Category Archives: Noonbit

Han Youngsoo Exhibit at ICP @ Mana in Jersey City

Han Youngsoo photograph, Seoul, Korea 1956-63

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

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

Great to see it getting attention here in the States.

Traces of Life, Chang Jae Lee & The Korea Society

Kyusang Lee described Traces of Life: Seen Through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992 to me as being central to understanding Korean Photography. He felt so strongly about this that he literally chased after me following our interview to give me the book. Published in conjunction with a 2012 exhibit at The Korea Society in New York curated by Chang Jae Lee, the book outlines the post-World War II beginnings of a nascent autonomous Korean photographic tradition.

Photography first came to Korea through missionaries and other Western travelers and was later used by the Japanese as a tightly controlled political tool during the colonial period in Korea. Photographic representation of Korea and its people before 1945 was thus defined by an external perspective even when created by Koreans. In the politically charged environment of post-liberation Korea, the shift to self-representation by Korean photographers was dramatically felt and marked stylistically by an adoption of “life-realism”. This shift meant that “Koreans could finally see themselves from their own perspective,” according to Sun Il. Continue reading

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

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.)

A Conversation with Kyusang Lee and Misook Ahn of Noonbit

MNM: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and writer of; I am sitting here with Lee Kyusang and Ahn MiSook of Noonbit Publishing Co. as well as my wife, Ji Young Lee who will be translating and asking follow up questions. Mr. Lee and Ms. Ahn, let’s start with the easy questions: what is the history of Noonbit and your background in photography. Were you photographers, or editors, or, before beginning Noonbit, did you come from another division in publishing?

Kyusang Lee: Originally, what we studied was Korean literature and writing. As you know, every Korean male must serve in the army, so I did too. After I finished studying I became an editor in a publisher producing art books. My wife, who is the chief editor… 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.

Elegy; Jo Sook Jin

In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to state right up front that Sook Jin is a friend. As she was making the photographs that became Elegy she asked me for technical advice. She gave me a copy of her book.

On to the review, then.

If only I could have many deaths. I would like to try my options. I would like to work up to my everlasting death; for it to be the best death. (How grossly bourgeois.) It would be like trying on a suit; does it fit? Perhaps another style would suit me better. I would like to ease into finality, into forever, into nothingness–absolute, as if I were inching one toe then the next into the ocean. We get no such courtesy. The reaper shoves us headlong into the deep blue black and we are gone. This would seem to me to be a cause for fear. And, I am afraid. It is a distant fear. I am yet young, though youth doesn’t guarantee death’s distance.

The light that falls across Jo Sook Jin’s photographs is austere, hard-edged and sharp. The sun is high. It falls across dilapidated grave markers and rakes the dirt with shadow–like a macabre sun dial. The grave markers hang this way and that. Wooden crosses are split and bleached; stones are broken; concrete crumbles. Plants grow thinly across the golden dirt. Tufts of grass anchor themselves in stone crevices. In the glare of the sun the grave markers are slowly being erased.

Jo Sook Jin does not seem afraid so much as contemplative in photographing these crumbling grave markers in the cemetery on Itaparica off the coast of Brazil. Here Jo spent several residencies making the sculptural installations for which she is known as well as photographing in the graveyard. Her approach with the camera is an extension of her artistic process. Elegy is as composed of found objects as any of her physical sculptures are. Her process of discovering and collection remains intact. The sequencing of the book is much like the stacking and interlocking through which she constructs her sculptures.

In her statement at the end of the book, Jo writes that she was drawn to the “somber beauty” of the disappearing wooden grave markers. In them and the dirt she feels peoples’ presences: “…not only those who were buried but also those who had buried them. They might be in a different time and space than me but it was as if I knew them. And so I traveled in a different time.”

As a reader, I’m not sure I feel like I’m traveling to a different time, but I’m certainly put into an appropriately contemplative mood. At the beginning of her statement Jo notes a line she found in a cathedral in Salvador, Brazil: “It is a true philosophy to meditate on death” which she mirrors at the end of the statement by quoting an old saying: “We come from the earth and go back to the earth.” The photographs contain both the marker and the abode of death.

Rather than a lament to the dead, Elegy becomes a catalyst of philosophic introspection. In feeling the presence of those who have passed and those who have mourned, Jo connects us to the inevitable flow of humanity. Elegy invites us to meditate on those who are lost to us and that we too will eventually pass on.

Sook Jin Jo
Essay: Richard Vine
Noonbit Publishing Co.