Category Archives: Humanism

Intermarriage and Contemporary Political Retrenchment

Oksun Kim’s Happy Together has been on my mind lately. And not because my wife and I aren’t smiling lately. We’re fine, thank you. It’s been on my mind because I’ve been thinking about the state of our interconnected world at large and the way its ripples affect peoples’ daily lives.

The photographs in Happy Together are portraits of mixed race couples set in domestic spaces. The Asian partner stares into the camera lens while the Western partner looks away. No one smiles. The most positive of the women betray the barest hint of satisfaction. There are male Asian partners only as part of a handful of gay couples and just one female Western partner in a lesbian couple.

Kim maintains the even keel of contemporary photography’s dispassionate, detached bathos. The subjects give little hint of what they are thinking. They seem posed, or more accurately forced. It cannot be that all intermarried couples so glum. I can’t help but wonder if a more humanistic documentary approach might not have better explored the questions and concerns Kim begins with regarding the challenges of intermarried couples in Korea.

Yael Ben-Zion’s Intermarried takes this more documentary approach and broadly explores similar ground that Kim has explored narrowly. Ben-Zion’s approach places a broader range of intermarried couples at the center of a web of interactions, artifacts and offspring. There is a wholeness to this approach and still a contemporaneous aspect in its archival research.

In Kim’s photographs, it is only the cracks in her posed facade that allow us to see who these people may be and the lives they lead: a bowl of ceramic fruit and pastries on a kitchen table; two horseshoe crabs swimming alone along a wall; the drudgery of a pile of laundry waiting to be folded; the blur of a child not frozen by the camera’s strobe; a meal waiting to be shared.

In both approaches there is a kind of underlying current of unease. Kim’s unease is evident in the question that leads to the work: “Are you happy.” And Ben-Zion’s unease is present in her tracing intermarriage through archives; she may be looking to the future but can’t help taking glimpses behind.

Ben-Zion’s subtle looks back over her shoulder don’t seem unreasonable. The world is undergoing a kind of retrenchment domestically (in many countries) and internationally. The depths and the degrees of these retrenchments are yet to be defined. For those who thought that we were on the cusp of a new tomorrow it might be time to re-examine assumptions (and redouble our efforts).

Kim’s photographs are a useful reminder that while “Are you happy?” may be a silly question to start with it is never silly to look at and to show an unvarnished (if perhaps less posed) look at what togetherness is. It is not the fairytale that wedding photographs suggest. There is inevitably complication and toil. This is true no matter who one’s partner is. And it is no less true for countries and alliances as it is for individuals and marriages. It is through partnerships that we find strength and support.

Happy Together
Kim, Oksun
2006
Support from the Arts Council Korea

Intermarriage
Yael Ben-Zion
2013
Kehrer Heidelberg Berlin

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.

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.

Red House, Noh Suntag

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.

Red House
Noh Suntag
Publisher: Jung Jongho
Design: Avec_ Noh Younghyun
Translation: Kang-Baek Hyosu
Publishing Co.: Chungaram Media Ltd.
2007

[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.]

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

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

Noonbit Collection of Korean Photographer’s Works

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, Byun Soon Choel

NationalSongContest_01

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

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

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

NationalSongContest_03

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Song Contest
Byun Soon Cheol
Published by G Colon
2014