Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Tedious Landscape II, Kim Yunho


Workroom does good design. Every photobook I’ve come across that was designed by them feels right. Kim Yunho’s The Tedious Landscape is from Workroom’s Lájka Series. In Korean, the name reads phonetically as “Lah Ee Ca Series”; Leica Series. I’m not sure how or why it has re-transliterated to “Lajka.” Odd.

Moving on.

The Tedious Landscape II is, as might be obvious, the second in a series of projects. In The Tedious Landscape, Kim explored the outskirts. What does the country look like outside of the major cities?

The photographs in this book are of pageants, which often have the underlying goal of celebrating and promoting local specialty products. As most of these products are natural products or produce, these pageants tend to be put on in more rural regions or smaller towns or villages. As Kim Kyewon notes in the essay that closes the book, “Major cities do not have particular specialty products, and if they did, they would not need to promote them in such a way.” The Tedious Landscape II, then, extends Kim’s exploration of the periphery.

Another astute observation in Kim Kyewon’s essay is that though these photographs are of beauty pageants (whether the contestants are female, male, old or young), there are no beauties in the photographs. The scenes are photographed from a distance. In each, there is the whole stage filled with the full complement of contestants as well as other participants in the pageants–judges, audience members, photographers and assorted hangers-on. There is little action; the contestants in most of the photographs seem to be simply standing there, waiting.

In an earlier post, I spoke about the challenge of writing about work that I can’t fully understand as an outsider. There will always be aspects that are not apparent to me. An essay like Kim Kyewon’s can be invaluable in coming to a more complete understanding of a photographer’s intentions. I note this because I am going to steal (but attribute) an idea from Kim’s essay that is important to the work but that I would not have come up with myself.


The goal of these pageants is to promote the local specialty good. The contestants become double symbols not only as the most beautiful but also as a stand in for the local product. The pageant winners from one region are indistinguishable from the pageant winner from the next region. “The form in which they serve as symbols is repeated nationwide and results in a tedious [landscape].” (Kim uses the word “destiny” here, but as he earlier invoked the idea of topography, I think “landscape” is more appropriate.)



While in total the photographs may describe a tedious landscape, the individual images are rich with cultural detail, daily life and comedy. One of my favorite images is 395-800: 16 women stand on a rain slicked stage, one of them is speaking at the microphone, the others are standing in near identical poses and watching with a smile. The audience is hidden by their scrum of umbrellas. In another image, #355-601, 10 bodybuilders stand around on stage while a photographer and video crew record the winner being awarded his trophy. The non-winners stand around more or less awkwardly; the scene has ended but they’ve not been released from it yet. The audience here is only an ajashi with a camera and a handful of children fascinated by the spectacle before them. In #534-801 the audience is again huddled in the rain, this time wearing ponchos. On stage, six older women stand before drums as part of a traditional performance; a photographer crouches stage right. The front of the stage is draped with a mural of a field of flowers; at the image’s horizon line we are suddenly onto the stage. The top of the frame is kaleidoscopic tumble of lights, trusses and risers.

The book itself is roughly octavo sized, perfect bound with plain board covers glued front, rear and on the spine, and with a 3/4 height dust jacket with a panoramic image that wraps the book (technically this might be a belly band, but it feels more like a short dust jacket). The pages are heavyweight, nearly cardstock, which combined with the perfect binding allows them to lay flat but puts stress on the binding. The layouts are a mix of paired images across from one another and double truck spreads. Both layouts push the images right to the top where they bleed off of the page. Kyewon Kim’s essay comes after the plates and is on a different lighter paper stock. It is in both Korean and English. After the essay comes a list of plates and the artist’s C.V..

This is a tightly designed book of well considered and well made photographs. The clear and concise essay that gives context and added meaning to the photographs is a welcome bonus.

The Tedious Landscape II
Kim Yunho
Published by workroom press
Edited and Designed by workroom
Essay by Kim Kyewon
Translation by Kim Jeimin
First published 1 August 2008
Printed in Korea

Five Views From Korea @ Noorderlicht Photo Gallery

The Noorderlicht Photogallery will be showing Five Views from Korea February 8th through April 13th. Work from Seung Woo Back, Jaegu Kang, Insook Kim, Suntag Noh and Xuezhe Shen is brought together to examine “the discomfort and nagging feeling of an unending cold war since the division of the Korean peninsula.”

From Guest Curator Sujong Song:

Every day, the papers are flooded with news heralding tension on the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps because they are in the eye of the storm, but the people living in the southern half are largely skeptical of an outbreak of war. The feeling closest to fear they experience is annoyance, as if they’ve been reminded of a particularly stubborn splinter that might never be removed. Guest curator Sujong Song presents with Five Views from Korea five projects from photographers, which are the result of these frustrations felt in everyday life by this reality.
‘Ultimately, these are narratives regarding five perspectives on either the nations tied to the divided Korean Peninsula or the identity of those who live within the countries’ influences. Invisible ideologies attempt to control us in whatever way possible, while we struggle to overcome that restraint. It is the things unseen that dig most deeply into our everyday lives, irrevocably bore into our skin.’

On this blog we’ve looked at some of the photographers included in the exhibit, and reviews of books that include work of at least one of the others are in the works. This looks like an interesting show. Too bad I won’t be able to get to Groningen to check it out. Hopefully there will be a catalog or accompanying book available.

More info.

Commentary: Context, Approach and Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Clouds, Boomoon

Boomoon was the first Korean photographer I encountered.

Before I left for NYU fifteen years ago, my parents bought me a subscription to Lightwork, which included a print and a book. (The book was Todd Hido’s Outskirts.) This subscription also landed me on Nazraeli‘s catalog, which is where I encountered Boomoon’s Naksan and later his One Picture Book #26, On the Clouds. Nazraeli describes Boomoon as “one of Korea’s greatest contemporary photographers.” Though I purchased neither, both Naksan and OPB #26: On the Clouds are touchstones of my earliest interest in photo books.

When I went to Korea for the first time, one of the first books of Korean photography that I came across and purchased was Boomoon’s On the Clouds, the same photographs as OPB #26: On the Clouds and the same title but a different book. It must have been fate.

This is neither here nor there in regards to the book itself.

On the Clouds comprises photographs of the sliver of sky above the cloud horizon and below space as seen from commercial airliners. The photographs are a slope of blue above cloud white. The last several plates in the book are taken in evening light in which the clouds form a dark gradient with the sky above drifting into the dark of space.

The book’s physical form is a simple folded signature with exposed stitching and board covers. The cover is a slightly ghosted photograph with the title and photographer’s name in white lettering. On the rear cover is the same ghosted image with the publisher’s name in white lettering. The book opens with a title page followed by the first plate and then a short text by Taro Amano in English and Korean. The plates begin in earnest after this text with a gate fold spread of three images. Most spreads are pairs of images, though a double gate fold is tucked into the layout. There are 23 plates in total. The plates are followed by the artist’s CV (in English and Korean), an index of the plates and the book’s colophon page.

This is a simple book of simple photographs that offer complex possibility for reflection. What on first examination appears to be a straightforward formula becomes photographs full of nuance, spatial and chromatic. The viewers eyes hover between the compositional emptiness of the foreground clouds and the dark physical emptiness of space pressing in above the clouds. I find this meeting of voids, compositional and subject, to be powerfully evocative. Boomoon has pared these images back to an absolute minimum of information and yet they suggest much meaning.

On the Clouds
Published by Nabizang / Choi Woong Lim
Essay “The Ever Changing Sky” by Taro Amano
Translation by Yun Ki Eun (Korean) and Sumiko Yamakawa (English)
Designed by Design Seed, Kim Mee Jin and Lee Jae Hyun
Printed by GG Communications
2006, edition of 1000

Two Faces, Lee Duegyoung

Sometimes, the answers are all right in front of you. And at other times, small things obscure them.

An aside before the actual review: Lee Duegyoung’s Two Faces includes a list of notes by critic Lim Geun-jun that give detailed descriptions of his previous projects and working methods. Lim’s very clear description of Lee’s “Teheranno” as panoramic composites made from photographs taken from a helicopter with a downward facing camera to mimic satellite imagery clarifies for me the images I mentioned last week as a stand out in the 2012 Seoul Photo Festival. I had not connected them in my mind to Two Faces because Lee’s name was transliterated differently in the SPF catalog. For my part, I have always transliterated names as they are transliterated in the publication and will continue to do so despite the obvious possibility for missed connections. On to the review.

Lee Duegyoung maintains an incredible consistency of good ideas coupled with masterful execution and high-quality book design. Given his past exhibits and publications, it is little wonder that Two Faces is such a strong book. I may be faulted for wearing my heart on my sleeve here, but so be it. I like this book. Two Faces is one of the most engaging Korean photo books I have acquired recently. Both the content and design are outstanding; as a bonus the texts are clearly written and available in both Korean and English.

Two Faces comprises two panoramic photographs of the north and south banks of the Han River as it runs through Seoul. Lee composited roughly 13,000 photographs taken over four days from multiple river boats into two panoramic images. The two panoramas run essentially unbroken opposite from one another, top and bottom, across the accordion pages of the book. The book places the reader almost in the prow of a boat from which he can look left and right at the two banks of the Han. The “accordion” is perfect bound along one edge preventing the reader from opening it up to peruse long stretches of the panoramas.

Due to the inevitable perspective shifts caused by shooting from a moving platform, some tall buildings away from the river’s banks appear multiple times in slightly shifted positions. This gives an experiential edge to the photographs. Just as an actual viewer on a river cruise might espy the same edifice from multiple angles over the course of the journey, so too is the reader treated to this experience. Any sense of an absolute recording of the river is broken, the panoramas present a view that is spatial and temporal and hint at a continuum of possible views.

Lim notes that one of Lee’s influences is Ed Ruscha’s trilogy of artists books: Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations and Thirty-Four Parking Lots. This makes perfect sense to me, though the incredible breadth of Lee’s effort brings to my mind another project: Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh. in Two Faces Lee has taken an equally ambitious target but rather than get bogged down in endless possibility has brought the work to a magnificent completion through a tightly focused conceptual framework and equally tight physical form. I’m sure there’s a jazz metaphor here, but I’m not a jazz guy.

The physical form effectively contributes to the conclusion of Lee’s Hangang trilogy by referencing the previous projects. The cover presents us with a complete foreshadowing of the work within: the panoramas have been compressed into the length of the wraparound cover. This calls to mind the time compressed video that accompanied the exhibition of Lee’s Hangang Project II – 25 Bridges. Lim notes the video, and I take take his note a step further to explicitly make the connection with Two Faces‘s cover. So too would I point out the somewhat obvious connection of the book’s accordion form to his 69 Snack Booths catalog which also employed an accordion form. These small formal and technical echoes that tie project to project create a sense of structured completeness.

I’ll end with a small personal detail that I enjoy: in the panorama that tracks the north bank of the Han, Lee has photographed my mother-in-law’s apartment building under construction shortly before she would have moved in.

Singular concept.
Tight design.
A work fully thought through.

Two Faces
Lee Duegyoung
Written by: Lim Guen-jun and Rhee Z-Won
Translated by: Choi S. Min and Kim Sung
Edited and Designed by: Suki and Min
Specter Press, Seoul
Edition of 700

Nakgol Project, Architectural Photographers of Korea

The city of Seoul holds an annual Seoul Photo Festival. In 2012 the festival’s theme was “A Thousand Villages, A Thousand Memories.” Given my interest in the ways that urban planning, urban infrastructure, daily routine, memory and image making intersect this show was hard to resist.

The intermingling of professional works with personal snapshots was handled with aplomb. Rather than reduce the personal work by elevating it to professional stature, these private documents were treated as vernacular ephemera and presented as such. In fact, while there was much good professional work in the exhibit, the tight spaces that the Seoul Art Museum’s first floor was carved up into made its presentation cramped. In comparison, the vernacular snapshots held up very well in the small rooms.

Among the standouts in the 2012 show: Dueg Young Lee’s satellite composites (or aerial photographs?) of Seoul street grids; Se Kown Ahn’s photographs of the excavation of Cheonggyecheon; Ki Chan Kim’s black and white photographs of Seoul in the early 80’s full of fun and energy; and Han Chungshik’s documentary photographs from the 70’s. The Dream Flower Factory and Union of Workers for Producing Non Waste community projects were also wonderful. (I’m a year late in noting all of this as now even the 2013 Seoul Photo Festival has concluded…)

There was one standout, in particular, for me: the Nakgol Project by the Architectural Photographers of Korea. This was an unassuming, slim, softbound book of rough halftones. The book was presented in the show as a book: one could flip through the book itself, mounted to a shelf, or follow the book’s spreads mounted on the wall. The book’s dense, tightly composed photographs depict Nakgol, an area of unlicensed shacks in an isolated hilly Seoul neighborhood, as it existed in 2001. The photographs are like an extension of Yong Kim’s photos from the 60’s (not his advertising work) or Han Chungshik’s photos from the 70’s, both of which were earlier in the exhibition.

The photographs in the catalog are dated 2001-2002, though the book appeared to have been published in 2001. Between 2002 and 2006, the neighborhood (which one might also have described as a “squatter settlement”) was redeveloped into a series of apartment blocks. Having witnessed the extreme rate of change in Seoul, this book reads both like a document meant to save the memory of the place and as one meant to hasten the process of redevelopment. The book preserves the place while simultaneously presaging its doom or rebirth depending on one’s particular vantage point.

One might consider this book in relation to Se Kown Ahn’s photographs of Cheonsgyecheon’s “re-development.” The Nakgol Project depicts an “old” Seoul about to be replaced with a modern Seoul, which in this case means a developed Seoul. In Ahn’s photographs, the process is reversed: the concrete and rebar of previous decades’ development are being removed to renew an ancient public waterway. Modern in this case is what once was. I ought to note that the comparison isn’t perfect as Cheongsyecheon is very much a modern space designed and utilized with contemporary values; but, its essence and origin is ancient.

Nakgol Project is the 2012 Seoul Photo Festival’s theme in compact form. It presents multiple ways of seeing a place. We can read into it the memory of a place that once was; a living space engaged by its inhabitants; or, an opportunity to advance the city forward. It is quite an achievement.

Nakgol Project
Architectural Photographers of Korea
2001 or 2002

(I have no other information; no link to the book, no link to the APoK… if anyone knows where I can find a copy of this publication or a link to the creators, I would very much appreciate either.)