Category Archives: Urban Landscape

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.

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.

Han Youngsoo Exhibit at ICP @ Mana in Jersey City

Han Youngsoo photograph, Seoul, Korea 1956-63

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

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

Great to see it getting attention here in the States.

경성역

This review is being written to the clack of steel on steel as I ride Amtrak from Charlottesville, VA to New York City. My origin and destination stations today are practical rather than civic architecture. Train stations that proclaim civic greatness and interconnectedness such as Washington, DC’s Union Station or New York City’s former Pennsylvania Station (demolished in 1963) are from a past era. Today scant political weight is given to the civic value of this country’s physical plant. And yet, public buildings have not ceased to carry enormous cultural freight and communicate copious civic meaning.

Jumping geographic and cultural tracks: Though no longer functioning as a train station, as civic architecture the Old Seoul Station remains a politically and culturally potent structure. Designed by Tsukamoto Yasushi and finished in 1925, the station stood as both a product and a symbol of the Japanese occupation. While some civic buildings from this period were demolished, in 1947 the station was very practically renamed and continued to function as Seoul’s main rail hub until 2004 when Korail’s new Seoul Station* was completed. In 2011 the old station reopened as Culture Seoul Station 284, a cultural center with space for performances, exhibits and events. The name alludes to the station’s position as an intersection of historical, spatial, cultural and civic symbolism.

Corners (interview, review 1, 2), has undertaken a “Railway Library” of three books. The first book in this series is 경성역 (Gyeongseong Station). It is focused on a nuts and bolts representation of the Old Seoul Station. It begins with an essay, describing the physical building and the history of its construction and use, followed by a barebones timeline of the station from the construction of the first station building in 1900 through the renaming of the 1925 building in 1947. The blurb on Corner’s website describes using the railroad as a filter for critical cultural and historical examination.

The meat of the book is archival photographs of the station that detail the ostentatious grandeur and Western influence of its multitudinous architectural styles. The building is clearly a statement. Like any colonial architecture, the function of the building was as much cultural and political as practical. The same can be said of the photographs. It is telling that only a single train appears in any of the photographs and then only incidentally; nor are there any photographs of any of the functional aspects of the building: switches, signals, or other mechanical infrastructure. There are only two photographs showing the tracks of the station; these are, like the single train, incidental to the architectural view behind them. The importance of the building was not in its function as transportation infrastructure but in its function as a cultural and political symbol.

We are shown the station as a particular set of physical facts; we are not shown the base function of the building or the complex web of human interaction that sustains it. It is a grand, modern and industrial physical fact. We do not see any planning sessions nor a groundbreaking ceremony. We do not see workers constructing the building nor installing the interior decoration. We do not see people manning (nor patronizing) the barber’s chair. We do not see people sitting down to dinner in the restaurant nor anyone in the kitchen preparing meals. With exception of the first and last photographs in the book we see no people; in these we are shown two crowds. In the first we see a crowd facing away seated inside the main dining room during the dedication or opening ceremony. In the second we see the hoi polloi stretching to Namdaemun and facing us; the caption ambiguously describes “citizens” filling the street outside the station without describing the purpose or occasion of their doing so. The cultural implications of this representation were certainly as intentional as the architecture itself.

Photographs are not simple carriers of absolute fact. Photographers make a host of decisions about what to record and how to do so. These photographs are not the simple documents that they purport to be. They are as much a depiction of the colonial system of which they are a functional aspect as the station they show. The decisions of what is shown and how it is shown are made by editors and designers as well. The designer, Jo Hyo Joon, made a conscious decision to use these particular photographs and to present them in the way that he has. It is an interesting decision to choose to situate a process of reconciliation or reclamation on such contested ground. It is as though Jo is letting us know that every square inch of the conversation will be contested ground.

Corner’s continued use of the Risograph printing process is another interesting choice. Taken in the first half of the twentieth century, the photographs in this book appear to have been shot and printed with a variety of techniques. The clipped corners suggest dry plate negatives (dry plate materials were certainly used by the Japanese authorities at this time). The odd shapes of some images suggest albumen prints, and silver gelatin materials were almost certainly used for the later photographs. These photographic processes create richly beautiful objects. The Risograph printing eliminates the differences between these techniques’ visual styles. They become artifacts; their creation as functional government documents is emphasized.

경성역 is not so much a book of photography as a book of political and cultural critique that uses photography to make its argument. It is clear that these photographs are telling us something about the world but it is up to the reader to examine these facts critically in order to come to terms with the Old Seoul Station and its past, present and future meaning in the fabric of Korean culture and history. The stage is set for additional books in the Railway Library.

디자인 : 조효준
년도 : 2014
출판사 : 코우너스
크기 : 12 x 18.8 cm
인쇄 : 리소그라프
제본 : 실 가격

*The new Seoul Station represents a contemporary example of exactly the kind of civic-minded architecture discussed above.

Stained Ground, Taewon Jang

wpid-wp-1437856627573.jpgPhotographing at night exposes the world in a new light. We are able to see things in ways that we cannot during daylight hours. Taewon Jang has gone out into the darkness to photograph stalled construction projects, remnants of abandoned factories and the nocturnal glow of functioning industrial sites so that we can see them, literally, in a different light.

The light of the night is the opposite of the light of day. Daylight is external and falls onto the world–and does so with relative equality. At night, light jets outward from the subjects and pools close to its source leaving the rest of the world dark. By photographing at night–and by making use of the long exposures required by his large format camera, Jang traces the power relations (literal and metaphorical) of contemporary society.

wpid-wp-1437856689690.jpgJang began making photographs in Korea and Japan of stalled construction sites. Over the seven year period during which he photographed, he expanded his subject matter to include abandoned factories and functioning industrial sites as well as expanded his geographic area to include the United States. In total, he has photographed almost 400 different sites. Seventy-seven of these appear in Stained Ground.

Distilling physical objects and their complex outer appearances into photographic form gave way to seeking evidence of the deep structures of our social contract. What is interesting is how the subjects suggest not only the social developments that begat them but also the continual development that will later consign them to obsolescence.

wpid-wp-1437856661424.jpgHe describes the way his subjects evolved over the course of the seven year project in an interview with Suejin Shin included in the book: “In the beginning, I concentrated on the specific topography or the architecture, or perhaps a structure, or construction equipment, thinking that these elements could reveal the strange tension I felt at the site[s]… But then as I continued working on this project for a long time, I came to realize that what I saw was only a very small part of a larger picture… the places I photographed have changed beyond recognition or have even vanished from the map.”

The light that illuminates these subjects and suffuses the photographs with an ethereal glow is itself a product of the development that these photographs trace. Likewise, Jang’s ability to photograph is a product of the development. Without the progress of the first and second industrial revolutions (and that continues in the third industrial–or technological, revolution of the present day) these photographs could not exist and their subjects would not exist. The advancements of each revolution bring about new technologies and new industries while leaving behind the old and setting the foundation for the next.

The last three photographs of Stained Ground can be read as a coda for understanding the book: In “SG U #415, 2013”, a vast windfarm spreads across the frame. Each windmill is marked off by the red glow of its warning light. The movement of some of the turbines’ blades over the course of the long exposure has blurred them into nothingness. In the background a miasma of green light sets off the dark and skewed horizon. Our own technology appears as “other.” The scene suggests both a technological miracle and an apocalypse brought about by the chain of changes these machines are intended, at least in part, to solve. The next photograph, “SG U #321, 2007,” is of a small, low industrial building. It’s garage door is dark but open–we can see the dim form of a white chair inside. To the right, the bare spindly branches of a tree loom over the building as if about to collapse onto it. wpid-wp-1437856726458.jpgIn the background the cooling towers of a power plant hover in a haze of brackish yellow clouds. Running from the foreground to the background in the left of the frame are high-tension power lines. They run straight back to a patch of blue cloud along the far horizon. The path to our current state has run along a line of iterative steps. Each successive revolution has brought the next. Photographically, the book ends with “SG K #420, 2007”. This photograph is one of only a handful that includes people and is the only photograph in which people are central. A group of 9 men (I assume they are men) are in a line in the center of the frame. They are dwarfed by the night around them. Five stand while four crouch or sit huddled on the ground. A line of hills run along the horizon and are dark against a multicolored sky. The ground on which the men are set is orange and indistinct. It is unclear if this is where perhaps some original industrial beginning occurred or where and how we’ll be left at some point in the future after our industry has run us to ground.

This is beautiful work and powerfully moving–in spite of the book’s humdrum design. As an object, Stained Ground is disappointing. As a point of comparison with another recent Hatje Cantz, Bae Bien-U’s Windscape‘s design pays attention to small details like the use of different papers for the text and plates and the use of a translucent matte dust-jacket that evokes the soft light of the photographs within. By comparison, Stained Ground lacks these small book maker’s touches. The cover is a good example of this: it is a garish glossy wrap with the title lost in the tones of the photograph over which it is set. Looking at Jang’s previous book, Black Midday, one sees a somewhat lower production value but a significantly greater attention to the design.

Stained Ground is a nice book to have on the shelf but not a necessary one. It doesn’t elicit delight. While it may seem odd to suggest that this should be the goal of a book whose subject matter is so somber, art books ought to be as much an object of delight as a carrier of content. One could imagine and certainly desire that design might have better served as mirror and amplifier to the content of Stained Ground. None of this is meant to discount the power of the photographs which are necessary and ought to be seen.

Stained Ground
Taewon Jang (site)
Edited by Suejin Shin and Markus Hartmann
Copyediting: Leina Gonzalez
Graphic Design and Typesetting: Andreas Platzgummer, Hatje Cantz
Production: Nadine Schmidt, Hatje Cantz
Typeface: Thesis, The Sans
Reproductions: Jan Scheffler, prints professional
Paper: Galaxi Keramik
Printing and Binding: DZA Druckerei zu Altenberg GmBH, Altenberg
2014

***

A brief post-script: A couple of American photographers making work contemporaneously with Jang are brought to mind by this book. Jang’s “SG U #405, 2013” recalls Mitch Epstein’s, American Power (as well as State of the Union, also published by Hatje Cantz). Epstein’s photographs examine the relationship of American society with industry, primarily in the form of energy production. Epstein places industry as ever present in the background of everyday life. Industry is there, but it remains, just barely, secondary to the human lives that it supports. Like Jang, his photographs are hesitant in passing judgement but present a troubling view. Less ambivalent is Will Steacy. Like Jang, Steacy spent long nights photographing America at night with a large format camera. In Down These Mean Streets, Steacy brought an agitprop sensibility to depicting the plight of the American City–in its archetypal and specific forms. The light in Jang’s photographs may hint at apocalypse and dystopia, but it has none of Steacy’s firebrand anger.

Cathedral de Lausanne 1505 -2022, Kyoungtae Kim

wpid-wp-1435699348501.jpgDespite the grand subject and lofty conceptual framework, Kyoungtae Kim’s Cathedral de Lausanne 1505–2022 is a rather modest affair in both its design and material construction. The brief text by Kyungyong Lim on the rear cover is short, to the point and written in language that a layperson can understand. The sum of these choices is an approachable and engaging book that encourages the reader to reconsider his or her reading of iconic landmark buildings.

The simple and rough hewn book uses the Cathedral of Lausanne, under constant renovation, as a metaphor for the way that urban spaces are constantly shifting as we remake them building by building, stone by stone, piece by piece. Kyungtae Kim has photographed sections of the cathedral where there is evidence of past or ongoing work on building. The book begins with the darkly printed cover image–a section of decaying stone that gives way, via the card stock cover’s gatefold, to a light colored section of concrete fill where the stone is being repaired.

wpid-wp-1435699406067.jpgThe interior pages are an alternating mix of uncoated heavyweight stock and lightweight coated stock. The heavyweight pages generally contain sections of wall where either a stone is marked with the date of its replacement or sections of stone where repair work is being done. These photographs are all relatively tight close ups and printed full page. The lightweight coated pages contain longer views of either work sites or larger sections where renovations have been completed and are printed roughly quarter page. The book closes with two scenic shots of the cathedral from either end–these are printed back to back on the lightweight stock and the images ghost into one another through the paper.

The photographs are elegant black and white. While they show their maker’s technical prowess and awareness of formal modernist concerns they are always driven by the conceptual thrust of the book. Beauty is secondary to meaning.

wpid-wp-1435699382503.jpgAs I wrote about Kim’s On the Rocks, Cathedral de Lausanne “isn’t grand or ostentatious but it is wonderful nonetheless.” It engages the reader to open his or her eyes to the way in which buildings that are culturally and geographically central can be read metaphorical as embodying the process by which the cities that surround them are remaking themselves moment to moment year after year.

Cathedral de Lausanne 1505–2022
Kyoungtae Kim
Essay: Kyungyong Lim
Publisher: mediabus
Editing & Graphic Design: Haeok Shin & Donghyeok Shin
Translation: Yunim Kim
2014

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.)

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

A Conversation with Kyusang Lee and Misook Ahn of Noonbit

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

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

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

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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