Category Archives: Documentary

Protest, Park Seung-hwa

My last visit to Seoul came at an interesting time. My own country had just elected an orange-hued charlatan (but much loved by some, apparently) to its highest office, sparking immediate protests. Seoul was in the midst of weekly and growing protests each Saturday against an expanding presidential scandal. And multiple elections were approaching in Europe with right-wing parties gaining ground in polls. There are many people marching in the streets lately who want to see change. With all of this as a background, I came across Park Seung-hwa’s Protest published by Listen to the City in The Book Society’s stacks.

At first blush Protest appears to be straight documentary photography of the protests wracking Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They have all of the gritty hallmarks of documentary and journalistic photography. However, its narrative is diffuse. It begins in the middle, goes on relentlessly for 200 pages and ends without resolution.

The photographs run the gamut from dramatic confrontation to quiet determination. There are individuals acting alone and huge crowds of people acting in concert. We are shown moments of grace and moments of violence. On one page protesters look down from a rooftop at the police below. On the next page it is the police who are on the roofs looking down on the people below. The one constant is a sense of confrontation and anger, at turns explosive and subdued. The content of the photographs is mirrored by the divided compositions in contrasty and grainy yet richly rendered black and white.

Park draws from his own work as well as the work of the four other photographers who formed the National Photography Research Society (민족사진연구회). These five photographers, Kwon San-Ki, Park Seung-hwa, Song Hyeok, Lee Sohye, Lim Seok Hyun, came together photographing the protests. They gathered around an older photographer, Park Yong-su. Their efforts, specifically as culminated in the publication ofProtest, are a kind of extension of Park Yong-su’s 1989 book The Road of the People (민중의 길), in which he documented the events between the 1985 sit-in demonstration at the American Cultural Center in Seoul and Chun Doo-hwan’s going to Baekdamsa in 1988. Despite this added context, a straight documentary reading remains problematic.

Park’s introduction to Protest is helpful in reframing these photographs. He reveals that the contemporary making of the book, was an effort to “uncover [his] faded passion and shell of belief” represented by photographs made over two decades earlier. These photographs are personal. They project “a kind of political intention” and come from a “‘biased’ point of view.” The photographs are at once “records, commemorations and, in a way, propaganda.”

Park goes on:

Some people may not want to see them out of remorse and others may want to put the pieces of their memories put together[sic]. The fierce days of youth in the field of photography are forgotten now as they become sly oldies. Some of them have already lost their convictions. Even though they were politically pure in the beginning but now they are being misunderstood politically and contaminated non-politically. It was the time of immaturity and of glamour. It was, nevertheless, our past.

Protest then is a lament or reckoning rather than a dry documentation. It is a sober reconsideration of that time and where the flow of time has ultimately led. Despite having “walked so far away from the days of the photos…the day [Park] has dreamed of during those old days has yet to come.” He asks that the there be no mention of a “legendary saga” when reading these photos and notes that “the past [is] often glorified under the astute compromise.” We all, in order to live our lives in some measure of comfort, make compromises in our beliefs and actions; Park subtly suggests that if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps our compromises are really betrayals of our convictions.

In a similar vein, the book presents a kind of critique of photo-journalism and documentary photography. Park defines photographs as a “record of facts.” And yet he goes on to say that a myriad of photos can be created of a single scene. “These photos are all based on facts but far away from the truth.” Park does not claim to be publishing any kind of definitive view of these events. He goes so far as to call attention to the other photographers who were photographing these same events and whose photographs, if they could have been included in the book, would have made for “a finer and richer record.”

These photographs and Park’s view of their creation and value are appropriate to consider here in America in light of the protests happening in the present day. As may be self evident but certainly worth reiterating: protest in and of itself won’t bring about change. Those bodies in the streets lifting their voices may create the changes they seek or may simply gratify their desire to speak their piece. In order to effect change there must be concrete political action being taken before and after the marches, protests and demonstrations. Desiring change does not necessarily create change. It requires long years of hard work. It is equally likely that in thirty years we will look back and wonder where it all got them. Compromises for our own comfort will leave us “wandering around, or rather drifting away.”

싸움 Protest
Photographers: 민사연 (Kwon San-ki, Park Seung-hwa, Song Hyeok, Lee Sohye, Lim Seok Hyun)
Photo Editor: Park Seung-hwa
Introduction: Park Seung-hwa
Essay: Han Hong-gu
Publisher: Listen to the City
2016

Design Notes:
Protest is at once austere and lavish in its production. The cover is a matte black hardcover with paper wrapped boards; the title and publisher are embossed on its spine in white while the cover has only the years covered by the photographs, again embossed in white. This simple cover is wrapped in a asymmetrically folded dust jacket that folds out to a modestly sized poster with the cover imaging echoing outwards on the recto and an index of the book’s photographs on its verso. Within, the design gives structure for the images without calling undue attention to itself. The printing is richly done on a moderately heavy paper stock.

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.

Slightly OT: Measuring North Korea’s Nuclear Progress from One Photograph

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.

Han Youngsoo Exhibit at ICP @ Mana in Jersey City

Han Youngsoo photograph, Seoul, Korea 1956-63

Via Tumblr I saw that the International Center of Photograph is exhibiting Han Youngsoo’s photographs. The show is at ICP @ Mana through June.

Han’s photography has been discussed on this blog in relation to his photographs in Traces of Life. Kyusang Lee described Traces of Life as essential to understanding the development of photography in Korea. By extension, Han’s work is foundational in Korean photography.

Great to see it getting attention here in the States.

Traces of Life, Chang Jae Lee & The Korea Society

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

경성역

This review is being written to the clack of steel on steel as I ride Amtrak from Charlottesville, VA to New York City. My origin and destination stations today are practical rather than civic architecture. Train stations that proclaim civic greatness and interconnectedness such as Washington, DC’s Union Station or New York City’s former Pennsylvania Station (demolished in 1963) are from a past era. Today scant political weight is given to the civic value of this country’s physical plant. And yet, public buildings have not ceased to carry enormous cultural freight and communicate copious civic meaning.

Jumping geographic and cultural tracks: Though no longer functioning as a train station, as civic architecture the Old Seoul Station remains a politically and culturally potent structure. Designed by Tsukamoto Yasushi and finished in 1925, the station stood as both a product and a symbol of the Japanese occupation. While some civic buildings from this period were demolished, in 1947 the station was very practically renamed and continued to function as Seoul’s main rail hub until 2004 when Korail’s new Seoul Station* was completed. In 2011 the old station reopened as Culture Seoul Station 284, a cultural center with space for performances, exhibits and events. The name alludes to the station’s position as an intersection of historical, spatial, cultural and civic symbolism.

Corners (interview, review 1, 2), has undertaken a “Railway Library” of three books. The first book in this series is 경성역 (Gyeongseong Station). It is focused on a nuts and bolts representation of the Old Seoul Station. It begins with an essay, describing the physical building and the history of its construction and use, followed by a barebones timeline of the station from the construction of the first station building in 1900 through the renaming of the 1925 building in 1947. The blurb on Corner’s website describes using the railroad as a filter for critical cultural and historical examination.

The meat of the book is archival photographs of the station that detail the ostentatious grandeur and Western influence of its multitudinous architectural styles. The building is clearly a statement. Like any colonial architecture, the function of the building was as much cultural and political as practical. The same can be said of the photographs. It is telling that only a single train appears in any of the photographs and then only incidentally; nor are there any photographs of any of the functional aspects of the building: switches, signals, or other mechanical infrastructure. There are only two photographs showing the tracks of the station; these are, like the single train, incidental to the architectural view behind them. The importance of the building was not in its function as transportation infrastructure but in its function as a cultural and political symbol.

We are shown the station as a particular set of physical facts; we are not shown the base function of the building or the complex web of human interaction that sustains it. It is a grand, modern and industrial physical fact. We do not see any planning sessions nor a groundbreaking ceremony. We do not see workers constructing the building nor installing the interior decoration. We do not see people manning (nor patronizing) the barber’s chair. We do not see people sitting down to dinner in the restaurant nor anyone in the kitchen preparing meals. With exception of the first and last photographs in the book we see no people; in these we are shown two crowds. In the first we see a crowd facing away seated inside the main dining room during the dedication or opening ceremony. In the second we see the hoi polloi stretching to Namdaemun and facing us; the caption ambiguously describes “citizens” filling the street outside the station without describing the purpose or occasion of their doing so. The cultural implications of this representation were certainly as intentional as the architecture itself.

Photographs are not simple carriers of absolute fact. Photographers make a host of decisions about what to record and how to do so. These photographs are not the simple documents that they purport to be. They are as much a depiction of the colonial system of which they are a functional aspect as the station they show. The decisions of what is shown and how it is shown are made by editors and designers as well. The designer, Jo Hyo Joon, made a conscious decision to use these particular photographs and to present them in the way that he has. It is an interesting decision to choose to situate a process of reconciliation or reclamation on such contested ground. It is as though Jo is letting us know that every square inch of the conversation will be contested ground.

Corner’s continued use of the Risograph printing process is another interesting choice. Taken in the first half of the twentieth century, the photographs in this book appear to have been shot and printed with a variety of techniques. The clipped corners suggest dry plate negatives (dry plate materials were certainly used by the Japanese authorities at this time). The odd shapes of some images suggest albumen prints, and silver gelatin materials were almost certainly used for the later photographs. These photographic processes create richly beautiful objects. The Risograph printing eliminates the differences between these techniques’ visual styles. They become artifacts; their creation as functional government documents is emphasized.

경성역 is not so much a book of photography as a book of political and cultural critique that uses photography to make its argument. It is clear that these photographs are telling us something about the world but it is up to the reader to examine these facts critically in order to come to terms with the Old Seoul Station and its past, present and future meaning in the fabric of Korean culture and history. The stage is set for additional books in the Railway Library.

디자인 : 조효준
년도 : 2014
출판사 : 코우너스
크기 : 12 x 18.8 cm
인쇄 : 리소그라프
제본 : 실 가격

*The new Seoul Station represents a contemporary example of exactly the kind of civic-minded architecture discussed above.

Sound of Sea, Oh Jin Tae

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

Stained Ground, Taewon Jang

wpid-wp-1437856627573.jpgPhotographing 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.

wpid-wp-1437856689690.jpgJang 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.

wpid-wp-1437856661424.jpgHe 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. wpid-wp-1437856726458.jpgIn 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.

Stained Ground
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
2014

***

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.

Cathedral de Lausanne 1505 -2022, Kyoungtae Kim

wpid-wp-1435699348501.jpgDespite the grand subject and lofty conceptual framework, Kyoungtae Kim’s Cathedral de Lausanne 1505–2022 is a rather modest affair in both its design and material construction. The brief text by Kyungyong Lim on the rear cover is short, to the point and written in language that a layperson can understand. The sum of these choices is an approachable and engaging book that encourages the reader to reconsider his or her reading of iconic landmark buildings.

The simple and rough hewn book uses the Cathedral of Lausanne, under constant renovation, as a metaphor for the way that urban spaces are constantly shifting as we remake them building by building, stone by stone, piece by piece. Kyungtae Kim has photographed sections of the cathedral where there is evidence of past or ongoing work on building. The book begins with the darkly printed cover image–a section of decaying stone that gives way, via the card stock cover’s gatefold, to a light colored section of concrete fill where the stone is being repaired.

wpid-wp-1435699406067.jpgThe interior pages are an alternating mix of uncoated heavyweight stock and lightweight coated stock. The heavyweight pages generally contain sections of wall where either a stone is marked with the date of its replacement or sections of stone where repair work is being done. These photographs are all relatively tight close ups and printed full page. The lightweight coated pages contain longer views of either work sites or larger sections where renovations have been completed and are printed roughly quarter page. The book closes with two scenic shots of the cathedral from either end–these are printed back to back on the lightweight stock and the images ghost into one another through the paper.

The photographs are elegant black and white. While they show their maker’s technical prowess and awareness of formal modernist concerns they are always driven by the conceptual thrust of the book. Beauty is secondary to meaning.

wpid-wp-1435699382503.jpgAs I wrote about Kim’s On the Rocks, Cathedral de Lausanne “isn’t grand or ostentatious but it is wonderful nonetheless.” It engages the reader to open his or her eyes to the way in which buildings that are culturally and geographically central can be read metaphorical as embodying the process by which the cities that surround them are remaking themselves moment to moment year after year.

Cathedral de Lausanne 1505–2022
Kyoungtae Kim
Essay: Kyungyong Lim
Publisher: mediabus
Editing & Graphic Design: Haeok Shin & Donghyeok Shin
Translation: Yunim Kim
2014