Category Archives: IANNBOOKS

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.

Memento One & Two, Seung Woo Back


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?

IMG_20150601_104237Photographs 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.

IMG_20150601_104413This 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.

IMG_20150601_104150Memento 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

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

Shattered, Pyokisik


Writing about Sogyumo Acacia Band on SeoulBeats, Ambika describes Song Eun Ji’s vocals as “breathy but clear,” and concludes that “their songs are great for sitting back and enjoying the interplay of sounds.” These descriptions could be applied equally well to Pyokisik’s first book of photographs, Shattered–and the comparison is apt as Song writes the introductory essay for the book and the musical duo appears in several of the photographs.

Photography is a record of light on surface–but not simply the light reflected off surfaces before the camera. At its core, photography is the record of light passing through a lens’s optical surfaces and falling on the surface of the recording medium. (Ignore for the moment lensless and experimental photography.) Light is distorted at each link in the imaging chain. Pyokisik’s photographs show the world through surfaces that distort it or reflected in imperfect mirrors. The optical and chemical systems through which they are recorded cause their own distortions. There is a loose and casual snapshot quality to them. This is a personal narrative being subjectively delivered.

shattered 01

The photographs in Shattered have a deep atmospheric quality that plays on these distortions. The opening image is of a bush with the sky behind. It is distorted here and there by water droplets on a surface through which the photographer pointed his camera. A softness pervades the image. (This image appears on the cover as well.) The atmospheric show continues: Light through a wooded scene; flare turns the left hand side of the image to orange flame. A couple sits on a rock outcropping looking across a bay towards a city lit up in the twilight; a long exposure has blurred the scene and the point light sources bleed into the evening haze enveloping them. A woman’s hand holds a half-smoked cigarette; the middle of the frame is lost to lens flare while the top of the frame is out of focus foliage.

shattered 06

Song’s essay is nearly as abstract as the photographs to which it provides context. It can be summed up thusly:

…I have gained clarity in this such as: what am I able to do and what I am not able to do, or between what I think I know and what I do not know, or what I am interested in and what I am not interested in and lastly between what I like and what I do not like. Perhaps, I have come to know how to best reduce the energy of anxiety in my mind.

shattered 03

Clarity is not something that is in ample supply in Shattered. Song closes her essay with this line: “It will all be alright because nothing is stranger than the fact that something is missing in the world.” If we are to take Pyokisik’s photographs as the world, then there is much missing in or elided from them. They present a beautiful view of the world, however much it might be distorted. I am left, however, with questions: Given Sogyumo Acacia Band’s appearance in a handful of the book’s photographs, I wonder if Shattered is about them or if they are merely part of Pyokisik’s social circle? Is there an underlying psychological meaning? Is the anxiety and the hint of depression that Song writes about what ties these photographs together? Are they about being unmoored from the world, a pane of distortion separating the world and the self?

shattered 04

In the end, I am left with beautiful breathy images that toy with the interplay of light on and through surfaces. Many of these images would find a happy home on someone’s wall. Myself, I find an image of smoke in front of a window set in a concrete wall and reflecting a blue sky to be endlessly fascinating. The world is shown as layers of distortion, reflection and hazy elision.

The photographs in Shattered are beautiful, and the book itself is a lovely object beautifully printed on alternating signatures of coated and uncoated paper stocks and a stitched binding without boards. However beautiful, I do not know, quite, what it all means.

shattered 05

Edit: Jeong Eun Kim
Design: RAAH
Assistants: Hyunjung Son, Sina Kim
Printed in Korea:

Cosmetic Girls, Hein-Kuhn Oh

Half a lifetime ago at NYU, I took a film class on post-colonialism. I remember few specifics of the course other than watching The Battle of Algiers and reading Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. What has stuck with me was the idea that societal systems create tiers of privilege. Reading theories of the way oppression works and seeing this play out in real life through film made privilege, and it’s cousin bias, very real to me. To this day I am aware of my own biases and the privileges that I enjoy–as well as the discomfort that they can elicit.

Hein-Kuhn Oh’s Cosmetic Girls elicits just such a discomfort related to bias and privilege. I’d seen the book on the shelves of bookstores for a couple of years before I could bring myself to purchase it. It seemed like a book I ought to have on my shelves, but I feel dirty looking through it. The photographs don’t sexualize the girls in them but certainly do objectify those girls. The photographs make these girls into something to be looked at–and the photographer has done so meticulously and mercilessly. The photographs are unflinching. No detail goes unnoticed. (And it is entirely proper to refer to the subjects as girls; none are older than 23, most much younger.) There is an apparent male gaze.

Let it be said, though, that this is not the male gaze of Miroslav Tischy or Terry Richardson. It would be a mistake to lump Oh in with these two. Oh’s interest is anthropological inquiry–he is primarily fascinated by the value Korean society places on girls and young women. His intentions are more to do with representation than with the girls themselves. Read that again; it is the minor chords that run through his work that are discomfiting rather than an explicit raunchiness or misogyny.

His earlier Ajumma project (past review here) was a humorous but nonetheless direct and unflinching examination of middle aged Korean women. One might read the photographs as simply a look at “ajumma style” if not for the the central hot spot lighting that focuses attention on the women’s faces and the confrontational gaze of the women makes these works far more about the women than any overarching concern with style.

Consider the street style books Fruits by Shoichi Aoki or Scott Schumann’s The Sartorialist: in these books the photographs are about fashion on the streets. The subjects are generally smiling or upbeat; they seem to be enjoying being photographed. The photographs themselves are nearly style-less; there is no obvious hand of the photographer at work. Both photographers seem genuinely enthusiastic and excited by their subjects. The photographs are endearing and fun if somewhat vacuous.

In contrast, Oh’s photographs are brutal. He controls absolutely the environment in which the photographs are made. He controls the space. He controls the background. He controls the lighting. He controls the framing. The subjects are found on the street and invited to the studio to be photographed (an assistant not Oh himself makes these invitations). The subjects may have come to the studio willingly, but they look at the camera uneasily. None of the girls wear shoes (except in three photographs made outside of the studio). In some photographs the photographer has closed in on small details or just the girl’s legs. There is a kind of implicit misogyny.

Oh himself says that the kind of typological method that he has employed is “highly unethical” and a “cruel field”. He has chosen this means of representation because his subjects have chosen entertainers as their role models. He in turn makes his choices in regards to “a certain lighting, viewing angle and convention of photographic representation.” Nevermind that the convention he has chosen bears little resemblance to the highly stylized and idealized convention of photographic representation employed with celebrities.

Never mind that nowhere in Cosmetic Girls do we see the “numerous middle aged male fans known as samchon (Korean for ‘uncle’) and obba (Korean for ‘older brother’) [who] are enchanted by a variety of sexy girl groups that have gained popularity….” Instead it is the “sensitive girls” who “learn girliness from [these girl groups]” who are spread through the pages of Cosmetic Girls. Oh concludes his statement with this line: “The girls we can recognize are merely their facade and images.”

The photographs indeed depict a facade, but it is not that of the girls. These girls may wear make up, they may have had petit surgeries, and they may be conspicuously conscious of their appearances, but the facade here is not theirs. Whatever ten dollar words Oh wants to trot out talking about the photographs, it is in his use of typological processes and his stylistic decisions that he has constructed the most apparent facade: that of his own male gaze. In young women’s choice of entertainers as role models he sees a crevice in the societal facade and is picking at that crevice. As we peer through the crevice he has worried open, however, what we see is a male artist staring back.

Cosmetic Girls
Hein-Kuhn Oh
Edited by Jeong-eun Kim
Editorial Assistants Mi-rae Song, Vo-ram Lee
Designed by studio Dwyane Wade
Translation Jee-sun Park, Young Kang, Meeky Song, Cecilia J. Park
Printed and bound in Korea by Munsung
Digital Image Calibration Tae-yoon Kim, Kyung-sub Shin, Jae-woo Choi, Sang-kyun Ahn, Won-jung Jun, Hyo-joong Yoon, Hein-kuhn Oh
Published by IANNBOOKS
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Hein-kuhn Oh, <Cosmetic Girls>, Kukje Gallery
Catalogue planning by Kukje Gallery
© 2010

nowhere, now here; Mi-Jeong Baek

Recently on this blog I wrote about Chanmin Park’s unbound book Blocks. I am quite enamored of that book, both for its quietly discomfiting photographs and playful interactive design. Mi-Jeong Baek’s nowhere, now here, also from IANNBOOKS, makes use of a similar unbound design.

A yellow belly band holds the folded leaves of nowhere, now here together. Removing this band and opening the cover, one finds an 8 page insert on thin tissue-like paper. This insert has two plates of overlapping ghosted images and a poem (in both Korean and English) that acts as a kind of coda for the photographs:

I am in a faint state of being,
neither asleep nor awake.

My eyes open at a force that
seems like an explosion.

We come to the photographs. The photographs are suffused with faintness: light overwhelms; fog and snow diffuse; focus drops away; color is muted and soft; location is indistinct; orienting references are absent. It is as though we have drifted into a waking reverie, gliding through the world, lost in a mindful whimsy. And within that faintness a point of clarity becomes apparent and takes hold. It might be a singular detail in an image or the pull of recognition across a sequence; this point pushes us into a state of awareness. Continue reading

On The Line, ed. Shin Suejin

Here in American it is Memorial Day Weekend. It is the official start of the summer driving season. BBQ grills are on overdrive, and nearly everyone is gathered around one. In Brooklyn the cyclists are out in droves, and the mood is festive. The skies are blue. And, oh by the way, the weekend is meant to provide an opportunity to memorialize those who have given everything to preserve this country in the many (military) struggles it has been engaged in and to reflect upon their sacrifice.

To extend this memorializing and reflection to another country and another culture is dangerous. To even broach the raw emotions of contemporary politics is more dangerous still (and rude). Well, so be it.
Continue reading

Blocks, Chanmin Park


Every time that I have gone to Korea I have been absolutely astounded by the pace and the sheer volume of hi-rise apartment construction. While most of this astonishment has been a general sense of enormity suggested by the breadth of this construction, over my last several visits I have been able to watch one particular development being built across from my mother in law’s apartment complex. What was once a small tangle of streets forming a neighborhood is now a construction site from which half a dozen towers are rising. (Alan, the post office from which we sent the DIY first issue letter is now gone and its postmark now rare, if not valuable.) This development sits directly between two existing developments and within spitting distance of at least three other new developments.
Continue reading

Utopia / Blow Up, Seung Woo Back

Cover of Utopia / Blow Up by Seung Woo Back

Seung Woo Back’s Utopia / Blow Up comprises his two related series of the same names. I purchased this book on a trip in 2009 and it remains one of my favorites. It is interesting not only for the images themselves, but also the conceptual framework girding them and the physical container they exist in. Each reinforces the others.

The physical book is 36 pages, oversized and printed full color with metallic embossed details on newsprint in an edition of 1000. There is a 3 page insert with essays in both English and Korean by Hye Young Shin and Pyong-Jong Park. Jeong Eun Kim edited the book, and Yeoun Joo Park designed it. U/BU was published in 2009 in collaboration with IANNBOOKS.

Utopia is Back’s fictionalized North Korea; by exaggerating, adding to and dividing the infrastructure in existing images he plays with the notion of an idealized society’s physical structure. His is not a glossy antiseptic ideal. The color palate is muted (exacerbated by the newsprint), the forms verge on the grotesque and unlikely, lighting can be garish and the skies become acidic. If this is what North Korea’s infrastructure might look like if it fulfilled the rhetoric and claims of its propaganda, it would still be a sad place. The streets remain empty. The scale remains crushingly anti-human.

If one reads the book from the opposite direction, Blow Up presents telling details extracted from otherwise anodyne negatives Back created on a month long stay in 2001 as a journalist in North Korea. Accepting the regime’s destruction of his “interesting” or “good” negatives, Back turns to the smallest of details in his remaining negatives to subtly lay bare the lie presented to outsiders. With an obvious nod to Antonioni, Back is looking to find truths that are hidden in plain sight and to question what is presented in an image. The photographs might be a kind of spying, a notion suggested by the military imagery which bind the two projects at the newspaper’s center point.

Alternately, in these images of war material and heavy bombing we can see a dividing line. If one has started reading from left to right, e.g. with Utopia, at this point we move from what might have been to what is

In both projects, Back is exploring the line between reality and fiction in the photographic image. By creating unreal images out of real images, he makes the real more apparent.