Category Archives: Nature

New posts coming

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

In particular, I plan to write about Listen to the City’s Protest as I think it presents a number of useful things to think about in the current political climate. A number of the things I wanted to write about have already come to pass–major protests here in the US and considerations of how to maintain political action in order to effectively affect change rather than simply channel anger or disappointment.

And there are some fluffier books that are more fun to talk about.

And a new conversation about considerations when building a library for an academic institution. It’s been conducted, I’ve just got to find time to transcribe it…

Something for everyone.

Good stuff.

A Conversation with Sangyon Joo of Datz Press

Portrait: Sangyon Joo, photographer and publisher of Datz PressOn October 26th, Sangyon Joo of Datz Press came by KPB HQ to talk about her experiences as a publisher, curator and photographer. We’d first met during Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair at PS1 when I stopped by the Datz Press booth. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MNM: Sangyon, thank you so much for making the time to come out to Brooklyn for this conversation. I am delighted to have you here and looking forward to the conversation.

SYJ: This is the fifth issue in our magazine, Gitz. Our conversation reminds me of somebody we profiled in the magazine, a Korean book collector who collects books about Korea. The books he collects were made by Western people who came to Korea in the early years, a hundred years ago. They saw the Korean people and culture and archived their observations in books. They collected and spread exotic cultures in their home countries. He goes to Western bookstores to collect these books about Korea and brings them back to Korea to show to us. It says a lot to me about how books work and how books can go around sharing culture. I think it is a very interesting job mixing Western views of Korea—we can see ourselves through their eyes and can find ourselves through their eyes. Something really great can be done with books.
Continue reading

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

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

On the Rocks, Kyoungtae Kim

OTR cover 20150125Let’s start with the conclusion: Kyoungtae Kim’s On the Rocks is an amusing, clever and honest book but not a grand one. That conclusion can be drawn from its subject matter: close-up macro photographs of small, everyday stones–roughly 2cm to 10cm in length. The bulk of the book is single pages in which each stone, floating in studio limbo, is enlarged to fill the page. Every singular stone is richly textured, wonderfully abstract and evocative–and yet humdrum.

A single paragraph of text provides the following three facts: 1. The stones come from South Korea, Italy, France, Spain and Switzerland. 2. They were collected between 2005 and 2013. 3. Kim made these photographs in May and July of 2013.

OTR 1 20150125Those three facts make me think the book came out of two questions: 1. When I travel to Europe, what can I bring back with me? 2. Now that I’ve got all these stones and pebbles sitting around, what can I do with them?

The photographs are precise. The stones are sharp top to bottom and front to back. They’re so sharp, in fact, that it is apparent that the line screen of the book’s printing is the limiting factor in the detail that can be read of their surfaces. One is tempted to see the photographs as some kind of geological survey or ancillary research outcome, though there are no captions to identify where each stone came from specifically or what type of rock they are comprised of nor an essay to give any context to support such a notion. The stones are just objects, and the photographs are just pretty pictures.

There are two additional ways that these photographs are presented. The wrap around cover, first page and last page crop the images to full bleed extreme micrographic close-ups. Scale dissolves and it is hard to tell if one is looking at rock or an aerial image. The stone in the cover image appears to be encased by a thin layer of ice–though it’s just its crystalline surface.

OTR 3 20150125The photographs are also placed in grids in which the stones are seen relative to one another. On the inside covers, the stones are scaled to a single uniform size and printed in grids. In a nice touch, one must open the inside flap of the cover (onto which the full bleed cover image does not extend) to reveal the grids. A similar gridded spread follows the colophon page; on this grid the stones are scaled relative to one another and there is a scale so that one can determine how large each stone is in reality. This grid is repeated on a pull out poster on which the stones are printed life size (at 1:1 scale).

OTR poster  20150125

OTR 4 20150125There is one outlier image. At the top of the colophon page is a photograph of two rocks sitting heavily on a paved street. These are rocks not stones. They’re large, roughly a meter square. This is entirely unlike any other photograph in the book and yet this photograph is the key stone supporting the entire structure or the rosetta stone that rearranges our understanding of the preceding photographs. We have spent the book looking and looking at these small stones as aesthetic objects divorced from any context. In this one image we are brought back into the world. We are shown two rocks. They have not been made by the photograph into anything more than they are. And yet one’s first impulse is to lean in close to look at them, to examine them. What magic is hidden in these most quotidian of objects?

On the Rocks isn’t grand or ostentatious but it is wonderful nonetheless. It is full of the wonder that is the reward of close looking. It reminds us, in the closing image, that we can find such rewards through examining closely our banal every day world.

On the Rocks
Photographer and Designer: Kyoungtae Kim
Publisher: Your-Mind

Images on Being, Yi Ilsup

I began writing this review with the earth, several miles below me and lost in streams of white clouds. White noise from the jet’s engines enveloped the cabin in a haze of near silence. Yi Ilsup’s Images of Being seemed a good companion for a flight. After several days of consumer delight (Christmas gifts and post-holiday bargain hunting), the white space of the flight presented an optimal opportunity to concentrate and reflect upon Yi’s meditative paired photographs. Continue reading

Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields, Chung Ju-ha

Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields fairly brims with nuanced intent. It is a book with a mission.

The photographs in Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields are, for the most part, lyrical pastoral scenes taken in Fukushima and its surrounds in the year after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. There is a quiet that descends over the mostly depopulated scenes. In much the same way that the poem from which this book takes its title is a poem of protest only in its opening and closing lines, it is only in the foreword and afterword that this book makes its clearest protests. The photographs may be at once beautiful and unsettling, but they are indirect. It is only through the thoughtful polemics by Han Hong-koo and Suh Kyung-sik that the full weight of their protestation becomes evident.

Two photographs in particular bring the book’s main theme into clear focus: In the first, a persimmon tree dominates the foreground with an orchard spreading out behind it. Dozens of ripe fruits hang heavy on the tree. In the background, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of equally ripe fruits await a harvest that will never come. The midday sun of everyday, any day, highlights the tree’s tangle of branches and the carpet of unmown grass below it. In the second, a ruffled beach recedes into the distance. Round stones and bits of small debris litter the sand. Two hardscrabble pine trees stand resolutely in the center of the frame. Waves roll in without end from the left. An empty, low and brown field extends from the trees right out to the background. In the far distance, straight out the shoreline, sit the boxy shapes familiar from newscasts of the Fukishima disaster.

What future do these lands have? Even as the disaster recedes into the past, its effects remain present. The news cameras may have moved on but despite significant clean up efforts the fallout of the disaster will not disappear any time soon.

In his afterword, Suh Kyung-sik recounts a young farmer stopping the group that he and the photographer were traveling with to berate them for coming to make their pictures but not doing anything to help the people who have been most directly affected. This highlights a central problem with a book like this: It’s impact will likely be limited. However good a photographer’s intentions, however strong the photographs, however horrific their subject it is difficult for photographs alone to move people to create change. Photographers have been showing us in detail the horror of war for a century and a half and yet we’re no closer to ending war.

Chung counters this problem in two ways. This book is not a one off exercise. It is part of the photographer’s ongoing interest in and concern with the peace movement’s opposition to the nuclear industry. Chung has previously published two books on the topic of nuclear power. His earlier publications were meant to show the insidious threat that we have become complacently inured to. Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields is a tragic extension of these earlier projects. More importantly, Chung partners with others working in the peace and non-proliferation movements. His photographs and books are meant to be bricks in a larger struggle.

And, struggle or protest is exactly what these photographs are. The book’s title is drawn from the poem Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields that was published in 1926 by Lee Sang-hwa. The poem led to the shuttering of the magazine Gaebyeok in which it was first published and in Lee’s arrest for anti-Japanese activities. The poem was an absolutely anti-colonial protest against the Japanese occupation.

At first glance, a Korean poem protesting the Japanese occupation of Korea a century earlier might seem an odd or even errant choice as a primary reference point for a book calling attention to the fallout from a present day natural disaster in Japan. Han and Suh both take pains to elucidate how the reference is both valid and useful. Suh in particular teases out interesting inferences from the comparison.

By TEPCO and the Japanese government’s estimates, it will take decades for the Fukushima Daiichi reactors to be fully shut down. Radiation will be a problem for decades longer, if not centuries. The fallout from this disaster will long reverberate–much as the fallout from the Japanese occupation of Korea has reverberated in national politics and personal histories for the last 100 years. In this mirroring of long-term fallout, Suh sees the seeds of dialogue towards the finding of common ground.

Lee’s poem was a protest against the occupation–in particular the theft of Korean lands in the name of increased productivity. The Fukushima disaster might not be a colonial occupation, but it presents a situation in which the national government in cahoots with powerful industrial lobbies has stolen peoples’ lands. There is right and there is wrong. When wrongs are perpetrated against the people, the powerful, whether working through the guise of a foreign or domestic government, must be held accountable to the people.

Accountability is a tricky endeavor, however. Chung, Han and Suh are all aligned against the nuclear industry and its supporters in government. The nuclear industry goes back to World War II. In this way the Japanese become the first victims of the nuclear industry–as well as the perpetrators of gross human rights violations throughout Asia. Han and Suh both point out that the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Nagasaki and Hiroshima do not excuse the country for its brutal actions that led to the deaths of millions throughout Asia. Conversely, the wrongs perpetrated against Korea during the occupation do not allow Koreans to wash their hands of what has happened at Fukushima and to ignore the present day victims of this present nuclear disaster. However fraught a relationship might be, a natural/nuclear disaster cannot in good conscience be read as retribution, though nor should it absolve a country of past wrongs or obviate the need for apology.

(As a side note: the intended audience for this book is primarily domestic, i.e. Korean. When I write that Koreans cannot wash their hands of what has happened at Fukushima, it would be equally fair to read that as “the international community cannot wash its hands of the disaster.” This is a disaster for all humanity. Likewise, the threat and opportunity of nuclear energy is a something that must be considered by all humanity.)

All of this cannot be communicated by the photographs alone. Chung’s photographs show the landscapes stolen by the disaster: fields that can no longer be tilled, orchards that cannot be harvested, homes that cannot be lived in, highways that cannot be followed and beaches that cannot be enjoyed. Nature herself continues on. Weeds poke through the pavement of a bridge. Birds wheel overhead. Flowers erupt from beneath frost. The ocean rolls and rolls and rolls onto the beach.

In one photograph of a nursing home interior, the high water line reaches nearly to the clock mounted high on the wall. The paint above the line is clean, except where water has splashed. Below, the wall is a fractal mess of dried mud, and the floor is coated in silt left by the receding water. Suh relates his experience of seeing this photograph for the first time and of Chung relating that the clock continued to run as if nothing had happened. This building can no longer accommodate human activity and yet time has gone on. The clock continues to run. Even once its battery gives out, time will still flow.

Spring will come to the fields in Chung’s photographs, but it will matter little to those from whom they’ve been stolen.

Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields
Chung Ju-ha
Essays: Han Hong-koo and Suh Suh Kyung-sik
Published by Noonbit Publishing Co.

Weed, Byung-Hun Min

Several years ago, my wife and I talked our way into a gallery in the Samcheong-dong neighborhood of Seoul that had just closed for the day. Ji adores the work of photographer Byung-Hun Min, whose work was on display at the gallery, and wanted to inquire about a print. She was ready to spend some money on one but was stopped in her tracks by the prices: approximately $20,000. Though the prints (from Min’s Snowland series) were breathtakingly beautiful, we bought a couple of books instead.

Weed was one of those books. It is understated. The beauty of its design trickles down to the smallest details. Thought it would be wrong to call this book a masterpiece, it is masterfully done. The selection of photographs and their presentation is a nearly perfect encapsulation of Hun’s photography. The photographs in Weed do not present an overview or retrospective of Min’s oeuvre. Rather they are a singular and specific project from which the entirety of his photographic pursuit can be extrapolated.

Weed comprises photographs of weeds that Min made during daily morning walks over a five year span at his studio on the outskirts of Seoul. Just as the weeds sprout from whatever unlikely crevice they can gain purchase on, so too does Min find opportunity in an unlikely subject. Weeds are not Bae Bien-U’s majestic pine trees through which ancient echos reverberate nor even Min’s own haunting, minimalist, grand landscapes. These are simply everyday weeds behind the plastic sheeting of greenhouses and poking through the cracks of concrete walls. They are as quotidian a subject as one might imagine. And yet, Min makes of them something far greater.

Two photographers out of the Western canon come to mind: Karl Blossfeldt and Harry Callahan. They have nothing to do directly with Min’s photography. They come out of entirely different traditions but provide several counterpoints from which we can better understand Min’s Weed.

Blossfeldt’s 19th century photographs grow from the seeds of 18th century scientific observation. His methodology for photographing natural plant forms was rigorous. Plants were each photographed in profile against a light gray background. Everything is in focus and sharply rendered. They are highly factual. According to a press release from the Whitechapel Gallery regarding an exhibit of these photographs, they were used primarily as teaching tools until Blossfeldt published them as the seminal Urformen der Kunst in 1928. The minimalist compositions were intended entirely in service of the subject being most clearly described.

The minimalism of Callahan’s mid-20th century photographs is entirely different. His work is less about the subject than the medium through which it is seen. A plant seen framed against the sky and a portrait of the photographer’s wife are equally austere in their reduction of photographic form. Callahan reduces and reduces and reduces towards the limits of photographic representation.


Min’s photographs do not operate in these ways. While his routine of daily photography might have an echo of Blossfeldt’s rigor, he is not concerned with factual recording primarily. And though he might reduce compositions to their minimum as Callahan did, Min allows a struggle between his subject matter and the form of their representation. Rather than set his weeds before a neutral ground, Min allows the ground to come to the fore. The weeds press and push against not only the plastic sheeting and through the concrete walls but also against and through the bounds of the photographic surface. The edges and surface imperfections that were the hallmarks of Polaroid Type-55, which Min has employed for much of this series of photographs, blend with the surfaces and weeds which are depicted within the emulsion.

Blossfeldt may have seen the plant as an artistic structure complete in its own artfulness, but the nature that produced that artfulness is buried by the process of representation. Nature has been made clean and neat. Likewise, Callahan created photographic playgrounds that subverted the subject by their representation. In their extreme reduction, the photographs were about their own form as much as the subject depicted.

Min’s photographs embody the fervor of life. The division between form and subject begins to break down–as though the weeds themselves could break forth from the photographic surface. They do not submit themselves to their representation but instead struggle mightily against it as they struggled mightily out from between mortised stone or against a greenhouse window.

The design of Weed is simple in its presentation of these photographs. There is enough struggle within the photographs; to struggle against overbearing design would demean them. Any treatment other than simple would have been inappropriate. The photographs are presented generally one to a spread with the image on the right hand page and a negative number as caption on the left hand page–though there are several spreads across which two images square off. The dominant color is gray: gray cover, translucent gray title page, gray text and gray photographs. The reproduction of the photographs is extremely true to Min’s low-contrast, gray printing style. The design choices are an extension of this photographic style. (I make this judgement based on prints from the Snowland series I have seen and the reproductions of those images in a sister volume to Weed, Snowland.) My one complaint is that the images are small, only slightly larger than a contact print from a 4×5 Type 55 negative.

Though the subject matter of Weed is outside the core of my photographic interests, I find it fascinating. In looking at the photographs I find new questions for my own photography and my process. I look at my own photographs and consider the interaction of form and subject. I look at familiar photographs from the canon and consider them anew. I might not live with one of Min’s prints on my wall, but his photography is ever present. Min is a photographer’s photographer and produces photographs full of insight and grace.

Byung-Hun Min
Homi Publishing House
Book design by Creé Associates
Printed by Munsung Printing Co.