Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

Jonathan Goodman reviews Sook Jin Jo’s recent cross photographs

Sook Jin Jo recently forwarded me this review of her latest nighttime photographs of neon crosses in Seoul. It’s a nice first look at Jo’s new work (though a bit winding).

For anyone passing will be in Seoul next month, be sure to check Jo’s cross photographs at the 2017 Seoul Photo Festival.

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.

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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

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.

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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

Exhibition: Boomoon at Flowers Gallery, NYC

Flowers Gallery on West 20th Street here in New York City will be showing Boomoon’s Naksan photographs. The exhibit opens this Thursday, March 5th, and runs through April 4th.

Boomoon published a monograph of this work with Nazraeli Press; I assume that this book as well as his other books with Nazraeli will be available for purchase (as will original prints!) at the gallery.

Shattered, Pyokisik

shattered

Writing about Sogyumo Acacia Band on SeoulBeats, Ambika describes Song Eun Ji’s vocals as “breathy but clear,” and concludes that “their songs are great for sitting back and enjoying the interplay of sounds.” These descriptions could be applied equally well to Pyokisik’s first book of photographs, Shattered–and the comparison is apt as Song writes the introductory essay for the book and the musical duo appears in several of the photographs.

Photography is a record of light on surface–but not simply the light reflected off surfaces before the camera. At its core, photography is the record of light passing through a lens’s optical surfaces and falling on the surface of the recording medium. (Ignore for the moment lensless and experimental photography.) Light is distorted at each link in the imaging chain. Pyokisik’s photographs show the world through surfaces that distort it or reflected in imperfect mirrors. The optical and chemical systems through which they are recorded cause their own distortions. There is a loose and casual snapshot quality to them. This is a personal narrative being subjectively delivered.

shattered 01

The photographs in Shattered have a deep atmospheric quality that plays on these distortions. The opening image is of a bush with the sky behind. It is distorted here and there by water droplets on a surface through which the photographer pointed his camera. A softness pervades the image. (This image appears on the cover as well.) The atmospheric show continues: Light through a wooded scene; flare turns the left hand side of the image to orange flame. A couple sits on a rock outcropping looking across a bay towards a city lit up in the twilight; a long exposure has blurred the scene and the point light sources bleed into the evening haze enveloping them. A woman’s hand holds a half-smoked cigarette; the middle of the frame is lost to lens flare while the top of the frame is out of focus foliage.

shattered 06

Song’s essay is nearly as abstract as the photographs to which it provides context. It can be summed up thusly:

…I have gained clarity in this such as: what am I able to do and what I am not able to do, or between what I think I know and what I do not know, or what I am interested in and what I am not interested in and lastly between what I like and what I do not like. Perhaps, I have come to know how to best reduce the energy of anxiety in my mind.

shattered 03

Clarity is not something that is in ample supply in Shattered. Song closes her essay with this line: “It will all be alright because nothing is stranger than the fact that something is missing in the world.” If we are to take Pyokisik’s photographs as the world, then there is much missing in or elided from them. They present a beautiful view of the world, however much it might be distorted. I am left, however, with questions: Given Sogyumo Acacia Band’s appearance in a handful of the book’s photographs, I wonder if Shattered is about them or if they are merely part of Pyokisik’s social circle? Is there an underlying psychological meaning? Is the anxiety and the hint of depression that Song writes about what ties these photographs together? Are they about being unmoored from the world, a pane of distortion separating the world and the self?

shattered 04

In the end, I am left with beautiful breathy images that toy with the interplay of light on and through surfaces. Many of these images would find a happy home on someone’s wall. Myself, I find an image of smoke in front of a window set in a concrete wall and reflecting a blue sky to be endlessly fascinating. The world is shown as layers of distortion, reflection and hazy elision.

The photographs in Shattered are beautiful, and the book itself is a lovely object beautifully printed on alternating signatures of coated and uncoated paper stocks and a stitched binding without boards. However beautiful, I do not know, quite, what it all means.

shattered 05

Shattered
Pyokisik
Edit: Jeong Eun Kim
Design: RAAH
Assistants: Hyunjung Son, Sina Kim
Printed in Korea: HeeWoo.com
IANNBOOKS
2011

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.
2012

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.

Weed
Byung-Hun Min
Homi Publishing House
Book design by Creé Associates
Printed by Munsung Printing Co.
2006

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

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.

Elegy
Sook Jin Jo
Essay: Richard Vine
Noonbit Publishing Co.
2010