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.
In a recent New York Times Magazine On Photography column, Teju Cole wrote, “the apparent neutrality of photographs can conceal as much as it reveals–especially when the subject is violence or prejudice.” Cole’s column explores the layers of opportunity for misrepresentation through photographs due to their supposed “facticity”. Noh Suntag’s Red House examines exactly this dynamic in photographic representation using North Korea as a foil.
The Korea Artist Prize describes Noh as producing “photographs that detail real-life situations directly related to the division of Korea” and showing “how deeply the division has permeated the daily lives of the Korean people and has thus distorted the entire society.” Red House explores these themes from a subject’s presentation to the act of representing that subject with the camera through the use and consumption of the resulting photographs. Further, Noh’s photographs (and more specifically his text) acknowledge that this distortion is personal–his use of the camera in relation towards his subjects functions as a kind of mirror of his own biases.
North Korea is a particular subject that amplifies Noh’s themes. Despite the obviousness of the statement, it is necessary to note that there are few if any other places in the world where two countries’ identities are so intertwined with such fraught political, cultural and historical push and pull. Furthermore, the North’s near obsession with image and the way it presents itself to the South and the larger outside world is similarly unique. This exaggerated manipulation of its own image leads outsiders to a particular kind of fascination and creates an intense need to record what is seen. These three ideas form the basis for the three chapters in Red House.
Everyone has seen the kinds of photographs that comprise the book’s first chapter: the masses of people participating in the DPRK’s Arirang Festival events. Any reader will almost certainly have an image of thousands of people in synchronized motion come into their mind’s eye. Most of these images are interchangeable because the subject has been designed to present a particular message to do so by being seen by the camera. The scenes are an elaborate propaganda construction. Noh’s color photographs of the brightly colored Arirang Festival in 2005 are, on first glance, as interchangeable as a typical tourist’s photograph or a photojournalist’s photograph. As one flips through Noh’s photographs one becomes aware of a modulation of push and pull between overarching vistas of hundreds of people and relatively intimate tight shots of a dozen people. Within the small groups one can see variations in the individual participants’ movements. Looking back to the broad vistas these variations remain in one’s mind and the intended view is broken. Noh makes the underlying construction of the spectacle apparent. This opening set of photographs recalls Seung Woo Back’s series Utopia and Blow Up. Like Back, Noh is seeking interstitial truths within tightly controlled state spin.
With the subject as construction firmly argued, Noh moves next to the thought or thoughtlessness that occurs in the recording of this scene. Despite the almost certain knowledge that this careful grooming of particular scenes–even mundane scenes, shapes what they see, foreigners nonetheless are eager to record these scenes and their trespass into them. In this chapter Noh switches to a stark black and white reportage style which is often exaggerated through the use of an on camera flash. Noh wants us to see that he is now looking critically at the spectacle of the spectator turned witting or unwitting collaborator. The black and white is a visual marker that he is looking in a way that is significantly different than the tourists with their point and shoots that he is photographing. For him it is the almost desperate desire to record the experience of being here in North Korea that is of interest. The scene that elicits this desire is secondary.
In the final chapter of Red House, Noh turns his attention to South Korea and the way that the North becomes manifest within the South. The North becomes a straw man, a bogey man, a savior. Its role and meaning shift depending upon who is invoking it. In this way the North becomes a mirror for a range of opinions and viewpoints in the South. The one failing in this set of photographs is the need for extensive caption information to know what one is being shown; without the captions, which are often interpretive, many of the images are oblique. The upside to these captions is that Noh’s own biases are suggested. The reader is faced with having to revisit all that he has seen to this point to consider the manipulation inherent in all of the preceding images.
Throughout Red House, Noh has shown that photographs are slippery. As he says at the start of the second chapter, “I know about North Korea. However I do not know what I know about it.” His photographs show a great many views of and toward North Korea–and yet how definitive or true any one of them is remains questionable. This is intentional. How can one trust a photograph when it has been manipulated since before it was even made? Everyone manipulates the photograph: the subject, the photographer, the publisher and the viewer. At no time is the meaning of the photograph fixed. In a situation like exists between North Korea and South Korea this manipulation is highly political. Yet, as Noh’s photographs of amateur shutterbugs and political protestors show, this process can be equally apparent in the personal realm.
Publisher: Jung Jongho
Design: Avec_ Noh Younghyun
Translation: Kang-Baek Hyosu
Publishing Co.: Chungaram Media Ltd.
[Sidebar: Nearly ten years after Red House was published, photography as a driver of social media has shown that this manipulation is pursued no less aggressively by individuals than by rogue regimes. Manipulation of our recorded lives in photographs intended for sharing on social media is commonplace. Wanting to show our best selves, we push the bounds of truth.]
Like anyone, I have my predilections. I like highly personal, quirky and modest photobooks. It is not necessary in my opinion that a photobook be a capital “G” Great work of capital “A” work of Art for it to cause a viewer to see the world in a new way or to reconsider her vantage. Sometimes it is a small observation lovingly made and lovingly shared that offers the greatest return.
Several years ago I participated in a workshop run by Jeffrey Ladd and Ken Schles. The two photographers asked each participant to bring a couple of favorite photobooks. My selections were Paul Kooiker‘s Seminar and Ld by Yasushi Cho. Kooiker and Cho’s books are quirky–Cho’s particularly so. Seminar is a modest volume of photographs of one woman’s shoes shot during a seminar. The photographs are obsessive, almost desperate. What at first seems simply a particular detail catching and holding the photographer’s attention slowly builds into a discomfiting misogynistic fetish. The handmade Ld is probably as far as one could push a photobook before it becomes an artists book. The darkly printed photographs of light sources are layered with laser over print. The pages are irregularly shaped and hand sewn into an odd shaped cover. A laser printed acetate sheet forms a kind of dustjacket. I find books like these fascinating because one can see how an idea wends its way through a photographer’s mind.
Antic-Ham’s B-Cuts has a similarly acute sensibility. It is a small book, only 14 pages, inkjet printed in a limited edition of 169 copies. It is hand sewn and features a cover cut from the book review section of a French newspaper with the title silkscreened atop the text. The photographs within and the design itself connect this book to Franticham’s oeuvre.
The photographs in book are the usually discarded frames lost to light leaks, skewed perspectives, random subjects, double exposures and other technical lapses in the rush to load a roll or in processing the film. In these photographs, the visual frames end and blend haphazardly. Frames are cut off abruptly, jam one against the next or sit one atop the other in double exposures. This can be jarring, though as often as not the compositions feel highly intentional.
Photography is a multifaceted process, and there is opportunity for creative discovery throughout it.These photographs are primarily a product of Antic-Ham’s treating the editing with as much reverence as the shooting. As much as one creates photographs by framing the real world, it is in the editing that one makes judgements about if and how a photograph “works”. Sometimes there are diamonds to be found in the rough.
B-Cuts is fun and quirky and offers the viewer an opportunity to reframe their conception of what is a good photograph. In the digital rush attention has been primarily directed toward technical perfection. In this new, cleaner process the opportunistic happenstance represented by the beauty of flawed images has been lost. Antic-Ham reminds us remain open to the beauty found in our castoffs and offcuts throughout the photographic process and throughout life.
Edition of 169
Photographing at night exposes the world in a new light. We are able to see things in ways that we cannot during daylight hours. Taewon Jang has gone out into the darkness to photograph stalled construction projects, remnants of abandoned factories and the nocturnal glow of functioning industrial sites so that we can see them, literally, in a different light.
The light of the night is the opposite of the light of day. Daylight is external and falls onto the world–and does so with relative equality. At night, light jets outward from the subjects and pools close to its source leaving the rest of the world dark. By photographing at night–and by making use of the long exposures required by his large format camera, Jang traces the power relations (literal and metaphorical) of contemporary society.
Jang began making photographs in Korea and Japan of stalled construction sites. Over the seven year period during which he photographed, he expanded his subject matter to include abandoned factories and functioning industrial sites as well as expanded his geographic area to include the United States. In total, he has photographed almost 400 different sites. Seventy-seven of these appear in Stained Ground.
Distilling physical objects and their complex outer appearances into photographic form gave way to seeking evidence of the deep structures of our social contract. What is interesting is how the subjects suggest not only the social developments that begat them but also the continual development that will later consign them to obsolescence.
He describes the way his subjects evolved over the course of the seven year project in an interview with Suejin Shin included in the book: “In the beginning, I concentrated on the specific topography or the architecture, or perhaps a structure, or construction equipment, thinking that these elements could reveal the strange tension I felt at the site[s]… But then as I continued working on this project for a long time, I came to realize that what I saw was only a very small part of a larger picture… the places I photographed have changed beyond recognition or have even vanished from the map.”
The light that illuminates these subjects and suffuses the photographs with an ethereal glow is itself a product of the development that these photographs trace. Likewise, Jang’s ability to photograph is a product of the development. Without the progress of the first and second industrial revolutions (and that continues in the third industrial–or technological, revolution of the present day) these photographs could not exist and their subjects would not exist. The advancements of each revolution bring about new technologies and new industries while leaving behind the old and setting the foundation for the next.
The last three photographs of Stained Ground can be read as a coda for understanding the book: In “SG U #415, 2013”, a vast windfarm spreads across the frame. Each windmill is marked off by the red glow of its warning light. The movement of some of the turbines’ blades over the course of the long exposure has blurred them into nothingness. In the background a miasma of green light sets off the dark and skewed horizon. Our own technology appears as “other.” The scene suggests both a technological miracle and an apocalypse brought about by the chain of changes these machines are intended, at least in part, to solve. The next photograph, “SG U #321, 2007,” is of a small, low industrial building. It’s garage door is dark but open–we can see the dim form of a white chair inside. To the right, the bare spindly branches of a tree loom over the building as if about to collapse onto it. In the background the cooling towers of a power plant hover in a haze of brackish yellow clouds. Running from the foreground to the background in the left of the frame are high-tension power lines. They run straight back to a patch of blue cloud along the far horizon. The path to our current state has run along a line of iterative steps. Each successive revolution has brought the next. Photographically, the book ends with “SG K #420, 2007”. This photograph is one of only a handful that includes people and is the only photograph in which people are central. A group of 9 men (I assume they are men) are in a line in the center of the frame. They are dwarfed by the night around them. Five stand while four crouch or sit huddled on the ground. A line of hills run along the horizon and are dark against a multicolored sky. The ground on which the men are set is orange and indistinct. It is unclear if this is where perhaps some original industrial beginning occurred or where and how we’ll be left at some point in the future after our industry has run us to ground.
This is beautiful work and powerfully moving–in spite of the book’s humdrum design. As an object, Stained Ground is disappointing. As a point of comparison with another recent Hatje Cantz, Bae Bien-U’s Windscape‘s design pays attention to small details like the use of different papers for the text and plates and the use of a translucent matte dust-jacket that evokes the soft light of the photographs within. By comparison, Stained Ground lacks these small book maker’s touches. The cover is a good example of this: it is a garish glossy wrap with the title lost in the tones of the photograph over which it is set. Looking at Jang’s previous book, Black Midday, one sees a somewhat lower production value but a significantly greater attention to the design.
Stained Ground is a nice book to have on the shelf but not a necessary one. It doesn’t elicit delight. While it may seem odd to suggest that this should be the goal of a book whose subject matter is so somber, art books ought to be as much an object of delight as a carrier of content. One could imagine and certainly desire that design might have better served as mirror and amplifier to the content of Stained Ground. None of this is meant to discount the power of the photographs which are necessary and ought to be seen.
Taewon Jang (site)
Edited by Suejin Shin and Markus Hartmann
Copyediting: Leina Gonzalez
Graphic Design and Typesetting: Andreas Platzgummer, Hatje Cantz
Production: Nadine Schmidt, Hatje Cantz
Typeface: Thesis, The Sans
Reproductions: Jan Scheffler, prints professional
Paper: Galaxi Keramik
Printing and Binding: DZA Druckerei zu Altenberg GmBH, Altenberg
A brief post-script: A couple of American photographers making work contemporaneously with Jang are brought to mind by this book. Jang’s “SG U #405, 2013” recalls Mitch Epstein’s, American Power (as well as State of the Union, also published by Hatje Cantz). Epstein’s photographs examine the relationship of American society with industry, primarily in the form of energy production. Epstein places industry as ever present in the background of everyday life. Industry is there, but it remains, just barely, secondary to the human lives that it supports. Like Jang, his photographs are hesitant in passing judgement but present a troubling view. Less ambivalent is Will Steacy. Like Jang, Steacy spent long nights photographing America at night with a large format camera. In Down These Mean Streets, Steacy brought an agitprop sensibility to depicting the plight of the American City–in its archetypal and specific forms. The light in Jang’s photographs may hint at apocalypse and dystopia, but it has none of Steacy’s firebrand anger.
Oksun Kim is best known for unsparing, full force portraiture. The best metaphor for her portraits is a frontal assault. She approaches her subjects head on.
The Shining Things is a departure. Rather than people, she has brought her lens to bear on trees. Though it might seem a logical step to describe these photographs as portraits of trees, I do not think that is accurate or useful. While Kim has brought her usual head-on style, these are not portraits.
Kim is based on Jeju Island, and that is where these photographs were taken. The trees are from a range of species and they appear as often in natural surrounds as the edges of urban spaces. Some trees are singled out and others blend into a cacophonous forest tableau of texture and color.
The photographs call to mind Ed Panar’s Golden Palms. Panar’s lo-fi photographs of LA made shortly after he moved there are similarly direct and diverse. While his photographs often include trees or vegetation, they are not the sole or even primary subject matter. What ties his book together is an affectionate sense of amusement at his new home.
Affection is likewise apparent in Kim’s The Shining Things. Kim’s portrait projects Hamel’s Boat and No Direction Home were shot on Jeju Island where she is currently based. While the location has not been a central visual concern in these photographs (though certainly conceptually it has), I can’t help but feel that the intense close looking so important in her portraits must bleed over into her quotidian view. When she walks away from a portrait session or goes for a drive the next day, how can a vestige of that intensity not carry over? How can the world not appear beautiful and wonderful in her intense gaze?
The book opens with a quote from Hubert Dreyfus’ and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining: “All things are not shining, but all the shining things are.” Their book is a call to reawaken an “intense involvement with the wonder and beauty of the world” (that is according to Amazon’s blurb–I’ve not read the book myself**). Kim’s close looking and affection for place have led her to make these photographs. They are an outpouring of involvement with the wonder and beauty of the everyday world. These are the shining things that have become apparent through Kim’s intense gaze.
Postscript: Since publishing this review in June I have read All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly. With an expanded understanding of the ideas in the book, which are a source for Kim’s photography, I want to make a couple of additional comments on Kim’s The Shining Things. Dreyfus and Kelly write about the process by which meaning in human being has been reduced and diminished over the past two millenniums and the potential for reawakening the opportunities for meaning through polytheistic attitudes. In their view, meaning in contemporary life has become flattened with the spiritual shift to monotheism and the drive towards radical individualism (abetted by technological advancement). Their contention is that there remains a multiplicity of poietic conceptions of human being, going back through history, that offer us a manifold understanding of the way the world is. Drawing from these multiple conceptions of the world we can move beyond the dearth of meaning offered by the confluence of monotheism and individualism. By seeking a new kind of vibrant polytheism we can unlock a wonderful world of shining things.
In their book’s conclusion, Dreyfus and Kelly write: “[Becoming receptive to a modern pantheon of gods] requires developing the senses of the sacred that still linger unappreciated at the margins of our disenchanted world.” With this thought in mind, an alternative reading of Kim’s trees would be as the physical embodiment of Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s idea. The trees themselves linger at the margins; Kim elevates them through the wonder of her lens and shows them to be shining. This in no way diminishes the affection for place that I considered previously. I think that her engagement with the local is expansive. Through Kim’s expert use of craft (a poietic mode of meaning) and her attentiveness to the potential for beauty and meaning in the quotidian, her photographs both mirror and amplify the ideas in All Things Shining.
The Shining Things
Edited by The Museum of Photography, Seoul
Curated by: Senior Curator Son Young-joo, Curator Kim Sunyoung, Assistant Curator Kim Jeehyun, Educators Hyeju Hong & Mihyun Kim, Interns Jeena Lee & Eunji Choi
Text by: Loo Youngwook
Translated by: Juhee Son (Kor-Eng)
Designed by: Kim Jindeuk
Printed by: Graphic Korea, Ltd.
Published by: Song Youngsook, Ga-Hyeon Foundation of Culture
First Published August 9, 2014
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.)
This blog is a side project for me. First and foremost I am a working commercial photographer and a fine art photographer. Like many photographers, I am fascinated by other photographers’ work because of the ideas that it germinates in my own process. Photo-books are the primary means through which I do this.
Full Metal Jacket is not a photo book exactly; instead, it is a book of informal photographic theory seeking to tease out the cognitive and psychological elements underlying individual photographic processes. Suejin Shin brought together five photographers from different generations and different geographical locations with disparate working methods for a series of ten conversations over nine months. These conversations begin with a particular prompt and grow organically as the discussions unfold. From her introduction:
…the greatest virtue of art comes from raising questions. We began by talking shop, so to speak, about the concerns we share as artists using photography as a medium, swapping insights about our work and its limitations. We talked about what it takes to keep on producing work and why we are compelled to press on even when that spark is lacking. We asked questions to each other and found answers in ourselves.
Here then is access to the working thoughts of five of the best photographers and one of the best curators working in Korea today–or, for that matter, in photography anywhere. The photographers are Bohnchang Koo, Taewon Jang, Hein-Kuhn Oh, Oksun Kim and Sungsoo Khim. These names will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Korean photography. The work of most of these photographers have been discussed on this blog (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) or are in The Queue.
The book is broken into two volumes (supposedly sold together, though I purchased them separately from two different shops). The primary volume includes Shin’s introduction, a small portfolio of work by each photographer and three dialogs, one of which is broken into two parts. The book’s second volume is an English translation of the dialogs. The quarto sized volumes have softcover bindings with lightweight uncoated stock and very good reproduction quality. The design is simple and sparse–allowing the text and images to stand center stage.
The three topics of conversation are “Obsession: Where I Begin,” “Things That Dominate My Work 1 & 2” and “What Keeps You Working”. These three topics form a kind of operating manual for photographers. These are very much the topics that are central in books like Art & Fear, Core Curriculum or The Education of a Photographer, to name three that are on my bookshelf and ignore the dozens of others out there. What makes Full Metal Jacket unique is that it is in the form of conversations. This gives it a very accessible tone that makes engaging with the ideas under discussion easier.
This conversational form is engaging also because the reader begins formulating responses to the anecdotes being shared and questions being posed. One can feel the push and pull of personalities, too. I found myself at turns nodding and at others shaking my head. By way of example, in the first dialog abstraction and repetition are discussed. Oh says that, “Photography is an art form where where you take a very specific subject and make it an abstract theme by showing it repeatedly.” Shin disagrees with Oh’s use of the word “abstraction.” In my mind I reversed his assertion: that we take abstract themes and flesh them out by selecting, sequencing and showing very specific concrete subjects. That repetition is not making concrete subjects abstract so much as serving to make abstract ideas concrete. The discussion nudged me to consider not only how I might re-read Oh’s photographs but also how I might re-consider my own.
When I described the book I noted that each photographer presented a small portfolio of work or work in process. To this point, I’ve not mentioned these photographs because they are not what I feel is the driving content of the book. The photography is supplementary. It enlivens the conversation while grounding it in visual concreteness. Taewan Jang shows the work photographs that have since been published by Hatje Cantz as Stained Ground. Oksun Kim shows photographs pulled from the earlier Hamel’s Boat and some more recently published as The Shining Things. Sungsoo Khim’s portraits leave me flat while her tree studies are stark, haunting and ripe; they ought to be put into a book if they haven’t already. Oh’s “Portraying Anxiety” works are as fraught with emotional intensity as his previous portraits, though they visually blend with his Cosmetic Girls. I’d have preferred to see a larger selection of his in-process “2 Minute Portraits” that he discusses in the text. Bohnchang Koo shows a diverse range of photographs that highlights the full range of projects he’s working on and speaks about in the text. Objet 22, 2009 and Arm & Armor 03, 2010 are near polar opposites yet both wonderful and testify to Koo’s ability to assimilate anything into his personal oeuvre.
In most of the reviews that I write, I am seeking to place the work at hand into a cultural context and present a possible interpretation. This is the central functioning of criticism: to define what the work is and why it is of value (or not). In this case, Full Metal Jacket‘s dialogs do much of my work for me. I am, a bit superfluous, especially in regards to the second part of the critic’s job. I will close by simply recommending this book highly, if one can find it.
Full Metal Jacket
Suejin Shin with Bohnchang Koo, Taewon Jang, Hein-kuhn Oh, Oksun Kim & Sungsoo Khim
Assistant Curator: Youna Kim
Copy Editing: Jeongeun Kim, Kyoungeun Kim
Translation Korean to English: Yoona Cho
Design: Yeounjoo Park
Printing and Binding: Munsung, South Korea