Category Archives: Criticism

New posts coming

I am obviously behind on this blog. And now I’m more behind: I brought back a pile of books from my trip to Seoul back in November of last year (1, 2, 3). So there’ll be new content here soon.

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.

Good stuff.

A Conversation with Jorg Colberg

Back in June, Jörg Colberg posted a weekly photobook review at CPhMag.com that he prefaced with some thoughts relevant to readers of Korean Photography Books. I reached out to Jörg, and he was gracious enough to expand on those thoughts in a brief conversation. The conversation took place via e-mail in early July; it has not been edited except for the addition of links to articles he refers to.

Michael N. Meyer (KoreanPhotographyBooks): Could you sketch out, very briefly, your background, and your roles within the photography world for any readers of this blog who might not know who you are?

Jörg Colberg: I have a background in theoretical astrophysics (computational cosmology). Now, I’m probably most widely known through my website CPhMag.com, which is the latest version of what used to be a blog (“Conscientious”) and which focuses on contemporary photography. I earn my living through teaching photography, as one of the core faculty of the fairly new Limited Residency Photography MFA Program at Hartford Art School, besides the occasional essay or interview for a publication. I’m also currently working on a book about photobooks, albeit not a survey book, but rather a book about how to approach photobook making.

KPB: You sum up the preface to a recent post, Photobook Reviews (W21/2015), with an offhanded comment about all of the books on photobooks and the increasing balkanization created by such publications. You ask this as a kind of joke, but I suspect you made light of it only because to do otherwise would require an entire blog post of its own or indeed an entire book. I’d like to orient this conversation around the reasoning of your preface: that there are a helluva lot of photobooks being produced, that photographers are not going to stop producing these books, and that consumers, critics and academics will need to find strategies to deal with this wealth of material. Furthermore, much of this material is outside of what might be considered the mainstream canon–which brings up questions of the usefulness of a shared canon and the limits of slicing photography into ever thinner slivers.

JC: Given how heavily fragmented the photobook world is, slicing and dicing it up even further might be of limited utility. It certainly won’t do much to expand the photobook out of its rather narrow confines (you’ll see the same faces at every photobook festival). I’m saying that the photobook world is fragmented, based on my own experience with it. See, for example this. I look at a lot of books, and I know a lot of people who do the same. But it’s often surprising how few books we all share as having heard of. And almost none of them are part of whatever a mainstream canon might even be.

KPB: What strategies do you use to create order and logic of the flood of titles being published? I’m thinking personal strategies specifically, but as a follow up, would you define your role as critic as helping your audience find order in the swirling chaos of photobooks or photography more broadly?

JC: I’m not sure I have a strategy. I basically react to books I see, hear of, or find in whatever way (I get a lot of submissions from people). I can’t afford traveling to all those festivals, and even if I could, I doubt I’d go. The flood of titles doesn’t worry me too much. It’s exciting, and there are always surprises. But of course, the vast majority of published photobooks are really not very good at all.

As a critic, I see my role as someone critically examining photobooks and photography. Of course, that’s a circular way to talk about this (isn’t that what critics do? But then, you’d be surprised to see the number of people who think it’s criticism when you copy some text from a press release and add a little bit of a description). But I think that’s a difficult enough task, and it’s hard to do it well. I do believe (or at least hope) that examining books critically and helping others approach them will ultimately help everybody find some sort of order. I personally wouldn’t necessarily attempt to identify an order, given it would be my order, and there are already enough people who proclaim how things work (without explaining too much why they make their choices).

KPB: What importance, if any, is there in broadening the pool of work under consideration by identifying cultural histories of one kind or another that aren’t being seen or written about? In your role as critic or educator do you feel any responsibility for actively doing this? (How fascinating might that very photography history “North-Eastern Lithuanian” that you jokingly mention in your post be? It might also be a dead end or a stultifying backwater, but how would we know until someone looks and writes usefully about it?)

JC: There are various cultural strands that people are following currently. My main problem with something like a “North-Eastern Lithuanian” history is that if it stays that, it’s of very limited utility. Last year, I moderated a panel on what was billed as “Japanese photography,” and the members of the panel agreed very quickly that thinking about “Japanese photography” as something that was completely different than, say, “German photography” was really not very helpful. So I think there’s nothing wrong with a “North-Eastern Lithuanian” history of photobooks – as long as it tells us more about photobooks and photography history in general, and doesn’t just carve out yet another niche.

So yes, in my role as critic and educator I do attempt to bring things always to the photography at the core, because that is, after all, what we have at the core. All the rest, all those things we see, those assumptions, that ideology we bring to it – that’s just piled on. I know I got my own ideology, but I do think it’s very important not to confuse ideology with what’s in the pictures.

KPB: Diverse fields of academic inquiry have tended towards dissecting smaller and smaller slices of the world. To what extent is it still useful to seek an overarching picture of a global history of photography? Asked another way–is an agreed upon canon still useful?

JC: I would probably argue along the lines of something I wrote about what I thought good criticism for me amounted to: an attempt to make sense, an attempt to bring useful criteria to the table that can then be used to get to a deeper understanding of photography. Whether or not we need an agreed-upon canon I don’t know. There is something to be said for the work John Szarkowski did, however limited it was. After all, he did attempt to make sense of things, something that cannot be said about the people who are now curators at MoMA. Why we can’t have a group of people who do that I don’t know.

But the canon(s) aside, the moment you know how to approach photography, you understand a lot more about photography, regardless of whether you’re aware of the (or a) canon. And that then is what I spoke of earlier concerning “Japanese photography” (or “German photography” or whatever else). I suppose this really boils down to knowing of a canon really only means something if you can read pictures. Otherwise, it’s just like knowing that 1812 was some special moment in US history, but you don’t really know much else.

There are a large variety of topics that keep propping up in photography’s history, and it certainly is important to be aware of them. We don’t need to be constantly re-inventing the wheel. And regardless of whether we agree with how history has been written, to understand it (and possibly re-write it) we need to know what went on and why (and what it means in terms of the pictures).

I don’t know whether this answers your question. In the end, it all boils down to the question “What is in the picture?” If you can’t give a good answer for that, your knowledge of a history or canon of photography is useless.

KPB: Jörg, thank you so much for taking the time to share your perspective and understanding.

W. M. Hunt on Bohnchang Koo’s Slow Talk In The Photobook Review 008

There is a review of Bonhchang Koo’s Slow Talk by W.M. Hunt in the latest The Photobook Review that accompanies the Summer issue of Aperture Magazine.

The review isn’t available online, but print or digital subscription information can be found here. The magazine is also available at many bookshops.

Full Metal Jacket, Suejin Shin

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
IANNBOOKS
2013

OT: Photography Criticism Goes Mainstream: NY Times Magazine Redesign

There are few (if any) large scale general interest publications that feature photography criticism regularly and make it accessible for a lay audience. With the NY Times Magazine’s relaunch, Teju Cole’s new column, On Photography, appears to herald just such an offering. Cole’s first column is directed towards the work of Roy DeCarava. The column moves seamlessly between close readings of several photographs, technical concerns, the social context within which the photographs were made and the social impacts DeCarava’s work made that continue to reverberate in present (photography & film) culture. I think that the Times ought to be applauded for this offering and am excited to see where Cole directs our gaze next.

This post, originally published on my other blog daily_up, is a bit off topic, but as the world of photography is so small I assume those interested in what I’m doing here will likely be interested in Cole’s new column.