Slightly OT: Measuring North Korea’s Nuclear Progress from One Photograph

This piece at the NYTimes is a fascinating look at the practical intelligence value of closely read photographs. Max Fisher and Jugal K. Patel take us step by step through what experts have deduced about North Korea’s nuclear program by closely examining one photograph. They outline the way in which information is subtly coded into photographs like this one so that they can be read in this way.

To bring it somewhat on topic for the blog, the article calls to mind Seung Woo Back’s Utopia / Blow Up. As I wrote originally, “Back is looking to find truths that are hidden in plain sight and to question what is presented in an image.” To be clear, Back is circumventing limitations presented by clear prescriptions for what North Korea does and doesn’t want communicated. These limitations are imposed, obviously, by North Korea. Back is forced to lay the information between the lines. As readers of his photographs we must deduce the bigger meaning from what scraps of information he presents to us. He is as interested in photograph’s potential to communicate information as he is in actually communicating that information.

North Korea’s propaganda machine is interested only in its geopolitical machinations. It is not worried about the degree to which photography is truthful or untruthful. Its goal is to communicate information while maintaining deniability. The information it communicates is hidden such that only specific people will be able to find it. It is a kind of back door channel of communication. That it is possible to gather this much information from one photograph, albeit in relation to a larger set of photographs taken over time and in relation to existing knowledge, is quite impressive.

Another aspect of this that is worth noting is the continued acceptance by both the North Korea government and Western intelligence organizations of the informational value of photographs. Photographs retain a relation to facts in the real world. They continue to depict things in the real world that are true and that have meaning. While there is clearly much interpretation of the meaning of these facts, the photographs are valuable as information.

On a lighter note, the Times article also makes me wonder if perhaps not all is what it seems at Kim Jong Un Looking At Things. I’ve always read the Tumblr as a kind of absurdist theater–though who has that many photographs of Kim Jong-Un (and Kim Jong-Il before) except the North Korean government? (By all means, if you know who does, please let me know in the comments. I’ve always wondered.) I get a creeping suspicion that the irony hides an attempt to humanize the Dear Leader with youth in the West or at least minimize the perception that he is a scary, crazy dictator.

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.

Seoul Lunar Photo happening now!

If you’re in Seoul this week, check out the Seoul Lunar Photo festival events. Wish I could get there for it. Best of luck to the organizers and participating artists!

Here’s what it’s all about:

Seoul Lunar Photo Fest is an event that brings to life the meeting place between people and photography. In an era of the advent of smartphones and the diffusion of hundreds of thousands of photos a day, it was inevitable that concerns over the way in which we encounter photos and discern good images would arise. Moving beyond the exhibition space of uniformly hung frames, it’s only natural that the demands of the contemporary world would expand the definition of images include music and other video media. Centered on the Seochon(West Village) area, Seoul Lunar Photo Fest seeks to convey the beauty of these new channels of images through experimental, free-form displays. Diverse work will be explored through collaborative efforts by photographers, musicians, sound creators and visual artists.

via.

OT: Photography of China

Marine Cabos runs the website Photography of China. For those interested in photography practice across Asia, it will certainly be of interest. The site covers the full gamut from contemporary practitioners to historical figures and includes a mix of galleries, interviews and video. Check it out.

And stay tuned here because KPB isn’t gone, just buried with the commercial projects that keep the train on the tracks.

Life’s been busy; the blog’s been quiet

To any regular readers who feared KPB had disappeared, it hasn’t. My professional life has been busy the last couple of months, and I’ve not been able to carve out enough time to efficiently produce reviews on the schedule I’d like to be. Case in point: The review of Red House has been in progress for three weeks now.

At any rate, we’re still here. There are numerous reviews in the pipeline. The blog schedule remains every other week for a new review. Given my schedule the next couple of weeks, it might end up being monthly, though.

Please stay tuned.

Red House, Noh Suntag

In a recent New York Times Magazine On Photography column, Teju Cole wrote, “the apparent neutrality of photographs can conceal as much as it reveals–especially when the subject is violence or prejudice.” Cole’s column explores the layers of opportunity for misrepresentation through photographs due to their supposed “facticity”. Noh Suntag’s Red House examines exactly this dynamic in photographic representation using North Korea as a foil.

The Korea Artist Prize describes Noh as producing “photographs that detail real-life situations directly related to the division of Korea” and showing “how deeply the division has permeated the daily lives of the Korean people and has thus distorted the entire society.” Red House explores these themes from a subject’s presentation to the act of representing that subject with the camera through the use and consumption of the resulting photographs. Further, Noh’s photographs (and more specifically his text) acknowledge that this distortion is personal–his use of the camera in relation towards his subjects functions as a kind of mirror of his own biases.

North Korea is a particular subject that amplifies Noh’s themes. Despite the obviousness of the statement, it is necessary to note that there are few if any other places in the world where two countries’ identities are so intertwined with such fraught political, cultural and historical push and pull. Furthermore, the North’s near obsession with image and the way it presents itself to the South and the larger outside world is similarly unique. This exaggerated manipulation of its own image leads outsiders to a particular kind of fascination and creates an intense need to record what is seen. These three ideas form the basis for the three chapters in Red House.

Everyone has seen the kinds of photographs that comprise the book’s first chapter: the masses of people participating in the DPRK’s Arirang Festival events. Any reader will almost certainly have an image of thousands of people in synchronized motion come into their mind’s eye. Most of these images are interchangeable because the subject has been designed to present a particular message to do so by being seen by the camera. The scenes are an elaborate propaganda construction. Noh’s color photographs of the brightly colored Arirang Festival in 2005 are, on first glance, as interchangeable as a typical tourist’s photograph or a photojournalist’s photograph. As one flips through Noh’s photographs one becomes aware of a modulation of push and pull between overarching vistas of hundreds of people and relatively intimate tight shots of a dozen people. Within the small groups one can see variations in the individual participants’ movements. Looking back to the broad vistas these variations remain in one’s mind and the intended view is broken. Noh makes the underlying construction of the spectacle apparent. This opening set of photographs recalls Seung Woo Back’s series Utopia and Blow Up. Like Back, Noh is seeking interstitial truths within tightly controlled state spin.

With the subject as construction firmly argued, Noh moves next to the thought or thoughtlessness that occurs in the recording of this scene. Despite the almost certain knowledge that this careful grooming of particular scenes–even mundane scenes, shapes what they see, foreigners nonetheless are eager to record these scenes and their trespass into them. In this chapter Noh switches to a stark black and white reportage style which is often exaggerated through the use of an on camera flash. Noh wants us to see that he is now looking critically at the spectacle of the spectator turned witting or unwitting collaborator. The black and white is a visual marker that he is looking in a way that is significantly different than the tourists with their point and shoots that he is photographing. For him it is the almost desperate desire to record the experience of being here in North Korea that is of interest. The scene that elicits this desire is secondary.

In the final chapter of Red House, Noh turns his attention to South Korea and the way that the North becomes manifest within the South. The North becomes a straw man, a bogey man, a savior. Its role and meaning shift depending upon who is invoking it. In this way the North becomes a mirror for a range of opinions and viewpoints in the South. The one failing in this set of photographs is the need for extensive caption information to know what one is being shown; without the captions, which are often interpretive, many of the images are oblique. The upside to these captions is that Noh’s own biases are suggested. The reader is faced with having to revisit all that he has seen to this point to consider the manipulation inherent in all of the preceding images.

Throughout Red House, Noh has shown that photographs are slippery. As he says at the start of the second chapter, “I know about North Korea. However I do not know what I know about it.” His photographs show a great many views of and toward North Korea–and yet how definitive or true any one of them is remains questionable. This is intentional. How can one trust a photograph when it has been manipulated since before it was even made? Everyone manipulates the photograph: the subject, the photographer, the publisher and the viewer. At no time is the meaning of the photograph fixed. In a situation like exists between North Korea and South Korea this manipulation is highly political. Yet, as Noh’s photographs of amateur shutterbugs and political protestors show, this process can be equally apparent in the personal realm.

Red House
Noh Suntag
Publisher: Jung Jongho
Design: Avec_ Noh Younghyun
Translation: Kang-Baek Hyosu
Publishing Co.: Chungaram Media Ltd.
2007

[Sidebar: Nearly ten years after Red House was published, photography as a driver of social media has shown that this manipulation is pursued no less aggressively by individuals than by rogue regimes. Manipulation of our recorded lives in photographs intended for sharing on social media is commonplace. Wanting to show our best selves, we push the bounds of truth.]

Korea Week at Lenscratch

Aline Smithson’s Lenscratch is in the midst of Korea Week, curated by Joanne Junga Yang. This year the blog is featuring the work of Myoung Ho Lee, Seong Youn Koo, Jeong Lok Lee, Seung Hee Hong, Sung Seok Ahn, Won Chul Lee and Nanda.

I found Ahn’s “Historic Present” particularly resonant in its mixing of so many different photographic modes. He dips into historical archives then blends those images seamless with the photographic present. He slips smoothly back and forth between high concept and narrative. He tips his hat to predecessors such as Stephen Shore and Tseng Kwong Chi. And the photographs are nice to look at, to boot, and reward long looking.

Winter Break

I’m out of town this week and part of next, so we’ll be on hiatus for this week and next. Reviews will return the second week of January.

Thanks for reading! A very Happy New Year to everyone.