Monthly Archives: November 2013

Pictorial Seoul and Seoul Essay

Sometimes a photo book isn’t a photo book. These two titles make extensive use of photography, but are not what one might ordinarily think of as a photo book. The photographs in both are used as practical illustrations; the books are wonderful photographic documents depicting Seoul at specific points in history. In a way, Seoul Essay is an update forty years on of This Is Seoul. Though, really, it would hard for any book about Seoul to be considered up to date even a week after publication.

I’ll start with This is Seoul, as it is older. My copy is rather ragtag. It’s dust jacket is dog-eared, it’s soft covers are wavy and it has a definite musty smell. Several pages were once stuck together and show some water damage. It was never meant to last this long–and I’m sure the publisher would prefer, if he were alive today, that I set his publication aside and get something a little more up to date, something that sings the current praises of Seoul. This is a marketing piece. It was meant to encourage tourist visits to Seoul and was lavished with a fair amount of attention. The book opens with a four page pull out that has a panoramic view of Seoul from Namsan along its top half and a history (sales pitch) of Seoul along the bottom. This design flourish feels remarkably contemporary–as do several other pages in what are generally irregular layouts. The bulk of the book is photographs of Seoul: vistas, street life, treasures and modern advancements. It implies where one ought to stay, what one ought to see, and what one ought to bring home as mementos.

Seoul Essay is similar in that it is a document of the city at a point in time. The structure of this book is of a journey from Gyeong Bok Gung south along various avenues, across the river and to the Seoul Arts Center. This traverse of Seoul is plotted over an 18th century map of Seoul placed on the book’s frontispiece. The book is broken into chapters focused on a particular neighborhood or road along the traverse. Each chapter is roughly evenly split between text (Korean only) and photographs. The photographs are absolutely banal: this building is here; the signage looks thus; the avenue is wide; the outdoor market is crowded. There is no guile in or anything beguiling about the photographs. They are descriptive only–and often barely that. This is what Seoul looks like. (Or, more accurately looked like. The text does all the heavy lifting (or I assume it does, as I cannot read it and had only the TOC translated for me) in terms of giving significance to the facts presented by the photographs. (To be fair, there are a handful of good photographs; many of which are aerial views of the city.)

The city presented in each book is entirely different from that of the other and different again than the present physical Seoul. To make the point quickly: On the rear cover of Seoul Essay is a photograph looking down Sejong-ro as it approaches Gyeong Bok Gung. There is the statue of Admiral Yi surrounded by 17 lanes of traffic. Even five years after this picture was (likely) taken (and four after the book was published) this vantage was already drastically different. The center seven lanes of the avenue were given over to a pedestrian mall. The statue dominating the scene is now that of King Sejong. A couple of years after that an underground museum dedicated to King Sejong was opened. Even a casual glance at the buildings at the intersection with Saemunan-ro will show that there is enormous change in the city’s physical fabric. Looking at any number photographs from This is Seoul and comparing them to modern Seoul is surreal. The image running across the spread of pages 28 and 29 shows “A night view of Seoul.” There is darkness in the foothills in the background; there is darkness on the smaller streets. Darkness is in short supply in modern Seoul; it is one of the brightest if not the brightest city that I have ever been to.

While neither is intended as a photo book as that term is generally applied, both are fascinating photographic documents that define Seoul at a point in time. They are like twin time capsules.

Seoul Essay: A Portrait of Modernity, Traversing Seoul
Photographers: Kim Hong-bin & Joo Myung-duck
Publisher: Youlhwadang Publisher
Copyright 2002
184 pages
Printed in Korea

Pictorial Seoul / This Is SEOUL
Photographer: Photo Department, Bando Hotel
Editor: Kim Young Sang
Publisher: Chai Pong Koh, Chief of Editorial Committee of Seoul History, Editorial Committee of Seoul History
Copyright 4290 (Gregorian Calendar: 1957)

Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer, Kim Han-Yong

On the shelves of the library at The Educational Alliance Art School, where I used to teach, were several photography annuals from the 1940s and 1950s of photographs ranging across all genres. I looked through these on many days before classes. It was amazing to me how some of the photographs looked incredibly dated, even older than they actually were, while others remained fresh, vital, vibrant.

Kim Han Yong’s Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer is similarly fascinating time capsule from the past. A big difference is that this is a contemporary retrospective reconsidering the historical context of Kim’s advertising photography from the 1950s through early 1980s.

Kim Han-Yong, Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer*

Kim Han-Yong’s photographs are inextricably linked with the ads to which they belong. With a few exceptions, Kim’s photographs, if taken out of the contextual space of their resident advertisements, would fall flat. (In all truth, some of the images fall flat even within the context of the ads and others are saved only be their social or pictorial weirdness.) Regardless of how each works as a photograph, Within the context of the ads, the photographs as a whole become a rich trove of historical suggestion and cultural foundation. This is one aspect of the origin of the South Korean consumer state.

Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer [sic] presents a cross section of Kim’s advertising work along with three essays (in both Korean and English) placing that work into a social historical context. Each section of the book has introductory text pulled from an interview with Kim (in Korean only). The book’s format is very much in keeping with the nature of the advertising posters and photographs being presented. The cover is bright and glossy–like a textbook from middle school. The book is large without being oversize. Posters are generally presented one on each right hand page with captioning info on the opposite page, though those in the section titled “Charm of the Non-Real” are run across the gutter which ruins them. Several posters have outtakes from the shoots presented as a contrast to the retouched ads. Captioned information for each poster includes client, designer, model, technical photographic information and other project information as available. This is not the finest Korean photo book I have seen, but its design is very finely considered–workroom has really hit the nail on the head here.

The book is broken into four chapters: Classic Beauty, Discovery of Consumer, Portrait of Consumer, Charm of the Non-real and Erotic. They are not based on chronology so much as they are on typology. We begin in Classic Beauty with the model as spokes-person. These simple ads associates a product with a beautiful and/or famous person, but we are not given a dream that to aspire to beyond that association. In Discovery of Consumer we have a narrative suggestion but remain in an abstract space. These ads implies that this product will make us happy or beautiful or desired or fulfilled or whatever; though the narrative remains simple and relational. In the Portrait of Consumer we are shown the black and white world of reality in which these ads operated. These are the earliest photographs in the book, primarily from the 1950s and early 1960s. The shift from the color advertising to the black and white documentary photography effectively presents the challenges and opportunities that existed for advertising in building a consumer society during this time (as well as shows that in some ways things are what they ever were). Charm of the Non-Real is contemporary advertising: here narrative is complex within certain cliched advertising tropes–sex, money, love, happiness, and we are presented with an entire environment and an entire lifestyle in which the product exists. There remains plenty of weirdness in the photographs, but these are modern advertisements that could be from any western society at that time if we changed the type face. Erotic is a handful of suggestive but chaste photographs of beautiful (and natural) women wrapped around phallic stacks of oil cans or wearing bikinis and holding gas pumps… these look more cute than erotic to present day sensibilities. My favorite from this chapter is of a woman in a bikini kneeling on a beach, leaning forward, mouth half open in either ecstasy or anticipation and she is facing… a young boy who is holding out a garland of flowers to put around her neck. What is the suggestion here and to whom is it directed? It is a weird and a somewhat discomfiting photograph. It’s a good weird, though. And in general, that is what most of the photographs are: a good weird.

The essays at the end are a mixed bag. It’s possible that poor translations contribute to this.

Lee Young June’s essay is the most astute of the three and the most specifically about Kim’s photography and the advertising posters of which they are a part. The central ideas running through her essay are that “the feature of [Kim’s] photography more important than indexicality is that it trains the viewer sensually” and that “…it is senseless to compare commercial photography to reality. Commercial photography is like futures trading in that it is a preview to the beauty and fantasy that do not exist yet.” I especially like that second description of advertising photography. This idea of the image as aspiration follows through into Her Boyoon’s essay. Seo Dong-Jin’s writing is more political and is about Kim’s photographs only in as much as they are a convenient jumping off point to speak about economic topics, though towards the end he describes Kim’s “Photography Research Lab” as a place where objects were not photographed but instead are imbued with added representational value to make them into “the real thing”. This section of his essay, which mostly leaves quotable name checking theory behind, is the most relevant to the subject at hand and the most clearly understandable. (I suspect that Seo’s essay suffers the most from translation and that reading it in Korean I would have a more favorable view of it.)

Overall, this is not the book that I would suggest as a point of entry to Korean photography. The work is more historical than personal and is presented as such. It feels like a lesson teaching us how the world became what it is and the importance of this figure. For those interested in the development of advertising, the building of a consumer society or the economics of consumption, though, this is a fascinating book. It doesn’t just look like a textbook, it is a textbook.

Title: Commercial Photography & the Birth of Consumer
Author: Kim Han-Yong
Contributors: Lee Young June (Profound Circumstances Commercial Photography Had to Cope With), Her Boyoon (Object of Dream, Dream of Object), Seo Dong-Jin (Memory of Commodities: Kim Han-Yong’s Photographs, the Images of Material Culture of Korean Captialsim)
Publisher: The Museum of Photography, Seoul (Ga-Hyeon Foundation of Culture)
Design: workroom
Copyright 2011

* Cover Image from The Book Society website. The Book Society is one of my favorite book shops in Seoul. I’ll post at some point about where to find photo books in Seoul another time.

cheonghakdong, Village of the Sacred Blue Cranes, Ryu Eunkyu

Last fall, Ji and I took a road trip south out of Seoul with her mother and sister to Jirisan National Park looking for Cheonghakdong. We did not find the village of myth where Daoist sages ride blue cranes. What we found was rather more prosaic: a restaurant where we had a lovely lunch of roots and vegetables harvested from the surrounding mountain slopes and a chicken that the proprietor slaughtered for our meal. After lunch we purchased a box of persimmons to snack on during the rest of our road trip.

Photographer Ryu Eunkyu has spent over half his life photographing Cheonghakdong. The village he has found does have a hint of myth about it. After reading a newspaper article about an unusual village on Mt. Jirisan where the inhabitants grew their hair long, wore traditional Korean attire and lived by farming Ryu’s curiosity was piqued, and he traveled to the mystically suggestive village. After his first visit in 1982, Ryu returned again and again building friendships and making photographs. He is, as of the publication of the book in 2007, still photographing his friends, some of whom have now left the village.

Ryu works in a humanist documentary style. These photographs would not look out of place in a vintage Life magazine. While the photographs belie an easy familiarity, they do not get in the way of the subject and suggest an objective coverage of the subject. There is no flash and bang, only the story, gently told.

We are led into the village slowly by classic black and white photographs. The first photograph is of a large rock in the middle of a stream or pond. A gaggle of jangseung greet us next. We then come upon piles of stones in a row followed by a slender chimney (a pair of pipes, really) sending smoke skyward over thatched roofs with mountains in the background. It is not until the sixth photograph that a figure appears–and then only with his back to us as he walks up an incline, his long braid hanging down his back. Time is ambiguous.

Having been introduced to the village and given a form of welcome, we are then presented with the question: “Where are the Blue Cranes?” The answer is in the village’s children–who we now find laughing and playing in the wild of the woods. These scenes give way to students in the Confucian Schools before the book moves onto the fields and workplaces of the village. These scenes are intermingled with portraits and still lives.

Leaving the daily work Ryu brings us into the spiritual life of the village. This section falls short for me; it is too literal: people at prayer. The two photographs that stand out for me are the photograph of three men praying on page 103. The man in the center has raised his head and confronts us directly. Have we interrupted? Are we about to be scolded? Is that a look of pity that he is giving us? The second photograph is a nighttime flash lit photograph in which a group of men are performing a ritual. The white clothing of the man closest to the camera is burned out by the flash, while the clothing of the third man in line is gray and the fourth man has disappeared entirely. Are we coming forward out of darkness and dissolving into the light or are we slowly cooling from white hot to a diminished coal black? These two photographs speak to me of the underlying question of religious observance far more than the literal photographs of people praying.

The final chapter of the book is of meetings and partings: marriage and death. Here the layout shifts slightly. Throughout the book to this point the layout has followed two different templates, each with two variations: half page images at the top of the page either singly on the right hand page or a pair of images opposite one another or full bleed images either vertically on the right hand page or running double truck across a spread. (There is one outlier: the opening image of the religion section.) In the marriage and death chapter we still have full bleed images either on the right hand page or running double truck, but once we hit death the half page images at the top of each page have become smaller third page sized images running at the bottom of the right hand pages. It is unclear why the change has been made. Why diminish these particular images? Or why draw attention to them in this way? I note this design shift and wonder at its meaning because the design of the book seems so considered. The construction of the book feels particularly intentional with each detail reinforcing the content.

The book is wrapped in a plain cardboard slip case with only the title silk screened on the front. One must gently work this open before cracking the covers. The simple dust jacket gives the photographer’s name in small type and a photograph of a laughing middle aged man in addition to repeating the title from the slip case; on the rear of the dust jacket the title and photographer’s name is given in English, German, Chinese and Korean along the left edge. The books’ cover is even simpler: natural, slightly rough, white paper wrapped boards with only the title foil stamped on the spine in English, German, Chinese and Korean.

The design throughout the book is likewise simple and unadorned. The only color to appear in the book is the title page spread which is red. The remainder of the book is white pages with the plates and black pages with text denoting and describing different chapters. (All text is given in all four languages noted above.) At the end of the book an interview of Ryu by Kim Nuiyeon is printed on rice paper. This is followed by two sections of additional photographs; the first, a selection of then and now comparisons of various subjects from the book printed on light gray paper and a final section of additional photographs acting as a sort of timeline tracking changes in the village with vertical columns of images running chronologically by year from left to right.

The span of time represented in these photographs covers an enormous shift in political and social life in Korea–something hinted at in the interview and closing chapters of the book but not made into a moral judgement one way or another.

This is a beautiful quiet book. It has none of the flash or fireworks that much contemporary Korean photography tends towards. It is a work of classic humanistic photography, sharing with the viewer the human experience of a place.

This book was published by 2007 by Wow Images, and this review is of the hard cover edition. There is, I believe, a later paperback edition.