Category Archives: Museum Publication

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.

The Shining Things, Oksun Kim

Oksun Kim is best known for unsparing, full force portraiture. The best metaphor for her portraits is a frontal assault. She approaches her subjects head on.

The Shining Things is a departure. Rather than people, she has brought her lens to bear on trees. Though it might seem a logical step to describe these photographs as portraits of trees, I do not think that is accurate or useful. While Kim has brought her usual head-on style, these are not portraits.

Kim is based on Jeju Island, and that is where these photographs were taken. The trees are from a range of species and they appear as often in natural surrounds as the edges of urban spaces. Some trees are singled out and others blend into a cacophonous forest tableau of texture and color.

The photographs call to mind Ed Panar’s Golden Palms. Panar’s lo-fi photographs of LA made shortly after he moved there are similarly direct and diverse. While his photographs often include trees or vegetation, they are not the sole or even primary subject matter. What ties his book together is an affectionate sense of amusement at his new home.

Affection is likewise apparent in Kim’s The Shining Things. Kim’s portrait projects Hamel’s Boat and No Direction Home were shot on Jeju Island where she is currently based. While the location has not been a central visual concern in these photographs (though certainly conceptually it has), I can’t help but feel that the intense close looking so important in her portraits must bleed over into her quotidian view. When she walks away from a portrait session or goes for a drive the next day, how can a vestige of that intensity not carry over? How can the world not appear beautiful and wonderful in her intense gaze?

The book opens with a quote from Hubert Dreyfus’ and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining: “All things are not shining, but all the shining things are.” Their book is a call to reawaken an “intense involvement with the wonder and beauty of the world” (that is according to Amazon’s blurb–I’ve not read the book myself**). Kim’s close looking and affection for place have led her to make these photographs. They are an outpouring of involvement with the wonder and beauty of the everyday world. These are the shining things that have become apparent through Kim’s intense gaze.

Postscript: Since publishing this review in June I have read All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly. With an expanded understanding of the ideas in the book, which are a source for Kim’s photography, I want to make a couple of additional comments on Kim’s The Shining Things. Dreyfus and Kelly write about the process by which meaning in human being has been reduced and diminished over the past two millenniums and the potential for reawakening the opportunities for meaning through polytheistic attitudes. In their view, meaning in contemporary life has become flattened with the spiritual shift to monotheism and the drive towards radical individualism (abetted by technological advancement). Their contention is that there remains a multiplicity of poietic conceptions of human being, going back through history, that offer us a manifold understanding of the way the world is. Drawing from these multiple conceptions of the world we can move beyond the dearth of meaning offered by the confluence of monotheism and individualism. By seeking a new kind of vibrant polytheism we can unlock a wonderful world of shining things.

In their book’s conclusion, Dreyfus and Kelly write: “[Becoming receptive to a modern pantheon of gods] requires developing the senses of the sacred that still linger unappreciated at the margins of our disenchanted world.” With this thought in mind, an alternative reading of Kim’s trees would be as the physical embodiment of Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s idea. The trees themselves linger at the margins; Kim elevates them through the wonder of her lens and shows them to be shining. This in no way diminishes the affection for place that I considered previously. I think that her engagement with the local is expansive. Through Kim’s expert use of craft (a poietic mode of meaning) and her attentiveness to the potential for beauty and meaning in the quotidian, her photographs both mirror and amplify the ideas in All Things Shining.

The Shining Things
Oksun Kim
Edited by The Museum of Photography, Seoul
Curated by: Senior Curator Son Young-joo, Curator Kim Sunyoung, Assistant Curator Kim Jeehyun, Educators Hyeju Hong & Mihyun Kim, Interns Jeena Lee & Eunji Choi
Text by: Loo Youngwook
Translated by: Juhee Son (Kor-Eng)
Designed by: Kim Jindeuk
Printed by: Graphic Korea, Ltd.
Published by: Song Youngsook, Ga-Hyeon Foundation of Culture
First Published August 9, 2014

A Conversation with Suejin Shin

Michael N. Meyer: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and writer of; I am sitting here with Suejin Shin, who is the Creative Director of the Ilwoo Foundation, and a Research Professor of Yonsei University.

Suejin Shin: Right.

Jimin Han: And a director of Lamp LAB, brand-new [laughter].

MNM: And also with me is Jimin Han, who is translating for me and interjecting follow up questions. Suejin, let’s start with your background. You have multiple degrees in photography and in psychology. How did you come to bring those two things together? How did you come to use psychology as a lens to understand and expand upon photography?

Suejin Shin, Lamp LAB, Seoul

Suejin Shin at Lamp LAB, November 2014

SJS: My first major was psychology, and my second major was photography. I then got a master’s degree in photography and a PHD in psychology. My studies of photography were primarily in photographic theory. I’ve never intended to be a professional photographer. In studying psychology my focus was on vision, or visual perception, and Cognitive Science. I simply followed my curiosity in studying the two; I wondered what kind of feelings or thoughts people have when they see photographic images. It’s about what people feel when they see images. It’s about feeling, or the process of thinking. In other words, when they see certain images, they come to have certain feelings or thoughts. My main interest lies in where they come from.

Generally, the background fields of art theory are commonly art histories or something similar; so, many people wonder how psychology can be applied to these fields. I’m interested in photographic images, but it is the audience I observe in order to realize my interest.
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The Interpreters, Kyungwoo Chun

150104_interpretersInterpreters begins with divergence. A Western reader, out of habit, opens the book left to right. The title page and table of content page force this reader to turn the book so the pages open upwards. Flipping to page five, which contains the first plate in the book, the reader is forced again to turn the book so that he is reading right to left. A Korean reader would likely note the orientation of the Hangul on the cover and open the book as intended–though the orientation of the English characters on the cover, title page and table of contents might cause some doubt. Perhaps an insider is not an insider is not an insider.

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Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer, Kim Han-Yong

On the shelves of the library at The Educational Alliance Art School, where I used to teach, were several photography annuals from the 1940s and 1950s of photographs ranging across all genres. I looked through these on many days before classes. It was amazing to me how some of the photographs looked incredibly dated, even older than they actually were, while others remained fresh, vital, vibrant.

Kim Han Yong’s Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer is similarly fascinating time capsule from the past. A big difference is that this is a contemporary retrospective reconsidering the historical context of Kim’s advertising photography from the 1950s through early 1980s.

Kim Han-Yong, Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer*

Kim Han-Yong’s photographs are inextricably linked with the ads to which they belong. With a few exceptions, Kim’s photographs, if taken out of the contextual space of their resident advertisements, would fall flat. (In all truth, some of the images fall flat even within the context of the ads and others are saved only be their social or pictorial weirdness.) Regardless of how each works as a photograph, Within the context of the ads, the photographs as a whole become a rich trove of historical suggestion and cultural foundation. This is one aspect of the origin of the South Korean consumer state.

Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer [sic] presents a cross section of Kim’s advertising work along with three essays (in both Korean and English) placing that work into a social historical context. Each section of the book has introductory text pulled from an interview with Kim (in Korean only). The book’s format is very much in keeping with the nature of the advertising posters and photographs being presented. The cover is bright and glossy–like a textbook from middle school. The book is large without being oversize. Posters are generally presented one on each right hand page with captioning info on the opposite page, though those in the section titled “Charm of the Non-Real” are run across the gutter which ruins them. Several posters have outtakes from the shoots presented as a contrast to the retouched ads. Captioned information for each poster includes client, designer, model, technical photographic information and other project information as available. This is not the finest Korean photo book I have seen, but its design is very finely considered–workroom has really hit the nail on the head here.

The book is broken into four chapters: Classic Beauty, Discovery of Consumer, Portrait of Consumer, Charm of the Non-real and Erotic. They are not based on chronology so much as they are on typology. We begin in Classic Beauty with the model as spokes-person. These simple ads associates a product with a beautiful and/or famous person, but we are not given a dream that to aspire to beyond that association. In Discovery of Consumer we have a narrative suggestion but remain in an abstract space. These ads implies that this product will make us happy or beautiful or desired or fulfilled or whatever; though the narrative remains simple and relational. In the Portrait of Consumer we are shown the black and white world of reality in which these ads operated. These are the earliest photographs in the book, primarily from the 1950s and early 1960s. The shift from the color advertising to the black and white documentary photography effectively presents the challenges and opportunities that existed for advertising in building a consumer society during this time (as well as shows that in some ways things are what they ever were). Charm of the Non-Real is contemporary advertising: here narrative is complex within certain cliched advertising tropes–sex, money, love, happiness, and we are presented with an entire environment and an entire lifestyle in which the product exists. There remains plenty of weirdness in the photographs, but these are modern advertisements that could be from any western society at that time if we changed the type face. Erotic is a handful of suggestive but chaste photographs of beautiful (and natural) women wrapped around phallic stacks of oil cans or wearing bikinis and holding gas pumps… these look more cute than erotic to present day sensibilities. My favorite from this chapter is of a woman in a bikini kneeling on a beach, leaning forward, mouth half open in either ecstasy or anticipation and she is facing… a young boy who is holding out a garland of flowers to put around her neck. What is the suggestion here and to whom is it directed? It is a weird and a somewhat discomfiting photograph. It’s a good weird, though. And in general, that is what most of the photographs are: a good weird.

The essays at the end are a mixed bag. It’s possible that poor translations contribute to this.

Lee Young June’s essay is the most astute of the three and the most specifically about Kim’s photography and the advertising posters of which they are a part. The central ideas running through her essay are that “the feature of [Kim’s] photography more important than indexicality is that it trains the viewer sensually” and that “…it is senseless to compare commercial photography to reality. Commercial photography is like futures trading in that it is a preview to the beauty and fantasy that do not exist yet.” I especially like that second description of advertising photography. This idea of the image as aspiration follows through into Her Boyoon’s essay. Seo Dong-Jin’s writing is more political and is about Kim’s photographs only in as much as they are a convenient jumping off point to speak about economic topics, though towards the end he describes Kim’s “Photography Research Lab” as a place where objects were not photographed but instead are imbued with added representational value to make them into “the real thing”. This section of his essay, which mostly leaves quotable name checking theory behind, is the most relevant to the subject at hand and the most clearly understandable. (I suspect that Seo’s essay suffers the most from translation and that reading it in Korean I would have a more favorable view of it.)

Overall, this is not the book that I would suggest as a point of entry to Korean photography. The work is more historical than personal and is presented as such. It feels like a lesson teaching us how the world became what it is and the importance of this figure. For those interested in the development of advertising, the building of a consumer society or the economics of consumption, though, this is a fascinating book. It doesn’t just look like a textbook, it is a textbook.

Title: Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer
Author: Kim Han-Yong
Contributors: Lee Young June (Profound Circumstances Commercial Photography Had to Cope With), Her Boyoon (Object of Dream, Dream of Object), Seo Dong-Jin (Memory of Commodities: Kim Han-Yong’s Photographs, the Images of Material Culture of Korean Captialsim)
Publisher: The Museum of Photography, Seoul (Ga-Hyeon Foundation of Culture)
Design: workroom
Copyright 2011

* Cover Image from The Book Society website. The Book Society is one of my favorite book shops in Seoul. I’ll post at some point about where to find photo books in Seoul another time.

Gelatin Dry Plates in Custody of the National Museum of Korea

While my primary intent with this blog is to contribute to the critical history of Korean Photography, each of the reviews is also an opportunity for me to step into my collection and spend time with a particular volume. This is the selfish side of this endeavor: it is an excuse to spend time with these books. The subject of this review is a sort of guilty pleasure in that it doesn’t fit perfectly within my stated boundaries of my collection.

While visiting Korea for the first time in 2006, my future-wife, future-mother-in-law and I visited the National Museum of Korea. We had gone primarily for the special exhibit, though the title of the exhibit is escaping me. The only piece that I remember clearly is a gold necklace from a royal tomb and presented in such a way as to suggest the archeological context from which it had been taken. It felt like one was right there discovering the artifact oneself. After the special exhibit we wandered through the halls of the museum. Though I can’t remember any specific pieces without pulling out my notebook from the trip, the grandeur and light of the museum’s central corridor sticks with me, as does a vague memory of the calligraphy murmuring forward and back across centuries. We ended our visit with lunch and a stop in the museum’s bookshop.

The mission of the museum leans heavily towards the nations’ cultural heritage from a historical standpoint. It is very much like the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Given this context, photography plays only the smallest of roles in the museum’s collection. In the permanent displays I don’t remember seeing a single photograph. Given the museum’s mission this makes sense. I was delighted, then, to find a book of photographs in the museum shop of photographs from the museum’s collection. The book, Gelatin Dry Plates in Custody of the National Museum of Korea, presents exactly what its dry title suggests: Joseon era photographs of the royal palaces of Joseon. The photographs were made between 1909 and 1945 as part of a military survey commissioned by the Japanese government during its occupation of Korea. The survey comprised 38,000 photographs, of which roughly 800 are of the palaces. Just shy of 500 of these are presented in this book. Flipping through the book feels very much akin to flipping through a box of dry plates–and in the notes before the table of contents the description of the layout being left to right and top to bottom suggests that the layout was intended less to create a critical interpretation than an open archive of possible interpretations. This is a collection of photographs whose internal context provides plenty of direction for interpretation without need for curatorial intervention. (From a preservation standpoint, the photographs certainly require curatorial intervention.)

The photographs in their documentary rigor, inventiveness of composition and groupings of images feel oddly modern. Near the very beginning of the book there is a pair of images on pages 24 and 25 of the corridor of Geunjeongmun Gate and Wolhwamun Gate. The two photographs are like a single panoramic photograph split down the middle–as though the photographer had simply shift his lens left to take the first picture and then shifted it right to take the second picture. The pair are near mirror images of one another save for a lone ever green tree at the edge of the right hand photograph. They feel ahead of their time.

Only a few pages later, there is an irregularly shaped photograph of a wall decorated with flower designs at Jagyeongjeon Hall. The photograph’s shape traces that of the wall decoration. Again, the photograph feels like it could have been made by a contemporary artist trying to break from the generally accepted rectangular constraint of the frame. One might think of this in the exact opposite way. Only 50 years into the history of photography the photographer may have felt free to use whatever shaped frame he wished. Another view might be that the photographer was unconcerned with any formal attributes of his work (unlikely) and simply made the photographs in whatever way seemed most expedient to his task at hand.

Many of the images, owing to defects in the plates or emulsions or to damage sustained during storage, have edges that seem to bubble away, as though time is physically encroaching on the images. This is both beautiful and horrifying at once. The damage reminds me of my own Direct Forms photographs. These historical photographs are marked by the same effects of decay that I was creating deliberately. This is exactly the ravages of time that I was interested in: the way that something becomes something else, the way that time continues on. This is a personal interest. I don’t believe that it is critically relevant.

While most of the photographs resonate primarily as beautiful and nostalgic records of beautiful cultural treasures born of a distinct national history, the politics that is contemporary to the photographs pokes into many of them. There are two political aspects that I want to look at briefly: The first is the visually apparent shift from traditional to modern society. The second is the occupation that commissioned these photographs. The photograph on page 70, a view of “Gyeongbokgung Palace and Vicinity,” traverses both. The foreground of the photograph is Gyeongbokgung. The palace is shrouded with trees. One nearly overlooks it. Behind the palace, in the photograph’s middle ground and stretching to the background is the Government General Office of Joseon. This is the building from which the Japanese Govern General of Korea administered “Chosun.” In the photograph it is the brightest element. It is the tallest element. It stands gleaming. And, it is dead center. The political meaning couldn’t be more clear: modernity is here and modernity is a Japanese future. In another photograph, this one of Yeongchumun Gate, a Japanese policeman who has remained still through the exposure is staring at the camera. The rest of the people in the photograph are a blur of movement, more or less rapid. This policeman is the only figure to address the camera–and he seems as solid and as permanent as the stone gate behind him. In fact, he seems more solid and permanent as the gate has fallen to ruble along one side.

In the photographs of the Crown Prince and Princess, there is a definite melancholy. In a group photograph of the Crown Prince and Princess and their entourage at their suite at Injeongjeon Hall, there are the traces of many emotions. The one that leaps out to me most is a sadness or resignation that appears on the faces of the women standing behind the royals. In another photograph of the royals at Yeonghwadang House, it is again a Japanese policeman, standing still in the background, who becomes solid, permanent. The royals are by comparison blurred with motion, dissolving into a blur.

As with any archive, a different edit or arrangement can change the meaning entirely. This is what I find so enjoyable about this book. I can retrace my steps through Changgyeonggung Palace. Or I can flip absentmindedly through page after page of beautiful photographs of beautiful objects, many now lost. Or, I can examine critically the ways in which the photographs limn the political and historical forces at work. While this book sits outside of my primary collecting MO, it provides a sense of historical perspective and weight.

This book is volume one; I presume that there is a second volume, but it was not available at the time I visited the museum. For anyone visiting the Museum, keeping an eye out for this or the second volume would be well worth it.