Category Archives: Still Life

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.

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.)

Automatic Description, YOON Seungjun

AutomaticDescription01Yoon Seungjun’s Automatic Description is a book of car photographs. These photographs are not your everyday glossy advertisement for this years latest iteration of automotive desire. There is no glitz, no sparkle, no sex appeal. These cars are dead.

These cars are literally dead. Yoon has photographed junked junkers in junkyards. It would be a mistake to label this as ruin porn and set it aside with disdain. Yoon’s working method is more in line with the socially conscious impulses of SebastiĆ£o Salgado or Edward Burtynsky, though without Salgado’s humanity or Burtyksky’s grand scale. His photography is a critical examination of “the space and environment of modern society,” here that is specifically the junkyard behind the façade of contemporary automobile culture in South Korea. If it also happens to be visually arresting and aesthetically appealing so much the better.

AutomaticDescription02 Automatic Description is broken into chapters that build one upon the other. The book begins with “Anatomical Chart – appropriation,” a typological series of images of individual car’s under carriages shot against a black ground. These photographs reduce the automobile to its basic structural form, minus wheels. We see the body frame with the suspension structures, transmission, driveshaft, and exhaust systems hanging from it. With their wheels removed and reoriented in space, these automobiles are no longer vehicles but rather abstract forms. Looking closely, one can find narratives in the abstraction: oil leaks, broken drive shafts, scrapes, rust and burn (?) marks. There are stories in these forms however banal they might be.

AutomaticDescription03Chapter two, “Anatomical Chart – combination,” moves from individual vehicles to the aggregation of them. Vehicles are no longer individual stories. Instead, they interlock in stacks and heaps. Crumpled cars are crumpled in a pile. Hundreds of gas tanks are mounded together. Wiring harnesses are enmeshed in a chaotic singular mess. Pipes of every description writhe together like so many snakes in a pit. The singular story has given way to a history of multitudes. Yoon brings his camera in close for these photographs. We see no ground; the subject fills the frame. We are again seeing this automotive wreckage as abstraction.

AutomaticDescription04“Scraped Car Chart – parade” is the third chapter and takes us off into the new territory of documentary context. Yoon has pulled back to show us the space in which these cars are resting. We see the rows of racks and risers on which the cars rest. Some of the vehicles are half dismantled; others seem as shiny as new. Sunlight glints off of chrome and polish, still. In the middle of the chapter a gatefold presents a long panoramic image of column after column of junked cars. There are obvious joints in the image; it is not a singular panorama. Yoon has constructed this image–no different than we have constructed this entire infrastructure of disposal (such as it is). Just as the infrastructure of roads, highways and city streets has been built to accommodate the relentless drive of automobile culture so has an infrastructure been built to support the end stage inherent in consumerism. When millions are buying cars, millions are inevitable discarding them as well.

Yoon pulls back, once again, in the last chapter, “Scrapped Car Chart – Goryeojang.” Goryeojang refers to a historical custom in the Goryeo period of taking one’s elderly parents into the mountains and leaving them there to die. There was a movie with this title as well in the early 1960’s in which a son takes his mother to the mountains but breaks the custom by returning home with her. The photographs in this chapter are of cars junked in quasi-wild places. Cherry blossoms bloom above one wrecked SUV. A tangle of scrubby bushes grows up through a bright red wreck of a coupe. A luxury sedan has settled into repose on a hillside; it is surrounded by leafless trees of brownest autumn. A white SUV sits upended into a ditch; we see only its tail end with barren trees towering above it. In the chapter’s final photograph the wrecked hulks of a Bongo and Porter intermingle in the background; they are nearly obscured by the thick tangle of branches and new buds in which they have become buried. The organized infrastructure of the preceding chapter is nowhere to be seen. Instead, automobile culture has intruded upon nature. This intrusion marks a breakdown in order that, perhaps, signifies a culture losing its traction and sliding out of control.


As a member of the photography collective Dream Flower Factory (mentioned here), Yoon shares the collective’s socially minded conscious. This conscious is evident in these photographs. Yoon lures us in with the abstract beauty of the first chapters but is never himself seduced. The title of the fourth chapter makes his concerns crystal clear. Not only are we uncomfortable with the custom he references, but we then must transfer this discomfort to our car culture. We no longer leave our elders in the mountains to die; perhaps one day we will no longer leave our vehicular refuse in the woods to rust away either. If this comes to pass, it will not be a kindness to our elders that drives us, but instead a kindness to future generations.

Automatic Description
Yoon Seungjun
Publisher: Park Seonsoon
Published by: Photodot
July 1, 2014
Photo Edited by: Yoon Seungjun & Choi Yeonha
Written by: Choi Yeonha
Translation to English: Jaeeun Kwak & Grace Yoon
Designed by: Han Jeongyeon
Printed by DaeHyun Printing & Publishing

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

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.

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.

On The Line, ed. Shin Suejin

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

To extend this memorializing and reflection to another country and another culture is dangerous. To even broach the raw emotions of contemporary politics is more dangerous still (and rude). Well, so be it.
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Casual Pieces 1, Hasisi Park

A friend wrote an essay for the Carl Andre catalog that accompanies his retrospective at the Dia:Beacon. We accompanied she and her fiance, another friend, to a preview of the exhibit before it opened to the public.

During a brief welcome talk, Yasmil Raymond noted that artists make both “Art” with a capital “A” and “art” with a lower-case “a”. A number of Andre’s lower-case “a” artworks were presented as a means of showing his artistic process. There was also a video piece that she took pains to note showed him “conceiving” a work of art. He wasn’t making a work; he was conceiving a work.

A selection of photographs taken by Andre (lower case “a” art pieces) could be read as a visual keystone to understanding his conceptual process. The photographs were of steel plates on roadways, paving stones piled on curbs and heavy wooden support beams: the observational raw materials that became his structured conceptual works.

These got my mind working to categorize photographers between observational and conceptual. The last several books reviewed here have been very much conceptual in nature: photographs created to fulfill a central concept. While these can be incisive, they can also be too clean or become illustrative and repetitive. I thought it would be good to change pace and segue to something a little more observational, a little more raw.

One of the first SSE-P zines I acquired was Hasisi Park’s [jjim jil bang] Korea. It came up in the review of the SSE-P project. Park’s straightforward photographs always held something back obscuring as much as they revealed. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for her name.
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Pla-Wars, GyooSik Kim

My childhood was filled with mock battles, computer games and half finished model making. I clearly remember several of the unfinished models: a WWII era US aircraft carrier, an FA-18 fighter jet, Kennedy’s PT-104 (a story that fascinated me) and an F-14 Tomcat. As a entered my teens, the first President Bush went to war with Iraq; it was an easy (and brief) transition from half-heartedly collecting baseball cards to half-heartedly collecting cards depicting the materiel of war. With all of that conditioning, it is a wonder that I never joined the military.

One might justify all of this as a benign means of engaging with history or learning engineering or strategy skills. Or, one might cynically suggest that our society, indeed most societies, are militaristic at their core and mold their youngest citizens accordingly. The Secret Machines, their album “Now Here is Nowhere” playing in the background while I was looking at the book, sang: “The road leads where it’s led.” When we make childhood into a simulacra of war, what life journey are we suggesting for individuals and what future for society at large?
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