Category Archives: Theory and Criticism

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 Jorg Colberg

Back in June, Jörg Colberg posted a weekly photobook review at CPhMag.com that he prefaced with some thoughts relevant to readers of Korean Photography Books. I reached out to Jörg, and he was gracious enough to expand on those thoughts in a brief conversation. The conversation took place via e-mail in early July; it has not been edited except for the addition of links to articles he refers to.

Michael N. Meyer (KoreanPhotographyBooks): Could you sketch out, very briefly, your background, and your roles within the photography world for any readers of this blog who might not know who you are?

Jörg Colberg: I have a background in theoretical astrophysics (computational cosmology). Now, I’m probably most widely known through my website CPhMag.com, which is the latest version of what used to be a blog (“Conscientious”) and which focuses on contemporary photography. I earn my living through teaching photography, as one of the core faculty of the fairly new Limited Residency Photography MFA Program at Hartford Art School, besides the occasional essay or interview for a publication. I’m also currently working on a book about photobooks, albeit not a survey book, but rather a book about how to approach photobook making.

KPB: You sum up the preface to a recent post, Photobook Reviews (W21/2015), with an offhanded comment about all of the books on photobooks and the increasing balkanization created by such publications. You ask this as a kind of joke, but I suspect you made light of it only because to do otherwise would require an entire blog post of its own or indeed an entire book. I’d like to orient this conversation around the reasoning of your preface: that there are a helluva lot of photobooks being produced, that photographers are not going to stop producing these books, and that consumers, critics and academics will need to find strategies to deal with this wealth of material. Furthermore, much of this material is outside of what might be considered the mainstream canon–which brings up questions of the usefulness of a shared canon and the limits of slicing photography into ever thinner slivers.

JC: Given how heavily fragmented the photobook world is, slicing and dicing it up even further might be of limited utility. It certainly won’t do much to expand the photobook out of its rather narrow confines (you’ll see the same faces at every photobook festival). I’m saying that the photobook world is fragmented, based on my own experience with it. See, for example this. I look at a lot of books, and I know a lot of people who do the same. But it’s often surprising how few books we all share as having heard of. And almost none of them are part of whatever a mainstream canon might even be.

KPB: What strategies do you use to create order and logic of the flood of titles being published? I’m thinking personal strategies specifically, but as a follow up, would you define your role as critic as helping your audience find order in the swirling chaos of photobooks or photography more broadly?

JC: I’m not sure I have a strategy. I basically react to books I see, hear of, or find in whatever way (I get a lot of submissions from people). I can’t afford traveling to all those festivals, and even if I could, I doubt I’d go. The flood of titles doesn’t worry me too much. It’s exciting, and there are always surprises. But of course, the vast majority of published photobooks are really not very good at all.

As a critic, I see my role as someone critically examining photobooks and photography. Of course, that’s a circular way to talk about this (isn’t that what critics do? But then, you’d be surprised to see the number of people who think it’s criticism when you copy some text from a press release and add a little bit of a description). But I think that’s a difficult enough task, and it’s hard to do it well. I do believe (or at least hope) that examining books critically and helping others approach them will ultimately help everybody find some sort of order. I personally wouldn’t necessarily attempt to identify an order, given it would be my order, and there are already enough people who proclaim how things work (without explaining too much why they make their choices).

KPB: What importance, if any, is there in broadening the pool of work under consideration by identifying cultural histories of one kind or another that aren’t being seen or written about? In your role as critic or educator do you feel any responsibility for actively doing this? (How fascinating might that very photography history “North-Eastern Lithuanian” that you jokingly mention in your post be? It might also be a dead end or a stultifying backwater, but how would we know until someone looks and writes usefully about it?)

JC: There are various cultural strands that people are following currently. My main problem with something like a “North-Eastern Lithuanian” history is that if it stays that, it’s of very limited utility. Last year, I moderated a panel on what was billed as “Japanese photography,” and the members of the panel agreed very quickly that thinking about “Japanese photography” as something that was completely different than, say, “German photography” was really not very helpful. So I think there’s nothing wrong with a “North-Eastern Lithuanian” history of photobooks – as long as it tells us more about photobooks and photography history in general, and doesn’t just carve out yet another niche.

So yes, in my role as critic and educator I do attempt to bring things always to the photography at the core, because that is, after all, what we have at the core. All the rest, all those things we see, those assumptions, that ideology we bring to it – that’s just piled on. I know I got my own ideology, but I do think it’s very important not to confuse ideology with what’s in the pictures.

KPB: Diverse fields of academic inquiry have tended towards dissecting smaller and smaller slices of the world. To what extent is it still useful to seek an overarching picture of a global history of photography? Asked another way–is an agreed upon canon still useful?

JC: I would probably argue along the lines of something I wrote about what I thought good criticism for me amounted to: an attempt to make sense, an attempt to bring useful criteria to the table that can then be used to get to a deeper understanding of photography. Whether or not we need an agreed-upon canon I don’t know. There is something to be said for the work John Szarkowski did, however limited it was. After all, he did attempt to make sense of things, something that cannot be said about the people who are now curators at MoMA. Why we can’t have a group of people who do that I don’t know.

But the canon(s) aside, the moment you know how to approach photography, you understand a lot more about photography, regardless of whether you’re aware of the (or a) canon. And that then is what I spoke of earlier concerning “Japanese photography” (or “German photography” or whatever else). I suppose this really boils down to knowing of a canon really only means something if you can read pictures. Otherwise, it’s just like knowing that 1812 was some special moment in US history, but you don’t really know much else.

There are a large variety of topics that keep propping up in photography’s history, and it certainly is important to be aware of them. We don’t need to be constantly re-inventing the wheel. And regardless of whether we agree with how history has been written, to understand it (and possibly re-write it) we need to know what went on and why (and what it means in terms of the pictures).

I don’t know whether this answers your question. In the end, it all boils down to the question “What is in the picture?” If you can’t give a good answer for that, your knowledge of a history or canon of photography is useless.

KPB: Jörg, thank you so much for taking the time to share your perspective and understanding.

W. M. Hunt on Bohnchang Koo’s Slow Talk In The Photobook Review 008

There is a review of Bonhchang Koo’s Slow Talk by W.M. Hunt in the latest The Photobook Review that accompanies the Summer issue of Aperture Magazine.

The review isn’t available online, but print or digital subscription information can be found here. The magazine is also available at many bookshops.

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

Pegasus 10000 Miles; Lee Young Jun

Pegasus10000Miles_01

Sometimes the most interesting photography books aren’t photography centric at all. One of the first books I wrote about on this blog was Seoul Essay, which used photography to illustrate and expand the written essays that were its core content. The photographs were nonetheless fascinating. Similarly, photography is only part of Pegasus 10000 Miles; written essays (in Korean only) are the primary content of the book. (I am, as ever, treading on thin ice writing about a book which I cannot read a significant portion of.)

Pegasus 10000 Miles tracks the journey of the CMA CGM Pegasus as it makes its way around the world from Dalian to Southampton (there is a handy map that shows both the route of the Pegasus and the route of the author). This ship functions as the central narrative, but the photographs and essays are not slavishly tied to it. The ship is simply an access point allowing for the entirety of sea borne global trade–historical and contemporary, to be examined and critiqued.

Since the text is lost on me, I will confine this review to a small selection of photographs and the workmanship of workroom’s design.

I bought this book, unopened, shrink wrapped and sight-unseen because of the promise of the cover photograph. A man in a red survival suit stands stiffly on a ship’s green steel deck. Behind him are a red cabinet containing a “fire hose & nozzle” and a red “Restricted Area” sign. The railings beside him and the wall behind him are stark white. It is a classic contemporary portrait redolent of adventure and modern mitigated risk. On opening the book, the promise is largely unfulfilled. There are few photographs as starkly clean as this portrait or as technically proficient. The greatest bulk of the photographs appear to be snapshots by an amateur with a unique amount of access.

There are four photographs that sum up the book. The first is a nearly abstract view of the ship heading into the sun. The sea’s undulating surface is dappled with light and looks almost like static on a television screen. In the curved wake behind the ship the surface undulates at a lower frequency and we can see the route the ship has sailed. The ship may be the subject of the photograph, but it is the metadata left in its wake that gives us the most information.

Pegasus10000Miles_02

The second image is taken from the ship’s bridge looking out across the rows of stacked shipping containers. The ship is coming into a port. Along the waterfront there are no less than 22 cranes for loading and unloading cargo. Several ships are already docked and being either loaded or unloaded. There are clearly many such ships plying the world’s waters and a complex high-tech infrastructure built around them.

Pegasus10000Miles_03

On the next spread we see another cargo ship, the MSC Savona, chartered out of Monrovia, coming into port in Hong Kong (or perhaps Xiamen). This ship is even larger than the CMA CGM Pegasus–it is twenty container columns across rather than eighteen. The ship takes up nearly the entire foreground of the photograph, one can barely see the sea to either side of it. Its stacks of cargo containers neatly echo the apartment towers in the background. Two related readings of this photograph that spring immediately to mind: The city as we know it today is directly tied to the global commerce embodied in these ships. Modern life–particularly modern urban life, is significantly defined by the consumer culture represented by these ships. Without global trade, modern life would not exist as we know it.

Pegasus10000Miles_04

The fourth photograph I want to talk about is of a man repairing some piece of machinery. He is perched awkwardly on a ledge and reaching into an oblong opening, which does not seem intended to be an access point. What at first appears to be blue wiring is actually nylon rope. To this point, nearly the entire focus of the photographs has been on the physical enormity of the ship, its advanced technological aspects and the complex system of ports and shipping lanes of which it is a part. Here we are seeing that for all of its marvels, it is still men who make these ships go (and who built them, for that matter). When something breaks, someone has to fix it. The photograph is one of only half a dozen or so photographs of the ship’s crew and the only one in which someone is actively doing something.

Even without the text, Pegasus 10000 Miles is a fascinating and charming glimpse into global shipping. If one were interested in shipping primarily and wanted facts rather than photographs, being unable to understand the text would be a greater concern.

Pegasus 10000 Miles
Lee Young Jun
workroom
2012

A Conversation with Suejin Shin

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

Suejin Shin: Right.

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

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

Suejin Shin, Lamp LAB, Seoul

Suejin Shin at Lamp LAB, November 2014

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

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

As I’ve noted in the past, I’m a bit of an urban planning geek. It comes from my grandfather who was involved with local government. I find the urban space endlessly fascinating. A proper city is always in a state of flux. Blink and the city changes. This interest is reflected on my bookshelves and my personal photographic archive. I dig cities.

It’s no wonder then that I was drawn to workroom’s xyZ City, though I’m not entirely clear what the book is. An illustrated treatise? An exhibition catalog? An exhibition in book form? There is no English text, so I’m left with the title, layout and photographs themselves to decipher it.
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Commentary: Context, Approach and Bias

A.D. Coleman’s observations on photography are always acutely astute. His blog, Photocritic International, is a must read.

In a recent post, Across the Great Divide (1), he recounts a misreading by Penny Coisneau-Levine of a review he wrote in 1974 about a Canadian photographer’s book. She uses the misreading to set him up as a straw man in order to criticize a “monolithic approach” in which “universal” terms serve to hide work that does not conform to this mode of criticism.

“The problem is, of course, that this monolithic approach almost guarantees that enormous chunks of the work under consideration will slip through the critical cracks, that whatever exists in the work that cannot be mediated through the ‘universal’ terms of discourse the critic employs risks being missed altogether. And if not much in the work does lend itself to being discussed in these critical terms, the work may be barely seen at all, with the conclusion that nothing exists in the work to be seen.”

Leaving aside the poor choice of straw man, Coisneau-Levine’s point is a valid one, and one that I am aware of here on Korean Photography Books. The locus of this blog is books from a culture that is not my own. I am not Korean, do not have any formal schooling on Korean history or culture and do not speak the language. The risk is ripe for falling back onto generalized universal terms that demean, distort or diminish the work under review.

My goal in writing these reviews is the opposite: to make the work in these books accessible to a Western audience while doing what little I can to promote the photographers behind the work. Two key role models for my approach to writing this blog have been Coleman and John Berger. In the introduction to Berger’s Understanding a Photograph, Geoff Dyer quotes D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Thought” to describes Berger’s approach: “Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.”

Their similar approaches of closely attending to the work under review seems to me a valid means of minimizing the risk of losing chunks or not truly seeing the work. Furthermore, there are rich veins of potential meaning where cultures come together. What is ordinary and obvious within a given context becomes strange and obscured when it runs up against a foreign work of art. A particular meaning might be lost, but new meanings are created. When any work of art is finished by the artist and comes in front of a viewer the viewer brings a new set of experiences and assumptions to the work and finds his own meaning within it.

While there is the risk in cross cultural criticism of applying a universal standard to all works regardless of cultural context, one must have a standard of some sort. I can only apply a personal standard through closely attending to the work itself, my reaction to it and the cross cultural connections these suggest.