD in psychology. My studies of photography were primarily in photographic theory. I’ve never intended to be a professional photographer. In studying psychology my focus was on vision, or visual perception, and Cognitive Science. I simply followed my curiosity in studying the two; I wondered what kind of feelings or thoughts people have when they see photographic images. It’s about what people feel when they see images. It’s about feeling, or the process of thinking. In other words, when they see certain images, they come to have certain feelings or thoughts. My main interest lies in where they come from.

Generally, the background fields of art theory are commonly art histories or something similar; so, many people wonder how psychology can be applied to these fields. I’m interested in photographic images, but it is the audience I observe in order to realize my interest.
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KID NOSTALGIA: Portraits of South Korean Youth, Park Sung Jin

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, Cover

Park Sung Jin’s KID Nostalgia is a collection of sensitive, square format, black and white portraits of South Korean youth in school uniform taken between 2001 and 2009. The subjects are set center frame with side street or back alleyway urban scenes surrounding them. The portraits are roughly evenly split between waist up and full length views. The black and white is the soft gray of a subtle, classic aesthetic that doesn’t call attention to itself. The books uses a simple layout in which each portrait is presented individually on the right hand page of a spread.

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, interior spread
With a few exceptions, Park’s subjects gaze directly through the camera towards the viewer. This gaze is direct but not confrontational. In fact, there is a kind of softness to this eye contact. While there are the outward signs of youthful rebellion–cigarettes, mussed hairstyles and punked-out uniforms, the youths’ eyes belie a certain reticence. They hold themselves with an awkwardness that suggests naivete or innocence. There is longing and insecurity. There is intensity, too; so much so that they seem ready to burst into flame. These cool kids smolder.

Photographs are of their maker as much as of what stood before the lens. The choices that one makes in selecting a subject, deciding how to depict and frame that subject and ordering the resulting pictures in series all are decided by and define the maker’s state of mind. Though born in Seoul (where many of these photographs were taken), he came to New York City in 1987 at the age of 17. In New York, Park found “a place where every conceivable race [lives] side by side, but they don’t actually mix… Instead they live within their own identities.” Park notes that Kid Nostalgia is, in a sense, his “trying to find [his] own forgotten roots.”

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, interior spread One comparison that springs readily to mind when viewing Kid Nostalgia is with Hein-Kuhn Oh’s Girls Act. The subject matter is quite similar, and the black and white aesthetics are even similar. The photographs come from entirely different mindsets, though, and these differences are apparent in the details. In Park’s “남산동 2005” for an example, the camera has been fitted with a slightly wide lens and positioned at the subject’s eye level. This even footing grants an instant conversational familiarity and shows the subject within an environment. Oh’s photographs, such as “Jin-hee Han, age 17, 2003,” are shot from a low vantage point. The viewer looks up at the subject, who becomes monumental. Oh’s low vantage point and longer lens places the horizon low in the frame, minimizing the subject’s relationship to her surroundings by placing her against the relatively neutral ground of the sky. The lighting is different, too: Park’s light is soft and coming from behind the subjects; it is probably the filtered light of an overcast sky. Oh’s light is hard, directional and frontal–direct flash on axis with the Oh’s lens.

These subtle differences in how the photographers use similar black and white materials to depict similar subjects limn a critical divide between them. Oh looks outward with a critical gaze and a clear concept (both Girl Act specifically and in his work broadly) that is as direct and hard as the light in “Jin-hee Han, age 17, 2003.” This concept can loosely be defined as the way that social markers of identity both bind groups of people together but also alienate and limit those same people.In contrast, Park looks inward. His vision relies on his subjects being their “raw and fresh” selves. In fact, it is precisely his subjects’ refusal to play by the rules, their skulking about on the “periphery” that makes these kids such powerful avatars for Park. The soft light that suffuses Park’s photographs denotes a kind of romanticism–it caps the subjects of “남산동 2005” with halos such that one might read them as mischievous alternative saints.

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, interior spread For all Park’s talk about his subjects’ rawness, the photographs are remarkably chaste. This is not Elle Perez’s ghettopunk and not even within shouting distance of Dash Snow’s Polaroids. These kids may be full of excitement and energy but that energy never breaks the photographic surface. Park treats the youth with incredible sensitivity but imbues them with a nostalgia that is unlikely their own. It is the nostalgia of someone looking back. One wonders how these kids might depict themselves.

Kid Nostalgia is, physically, simply appointed. It’s design is minimal and straightforward, mirroring the subtle aesthetics of the photographs while relying on them to carry their own weight. The heavyweight glossy dust jacket features the image “가리봉동 2005” on the front; the title, photographer’s name and publisher in English and Korean are on the spine; and a UPC code on the back. The book’s hardcover boards are a cheap glossy white with only the title and UPC code on the blindingly bare front cover and title, photographer’s name and publisher in English and Korean on the spine. The plates are nicely but not luxuriously printed on paper stock thin enough that a reader can nearly read the photographs through each page’s backside. The production quality of the book will not win any awards, though it does its job in delivering the photography simply and without fuss.

KID NOSTALGIA: Portraits of South Korean Youth
Park Sung Jin
Edited by Kim Kwangchul
Translation by Colin Mouat
Design by Gang Moonsik
Printed by Sinsago Hi-techj
propaganda press (site, contact)

The Interpreters, Kyungwoo Chun

150104_interpretersInterpreters begins with divergence. A Western reader, out of habit, opens the book left to right. The title page and table of content page force this reader to turn the book so the pages open upwards. Flipping to page five, which contains the first plate in the book, the reader is forced again to turn the book so that he is reading right to left. A Korean reader would likely note the orientation of the Hangul on the cover and open the book as intended–though the orientation of the English characters on the cover, title page and table of contents might cause some doubt. Perhaps an insider is not an insider is not an insider.

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