Monthly Archives: March 2015

National Song Contest, Byun Soon Choel


National Song Contest is like a self-similar view of Korea. One can extrapolate out from these photographs and examine nearly any facet of Korean culture. This is hyperbole, but this series of photographs from Byun Soon Choel has a definite fractal-like quality to it. And, perhaps most importantly, it is chock full of zany fun.

NationalSongContest_08The nominal subject of National Song Contest is contestants of the television show of the same name. Running for over thirty years, the show’s premise is much like “America’s Got Talent,” if that show were combined with a comedic circus act. Choel’s subjects are full of ardor; each is a uniquely live wire. Choel does not hold them back. He seems rather to push them into hamming it up for the camera–pushing them in such a way that their acts become archetypes.

Midday sun boosted by a pop of strobe bathes the contestants in bright, intense color and freezes their antics as they sing, dance and pose for Choel’s camera. Individual contestants and a handful of groups pose either before or after their star turn. They stand in fields, parks, parking lots, sidewalk niches, press stages and the occasional hotel hallway. These landscapes mirror and reinforce the numerous facets of Korean-ness that are suggested in the personas that the subjects project and the costumes that they wear.


These costumes range from classic to questionable with stops in eclectic bohemia, historical reminiscence, and K-Pop striving. There are hanbok and white tuxedo jackets; pink pants and floral prints; suspenders and athletic wear; sequins and plaids. There are fedoras and berets; rubber sandals and rubber boots; bonnets and afro wigs; sneakers and stilettos. There is even a muscle padded superman. These are combined in hilarious and unexpected ways.

NationalSongContest_02It is hard to reduce the project to a representative sample, so I’ll simply note one image that makes me smile. A haraboji stands on a foreground of astroturf with a screen of pine trees behind him that partially obscure a palace wall to the left and a row of low mountains receding into the blue distance to the right. His outfit is a chaotic confabulation of color, pattern and style. From the ground up we see: On his feet he wears bright red athletic cleats and red knee high socks. We can see that they are knee high socks because his loose-cut blue dress slacks are short, ending just below his knee. His pin-striped blue dress shirt has decorative stitching on the collar. Covering this shirt is a red lumberjack plaid sports coat; a mis-tied pink and gold necktie juts out from the jacket (with its tail spilling out below). He wears oversized round glasses and a blue and white bubble (floral?) patterned beret (or is it a shower cap?). His body is twisted in mid-gesture, and his face is screwed into the lead-in of another gesture. His hands are held gracefully, as though taken from a tai-chi pose or lifted from a Renaissance painting of saints.

This image, as well as any other from the project, brings to bear the full emphasis of joyful visual expression that the contestants parade before the camera. These folks are having a good time and they want you to see it.

NationalSongContest_05It would be naive to imagine that not one of these contestants harbors hope of fame or fortune through the contest, but it is entirely the joy of the performance that drives the photographs. If one were to shoot a similar project here in America, it would likely by tinged by an ironic sadness of the desperation for fame or the mocking overtones of the ‘loser edit.’ In contrast, Cheol’s lens affectionately finds antic joy.

The portraits are generally full page, one to a spread and captioned on the opposing page with the location and year each was created. The oversized volume is nicely printed and well designed, though the materials are hardly sumptuous. One wishes that the visual antics of the portraits might have made their way into the design, at least a little–Martin Parr’s Life’s a Beach comes to mind as an example of a publication in which the physical design took its cues from the photographs.

NationalSongContest_04One might be tempted to label and dismiss Choel’s National Song Contest as camp, but this would be a mistake. The loose typographical framework, reminiscent of August Sanders’ expansive People of the 20th Century, becomes a cipher through which Choel is able to decode the breadth of “Korean-ness”. It is not only the contestants and their personas that transmit this information, but also the details of landscape and location that are the backdrop of the portraits. Likewise, it would be a mistake to forget that the photographs are a cacophony of crazy performances being conducted in enthusiastic ernest for the camera. The photographs are, quite simply, a lot of fun.

National Song Contest
Byun Soon Cheol
Published by G Colon

Korean Cultural Service currently exhibiting Hyung S. Kim’s Haenyeo photographs

As part of Asia Week here in NYC, the Korean Cultural Service is exhibiting Hyung S. Kim’s Haenyeo photographs in its Gallery Korea. The exhibit runs through April 10th.

To keep this post apropos to the blog’s main theme, a book containing these photographs is available.

More info.

Automatic Description, YOON Seungjun

AutomaticDescription01Yoon Seungjun’s Automatic Description is a book of car photographs. These photographs are not your everyday glossy advertisement for this years latest iteration of automotive desire. There is no glitz, no sparkle, no sex appeal. These cars are dead.

These cars are literally dead. Yoon has photographed junked junkers in junkyards. It would be a mistake to label this as ruin porn and set it aside with disdain. Yoon’s working method is more in line with the socially conscious impulses of Sebastião Salgado or Edward Burtynsky, though without Salgado’s humanity or Burtyksky’s grand scale. His photography is a critical examination of “the space and environment of modern society,” here that is specifically the junkyard behind the façade of contemporary automobile culture in South Korea. If it also happens to be visually arresting and aesthetically appealing so much the better.

AutomaticDescription02 Automatic Description is broken into chapters that build one upon the other. The book begins with “Anatomical Chart – appropriation,” a typological series of images of individual car’s under carriages shot against a black ground. These photographs reduce the automobile to its basic structural form, minus wheels. We see the body frame with the suspension structures, transmission, driveshaft, and exhaust systems hanging from it. With their wheels removed and reoriented in space, these automobiles are no longer vehicles but rather abstract forms. Looking closely, one can find narratives in the abstraction: oil leaks, broken drive shafts, scrapes, rust and burn (?) marks. There are stories in these forms however banal they might be.

AutomaticDescription03Chapter two, “Anatomical Chart – combination,” moves from individual vehicles to the aggregation of them. Vehicles are no longer individual stories. Instead, they interlock in stacks and heaps. Crumpled cars are crumpled in a pile. Hundreds of gas tanks are mounded together. Wiring harnesses are enmeshed in a chaotic singular mess. Pipes of every description writhe together like so many snakes in a pit. The singular story has given way to a history of multitudes. Yoon brings his camera in close for these photographs. We see no ground; the subject fills the frame. We are again seeing this automotive wreckage as abstraction.

AutomaticDescription04“Scraped Car Chart – parade” is the third chapter and takes us off into the new territory of documentary context. Yoon has pulled back to show us the space in which these cars are resting. We see the rows of racks and risers on which the cars rest. Some of the vehicles are half dismantled; others seem as shiny as new. Sunlight glints off of chrome and polish, still. In the middle of the chapter a gatefold presents a long panoramic image of column after column of junked cars. There are obvious joints in the image; it is not a singular panorama. Yoon has constructed this image–no different than we have constructed this entire infrastructure of disposal (such as it is). Just as the infrastructure of roads, highways and city streets has been built to accommodate the relentless drive of automobile culture so has an infrastructure been built to support the end stage inherent in consumerism. When millions are buying cars, millions are inevitable discarding them as well.

Yoon pulls back, once again, in the last chapter, “Scrapped Car Chart – Goryeojang.” Goryeojang refers to a historical custom in the Goryeo period of taking one’s elderly parents into the mountains and leaving them there to die. There was a movie with this title as well in the early 1960’s in which a son takes his mother to the mountains but breaks the custom by returning home with her. The photographs in this chapter are of cars junked in quasi-wild places. Cherry blossoms bloom above one wrecked SUV. A tangle of scrubby bushes grows up through a bright red wreck of a coupe. A luxury sedan has settled into repose on a hillside; it is surrounded by leafless trees of brownest autumn. A white SUV sits upended into a ditch; we see only its tail end with barren trees towering above it. In the chapter’s final photograph the wrecked hulks of a Bongo and Porter intermingle in the background; they are nearly obscured by the thick tangle of branches and new buds in which they have become buried. The organized infrastructure of the preceding chapter is nowhere to be seen. Instead, automobile culture has intruded upon nature. This intrusion marks a breakdown in order that, perhaps, signifies a culture losing its traction and sliding out of control.


As a member of the photography collective Dream Flower Factory (mentioned here), Yoon shares the collective’s socially minded conscious. This conscious is evident in these photographs. Yoon lures us in with the abstract beauty of the first chapters but is never himself seduced. The title of the fourth chapter makes his concerns crystal clear. Not only are we uncomfortable with the custom he references, but we then must transfer this discomfort to our car culture. We no longer leave our elders in the mountains to die; perhaps one day we will no longer leave our vehicular refuse in the woods to rust away either. If this comes to pass, it will not be a kindness to our elders that drives us, but instead a kindness to future generations.

Automatic Description
Yoon Seungjun
Publisher: Park Seonsoon
Published by: Photodot
July 1, 2014
Photo Edited by: Yoon Seungjun & Choi Yeonha
Written by: Choi Yeonha
Translation to English: Jaeeun Kwak & Grace Yoon
Designed by: Han Jeongyeon
Printed by DaeHyun Printing & Publishing

Pegasus 10000 Miles; Lee Young Jun


Sometimes the most interesting photography books aren’t photography centric at all. One of the first books I wrote about on this blog was Seoul Essay, which used photography to illustrate and expand the written essays that were its core content. The photographs were nonetheless fascinating. Similarly, photography is only part of Pegasus 10000 Miles; written essays (in Korean only) are the primary content of the book. (I am, as ever, treading on thin ice writing about a book which I cannot read a significant portion of.)

Pegasus 10000 Miles tracks the journey of the CMA CGM Pegasus as it makes its way around the world from Dalian to Southampton (there is a handy map that shows both the route of the Pegasus and the route of the author). This ship functions as the central narrative, but the photographs and essays are not slavishly tied to it. The ship is simply an access point allowing for the entirety of sea borne global trade–historical and contemporary, to be examined and critiqued.

Since the text is lost on me, I will confine this review to a small selection of photographs and the workmanship of workroom’s design.

I bought this book, unopened, shrink wrapped and sight-unseen because of the promise of the cover photograph. A man in a red survival suit stands stiffly on a ship’s green steel deck. Behind him are a red cabinet containing a “fire hose & nozzle” and a red “Restricted Area” sign. The railings beside him and the wall behind him are stark white. It is a classic contemporary portrait redolent of adventure and modern mitigated risk. On opening the book, the promise is largely unfulfilled. There are few photographs as starkly clean as this portrait or as technically proficient. The greatest bulk of the photographs appear to be snapshots by an amateur with a unique amount of access.

There are four photographs that sum up the book. The first is a nearly abstract view of the ship heading into the sun. The sea’s undulating surface is dappled with light and looks almost like static on a television screen. In the curved wake behind the ship the surface undulates at a lower frequency and we can see the route the ship has sailed. The ship may be the subject of the photograph, but it is the metadata left in its wake that gives us the most information.


The second image is taken from the ship’s bridge looking out across the rows of stacked shipping containers. The ship is coming into a port. Along the waterfront there are no less than 22 cranes for loading and unloading cargo. Several ships are already docked and being either loaded or unloaded. There are clearly many such ships plying the world’s waters and a complex high-tech infrastructure built around them.


On the next spread we see another cargo ship, the MSC Savona, chartered out of Monrovia, coming into port in Hong Kong (or perhaps Xiamen). This ship is even larger than the CMA CGM Pegasus–it is twenty container columns across rather than eighteen. The ship takes up nearly the entire foreground of the photograph, one can barely see the sea to either side of it. Its stacks of cargo containers neatly echo the apartment towers in the background. Two related readings of this photograph that spring immediately to mind: The city as we know it today is directly tied to the global commerce embodied in these ships. Modern life–particularly modern urban life, is significantly defined by the consumer culture represented by these ships. Without global trade, modern life would not exist as we know it.


The fourth photograph I want to talk about is of a man repairing some piece of machinery. He is perched awkwardly on a ledge and reaching into an oblong opening, which does not seem intended to be an access point. What at first appears to be blue wiring is actually nylon rope. To this point, nearly the entire focus of the photographs has been on the physical enormity of the ship, its advanced technological aspects and the complex system of ports and shipping lanes of which it is a part. Here we are seeing that for all of its marvels, it is still men who make these ships go (and who built them, for that matter). When something breaks, someone has to fix it. The photograph is one of only half a dozen or so photographs of the ship’s crew and the only one in which someone is actively doing something.

Even without the text, Pegasus 10000 Miles is a fascinating and charming glimpse into global shipping. If one were interested in shipping primarily and wanted facts rather than photographs, being unable to understand the text would be a greater concern.

Pegasus 10000 Miles
Lee Young Jun

A Conversation with Kyusang Lee and Misook Ahn of Noonbit

MNM: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and writer of; I am sitting here with Lee Kyusang and Ahn MiSook of Noonbit Publishing Co. as well as my wife, Ji Young Lee who will be translating and asking follow up questions. Mr. Lee and Ms. Ahn, let’s start with the easy questions: what is the history of Noonbit and your background in photography. Were you photographers, or editors, or, before beginning Noonbit, did you come from another division in publishing?

Kyusang Lee: Originally, what we studied was Korean literature and writing. As you know, every Korean male must serve in the army, so I did too. After I finished studying I became an editor in a publisher producing art books. My wife, who is the chief editor… Continue reading

Exhibition: Boomoon at Flowers Gallery, NYC

Flowers Gallery on West 20th Street here in New York City will be showing Boomoon’s Naksan photographs. The exhibit opens this Thursday, March 5th, and runs through April 4th.

Boomoon published a monograph of this work with Nazraeli Press; I assume that this book as well as his other books with Nazraeli will be available for purchase (as will original prints!) at the gallery.