For anyone passing will be in Seoul next month, be sure to check Jo’s cross photographs at the 2017 Seoul Photo Festival.
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.
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.
Kyusang Lee described Traces of Life: Seen Through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992 to me as being central to understanding Korean Photography. He felt so strongly about this that he literally chased after me following our interview to give me the book. Published in conjunction with a 2012 exhibit at The Korea Society in New York curated by Chang Jae Lee, the book outlines the post-World War II beginnings of a nascent autonomous Korean photographic tradition.
Photography first came to Korea through missionaries and other Western travelers and was later used by the Japanese as a tightly controlled political tool during the colonial period in Korea. Photographic representation of Korea and its people before 1945 was thus defined by an external perspective even when created by Koreans. In the politically charged environment of post-liberation Korea, the shift to self-representation by Korean photographers was dramatically felt and marked stylistically by an adoption of “life-realism”. This shift meant that “Koreans could finally see themselves from their own perspective,” according to Sun Il. Continue reading
Two weeks ago I was in Greece hopping from island to island. On the high speed catamarans that ferried us from port to port sea spray would drive against the windows of the cabin in which we were ensconced. We did not feel the spray nor smell the salt in the air. Skipping from beach to beach we were likewise ensconced in a fantasy of idyllic island living. We looked at a great many things, but hardly saw the lives of those around us. We did very little of the concerted looking that leads to seeing.
Oh Jin Tae’s Sound of Sea [sic] is the polar opposite. Continue reading
Other peoples’ photographs are strange. This couple embracing on the bed: why does he still wear his shoes while she is barefoot? How tame must a reindeer be to accept food from a human’s outstretched hand? Who’s bicycle is that on top of those two humps of hay on the road? Why is it humorous when an old lady looks through a howitzer of a telescope but oddly unsettling when a man in dark sunglasses looks over a ship’s rail with a pair of binoculars? Who are all of these people? And who took these photographs?
What is going on here?
Photographs are rich in physical facts: what someone wore, where someone stood, who they stood beside, what they were doing. Snapshots serve to jog our memories of why the physical world was in this state and how we felt about the experience of being in that place at that time. Unmoor snapshots from the personal memories that give them specific meaning and they become mysteries open to interpretation and invention.
This is a conceptual performance of sorts. Back poses a question and allows his chosen editors and then we, the readers, to work out the answer to it. Back collected over ten thousand vintage personal snapshots from across the US and selected 2,700 to print. These prints were then presented to eight people (one being Back himself) who were asked to select a set of eight images. These people were invited to add text to photographs if they wished. Memento One and Two are each a cardboard box containing half of the selected photographs. The “prints” are snapshot sized offset reproductions, but their varying paper base colors and surface textures mimics the feeling of flipping through a stack of old photographs. Some photographs are annotated with dates or captions in English or Korean while others are unadorned with text. Several images repeat–often with different text on them. One image of two men skeet shooting towards the ocean appears three times. As readers, we are free to rearrange and mix and match our own sets of images.
This design choice, of loose unbound prints, mirrors the premise. What do these photographs mean? To whoever took them? To ourselves? In some absolute way? Loose prints place the onus on the reader who becomes an active participant in the performance: a kind of detective. The reader must interrogate the stack of prints seeking clues in small fragments of meaning. Who knows if she will find the true meaning through this process of close looking, but she must come to her own conclusions as to what is going on here.
Memento One & Two
Seung Woo Back
Essay by Hyeyoung Shin
Designed by Yeoun Joo Park
Courtesy of Gana Art
Published by IANNBOOKS
(no year of publication listed)
Selection One: edition of 400
Selection Two: edition of 400
This isn’t a review of a single book but rather a first look at a publishing initiative. Noonbit has embarked on an ambitious project of releasing a broad series of affordably priced books that expand the audience for photo-books in Korea: Noonbit Collection of Korean Photographer’s Works. The intent is for these books to be accessible, approachable and readable in the same way that novels or books of poetry are. These are nice but not lavishly produced softcover volumes with straight forward design. In late 2014 they released the first set of ten books. These ten will be followed with additional sets of ten books.
The first series of ten books is:
- 01 DMZ, Koo Bohnchang
- 02 The Southern Line of East Coast, Kim Geum-Soon
- 03 On the Road, Kim Moon-Ho
- 04 The Reason of Affection for a Walk / Zoology, Kim Bien-hun
- 05 Daily Reduced Special Rate, Kim Jeeyoun
- 06 Snow, Min Byun Hun
- 07 National Song Contest, Byun Soon-Cheol
- 08 Beach Kamami in YeongGwang, Shin Eun-Kyung
- 09 Pumgeolri in Soyangho (lake), Im Jay Cheon
- 10 Hands, Jun Min Cho
As may be apparent from the titles and photographers chosen, this series goes beyond simply making photography accessible: it plants a flag for a certain kind of photography: straight documentary. It also lays out an over-arching examination of “Korean-ness.” The following Wright Morris quote opens an unrelated book on landscape photography I’ve just begun reading: “The camera eye is the one in the middle of our forehead, combining how we see with what there is to be seen.” Here we have ten Korean photographers documenting different locations or subjects throughout Korea; the “how we see” extending across these books is the publisher’s vision. At a meta level, the totality of this series is (or will be) is Noonbit’s vision of Korean-ness and Korean photography. (It will be interesting to see the overlaps and divergences with the Korean photography overview project that Suejin Shin is working on.)
In a way, this series is a product of the digital age. It can be seen as a traditional media outlet’s response to websites and blogs like Lenscratch, Feature Shoot, burn or 500 Photographers. These sites present an even more affordable (free) and accessible (online, immediate) selection of photography that reaches across cultures, borders and styles. One might wonder why Noonbit didn’t make its initiative in digital space. Why not make this a long-running digital property like 500 Photographers except focused on Korean photographers? Why not make this a blog like Conscientious that presents critical context for the work?
Noonbit offers photographers the status conferred by the lasting nature of a physical book. A blog post may live forever in the cloud, but it is ultimately ephemeral, replaced endlessly by new content. A thousand (or a million!) people may see a blog post, but only as part of a flow of content. A book is an artifact in the physical world; its journey may touch only a few people but it will be a continuing fact for those people. Its physical state makes its impact longer lasting.
Both the digital and the physical have their value and their uses. I believe that an opportunity may have been missed in not making this series a marriage between the two. What rich opportunities for interaction could have been presented between the physical book and an expansive digital mirror? What kind of a community might have grown around the books? What conversations might have been sparked? How many more people might have been reached and touched by these works? The likelihood of the physical books making it to the West is slim, but a multi-lingual web platform or an app presented in conjunction with the physical books could have reached outside Korea creating a richly interactive environment to explore these photographers, their works and the contexts within which they exist.
As they are, the books are a wonderful introduction to Korean photography, or at least a subset of Korean photography. It would be wonderful if a retailer like Photo-Eye, Dashwood or the ICP’s bookshop saw fit to bring them to the US.
I’ll be writing about some of these books individually in greater detail at a later date.
(This post will be updated with images.)
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.
The 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.
It 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.
It 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.
One 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.
MNM: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and writer of KoreanPhotographyBooks.com; 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