Category Archives: Portraiture

Intermarriage and Contemporary Political Retrenchment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intermarriage
Yael Ben-Zion
2013
Kehrer Heidelberg Berlin

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.

Sound of Sea, Oh Jin Tae

Two weeks ago I was in Greece hopping from island to island. On the high speed catamarans that ferried us from port to port sea spray would drive against the windows of the cabin in which we were ensconced. We did not feel the spray nor smell the salt in the air. Skipping from beach to beach we were likewise ensconced in a fantasy of idyllic island living. We looked at a great many things, but hardly saw the lives of those around us. We did very little of the concerted looking that leads to seeing.

Oh Jin Tae’s Sound of Sea [sic] is the polar opposite. Continue reading

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
IANNBOOKS
2013

National Song Contest, Byun Soon Choel

NationalSongContest_01

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

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

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

NationalSongContest_03

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Song Contest
Byun Soon Cheol
Published by G Colon
2014

Korean Cultural Service currently exhibiting Hyung S. Kim’s Haenyeo photographs

As part of Asia Week here in NYC, the Korean Cultural Service is exhibiting Hyung S. Kim’s Haenyeo photographs in its Gallery Korea. The exhibit runs through April 10th.

To keep this post apropos to the blog’s main theme, a book containing these photographs is available.

More info.

KID NOSTALGIA: Portraits of South Korean Youth, Park Sung Jin

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, Cover

Park Sung Jin’s KID Nostalgia is a collection of sensitive, square format, black and white portraits of South Korean youth in school uniform taken between 2001 and 2009. The subjects are set center frame with side street or back alleyway urban scenes surrounding them. The portraits are roughly evenly split between waist up and full length views. The black and white is the soft gray of a subtle, classic aesthetic that doesn’t call attention to itself. The books uses a simple layout in which each portrait is presented individually on the right hand page of a spread.

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, interior spread
With a few exceptions, Park’s subjects gaze directly through the camera towards the viewer. This gaze is direct but not confrontational. In fact, there is a kind of softness to this eye contact. While there are the outward signs of youthful rebellion–cigarettes, mussed hairstyles and punked-out uniforms, the youths’ eyes belie a certain reticence. They hold themselves with an awkwardness that suggests naivete or innocence. There is longing and insecurity. There is intensity, too; so much so that they seem ready to burst into flame. These cool kids smolder.

Photographs are of their maker as much as of what stood before the lens. The choices that one makes in selecting a subject, deciding how to depict and frame that subject and ordering the resulting pictures in series all are decided by and define the maker’s state of mind. Though born in Seoul (where many of these photographs were taken), he came to New York City in 1987 at the age of 17. In New York, Park found “a place where every conceivable race [lives] side by side, but they don’t actually mix… Instead they live within their own identities.” Park notes that Kid Nostalgia is, in a sense, his “trying to find [his] own forgotten roots.”

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, interior spread One comparison that springs readily to mind when viewing Kid Nostalgia is with Hein-Kuhn Oh’s Girls Act. The subject matter is quite similar, and the black and white aesthetics are even similar. The photographs come from entirely different mindsets, though, and these differences are apparent in the details. In Park’s “남산동 2005” for an example, the camera has been fitted with a slightly wide lens and positioned at the subject’s eye level. This even footing grants an instant conversational familiarity and shows the subject within an environment. Oh’s photographs, such as “Jin-hee Han, age 17, 2003,” are shot from a low vantage point. The viewer looks up at the subject, who becomes monumental. Oh’s low vantage point and longer lens places the horizon low in the frame, minimizing the subject’s relationship to her surroundings by placing her against the relatively neutral ground of the sky. The lighting is different, too: Park’s light is soft and coming from behind the subjects; it is probably the filtered light of an overcast sky. Oh’s light is hard, directional and frontal–direct flash on axis with the Oh’s lens.

These subtle differences in how the photographers use similar black and white materials to depict similar subjects limn a critical divide between them. Oh looks outward with a critical gaze and a clear concept (both Girl Act specifically and in his work broadly) that is as direct and hard as the light in “Jin-hee Han, age 17, 2003.” This concept can loosely be defined as the way that social markers of identity both bind groups of people together but also alienate and limit those same people.In contrast, Park looks inward. His vision relies on his subjects being their “raw and fresh” selves. In fact, it is precisely his subjects’ refusal to play by the rules, their skulking about on the “periphery” that makes these kids such powerful avatars for Park. The soft light that suffuses Park’s photographs denotes a kind of romanticism–it caps the subjects of “남산동 2005” with halos such that one might read them as mischievous alternative saints.

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, interior spread For all Park’s talk about his subjects’ rawness, the photographs are remarkably chaste. This is not Elle Perez’s ghettopunk and not even within shouting distance of Dash Snow’s Polaroids. These kids may be full of excitement and energy but that energy never breaks the photographic surface. Park treats the youth with incredible sensitivity but imbues them with a nostalgia that is unlikely their own. It is the nostalgia of someone looking back. One wonders how these kids might depict themselves.

Kid Nostalgia is, physically, simply appointed. It’s design is minimal and straightforward, mirroring the subtle aesthetics of the photographs while relying on them to carry their own weight. The heavyweight glossy dust jacket features the image “가리봉동 2005” on the front; the title, photographer’s name and publisher in English and Korean are on the spine; and a UPC code on the back. The book’s hardcover boards are a cheap glossy white with only the title and UPC code on the blindingly bare front cover and title, photographer’s name and publisher in English and Korean on the spine. The plates are nicely but not luxuriously printed on paper stock thin enough that a reader can nearly read the photographs through each page’s backside. The production quality of the book will not win any awards, though it does its job in delivering the photography simply and without fuss.

KID NOSTALGIA: Portraits of South Korean Youth
Park Sung Jin
Edited by Kim Kwangchul
Translation by Colin Mouat
Design by Gang Moonsik
Printed by Sinsago Hi-techj
propaganda press (site, contact)

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.

Continue reading

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

Bright Shadow, Sohn Sung Hyun

Bright Shadow opens with a photograph of the Mongolian steppe. The horizon line is low in the frame, marked by mountains in the blue distance. The brown of dry grassland stretches out to meet the mountains. The land is receding; it is falling out of focus. A cloud filled blue sky dominates the picture, or would if a pair of truck mirrors in the foreground weren’t breaking the frame. The mirrors mar and distort the steppe caught in their surfaces.

We come to the city. It is seared by sunlight. The sky is blue and dark. There is no ground; buildings seem to sprout from their own concrete. A billboard advertising an apartment complex, still under development, promising elegance and luxury, dominates the photograph. We are in Mongolia.

A bolt of yellow: a woman in a yellow shirt and large white sunglasses is transformed by the photographer’s flash, which overpowers the sun. The background is dark (a trick of balancing the ambient and flash exposures in favor of the flash). More portraits of people picked out of their surroundings by the photographer’s flash follow: a middle aged, large bellied, man in a dress shirt; security guards; a young man with a hip haircut and popped collar; three young women, one looking away; two soldiers in their fatigues; a rancher in his chaps; construction workers; businessmen (or gangsters). The portraits are full of strong color and hard light. They bring to mind Hein Kuhn Oh’s ajumma portraits as well as Philip Lorca Dicorcia’s strobe lit street portraits and Bruce Gilden’s aggressive street photography.

The portraits are interrupted by a series of full bleed double truck urban landscapes in grainy black and white. Cars commingle. Cranes loom over rising buildings. A fountain’s spray dissipates into a gust of wind. The flash lit portraits continue: a man in uniform; a young man, hip; a young couple; a boy and a teen.

And then there comes a break: a black and white portrait of a young girl in some sort of costume–Mongolian? Korean? Play?. A second black and white portrait follows: an older, heavy set Native American woman with blotchy skin and thick fingers. Another portrait, this one in color: a Native American woman (neither young nor old) who looks away from the camera. We return to black and white: another woman, cropped tightly, her collar bones and upper chest are bare. And then color: a stark portrait of a Korean woman wearing a nurses uniform sitting before an off-white wall and staring intently into the lens. Three Korean boys look uneasily into the camera. A Mongolian family, four people covering three generations, stands on a plaza before what appears to be a government building; they stand erect. The husband’s face is marked with anxiety; he pulls his son in towards himself. The son looks off to his left away from the camera. The mother smiles; there is pride mixed with bemusement. The grandmother, leaning on her cane, wears a traditional costume with two government medals pinned to it. She looks towards the lens but not into it–perhaps she is looking beyond it. This family is followed by a group portrait of Korean healthcare workers; or maybe they are Mongolian.

The book ends with a final portrait: a tightly cropped photograph of an older Native American woman’s softly lit, wrinkle-etched, face. Her eyes are moist. In them we see the photographer’s reflection.

Interspersed throughout the book are roughly printed pages with multiple black and white documentary photographs. They are not only of Mongolians but also of the Korean diaspora and Native Americans. They depict daily life, rituals, landscapes, and portraits. In these mash-ups Sohn plays his hand.

When I say that Sohn has played his hand, I mean that this book engages his broader interest in the historical, societal and economic stories of the Mongoloid race told through the visual arts. (This is paraphrased from his bio. As this parenthetical note probably makes clear, I am uncomfortable with the word “Mongoloid”.) Sohn’s work is interpretive rather than documentary. Though this book is ostensibly about the effects of rapid economic expansion in Mongolia, the mash-ups and closing sequence present tangential forays into origin myths, the Korean Diaspora, racial affiliation and historical or colonial injustices. How could one talk about the effect of rapid economic expansion without also speaking to these other ideas? They feed one another.

As noted in Kay Jun’s essay that concludes the book, Sohn is both a photographer and an anthropologist by training. His previous books, The Circle Never Ends and Close Encounters of the Fourth World, pair photographs with essays and seek to bring into the light the stories of Native Americans. In “Bright Shadow” Sohn drops all text and “attempt[s to] touch on [the] complexity of history of humanity only through the prism of photographed images” according to Kay. This is a particularly photographic endeavor, and one that steps away from an objective stance. This is apparent from the first image of the out of focus landscape that comes into focus in the mirrors’ reflections. Though in focus, this reflection is distorted by the curves of the mirror. With this opening, Sohn is stating that he is no more objective than the mirrors. His perspective and his interests inform (or distort) what is before his camera.

Sohn is entirely transparent in this. His camera is not invisible. Instead, it makes itself known in the pop of the flash. The portraits are stories that build within a larger Story. When we come to the crux of the narrative, rapid economic development creating unforeseen societal consequences, we shift into black and white. Our world goes gritty. When we’re following his free associates between parallel stories not only does the aesthetic style shift into a traditional documentary mode but also the paper selection, printing and design shifts. These shifts are too rapid in the final sequence where they feel awkward, heavy handed. I find that the ending presents a tangle compared with the puzzle that the rest of the book puts forth.

As an object, Bright Shadow is lovely. It’s cover boards are beautifully wrapped in some kind of rice (?) paper with metallic flecks. The cover is bare except for the Aprilsnow Press logo embossed in the lower right corner. The photographer’s name, the book’s title and the publisher’s name are embossed on the spine. The printing quality is very good. The design is sparse and yet entirely appropriate to the themes that run through the book. There a few design flourishes such as the red, yellow and black ribbon page markers. Kay’s essay is enlightening, if not perfectly translated. There is a discussion between Sohn, Lee Young June and Kim Nam Soo, as well, though it is not translated into English.

Much like Jaeyu Lee’s Fragments in Scene, I find this book a wonderful agglomeration of anthropological process and visual communication. While it is highly conceptually driven like much contemporary Korean photography, Sohn’s integration of cross-practice methodologies and reliance on purely visual storytelling (leaving aside Kay’s essay and the discussion) gives the viewer rich opportunities to make broad connections and find their own insights from the work. It’s conceptual drive is expansive rather than reductive. In the end, this overwhelms the book, which falls apart in its final sequence. None-the-less, it is an interesting and engaging book.

Bright Shadow
Sohn Sung Hyun
texts: Sohn Sung Hyun, Lee Young June, Kim Nam Soo, Kay Jun
Edited and Designed by Kay Jun, Jeong Jae Wan
Proofread by Kang Young-gyu
Translated by Angelina Gieun Lee
Transcribed by Lee Hyunsong
Printing and Binding by Munsund Printing
Published by Aprilsnow Press
2013