Monthly Archives: November 2014

Korea Bound

I am on my way to Korea. I’ll be touching down on Friday the 22nd of November and staying through December 7th. This will be a trip split between family and work projects.

On the work front, I’ll be checking out the latest publications at my favorite bookshops, visiting a couple of bookshops in cities I’ve not yet visited, doing a bit of gallery hopping in Seoul, checking out new photography venues that I’ve (foolishly) overlooked to date, conducting an interview (or two or three) for this blog, and shooting for myself.

If any readers are interested in grabbing coffee and talking photo books, I’d be delighted to connect. Shoot me an e-mail; let’s make something happen.

In Between Something and Nothing & inVisible / Suspended Landscape, Kyungja Jeong

In the Metropolitan Museum here in New York is a small and quirky room all done up in tromp l’oeil–and in wooden inlay no less. From the singular surface of each wall shape and color bring forth intricate, playful depth. The room is a wonder.

Photography works in the opposite manner. The lens takes light bouncing around three dimensional space and compresses it onto the single plane of the photographic surface. On the cover of In Between Something and Nothing, five surfaces intersect at seven joints. Light and shadow push and pull against the spatial compression of the photographic image.

Kyungja Jeong’s photographs “record the moment that she feels something that might be nothing from everyday life.” I don’t know quite what to make of this–and might take it in any number of opposite directions. The photographs are banal: corners where wall meets wall meets ceiling (and a handful with small objects set into such spaces). They contain soft light–gathered here and shadowed there. Though they are in color, the dominant tone is a monotone washed out cream.

Perhaps the room at the Met is not what most comes to mind with these photographs. In a previous apartment in which I lived, my bed was set into a bay window that overlooked the intersection of two busy streets. All night long cars would pass beneath this window, and their headlights would cast shadows across the ceiling. I would lay awake watching the light and shadows as they pushed and stretched across the ceiling before winking out. This might be exactly the knife edge of “something that might be nothing” that Jeong has in mind. The act of recording might make something out of nothing–or it might be that what we perceived as something is shown in the photograph to be merely nothing.

In the second volume in this pair, Jeong again plays with the photographic surface. In inVisible / Suspended Landscape the ostensible subject is consumed by the surface–droplets and smears of water on glass or reflections in water. This reflective or disruptive surface calls attention to the photographic surface–like in the room at the Met, our eyes our fooled into seeing depth within the hair thin surface of ink on paper. Not only do we perceive that the surface itself has depth, but we strain to look beyond it to the subject behind the surface.

Set stark in the middle of the photographs from “inVisible” are half a dozen photographs from Jeong’s series “Suspended Landscape” of green landscapes with a single lone human figure nearly lost in them. They are distinctly different than the photographs before and after. One can only assume that as readers we are being tested. The photographic surface is no less a distortion here in these photographs where we can see the subject clearly. The figures are as suspended in the landscapes as the landscapes are suspended in the photographic surface.

The design of the book by Yeoun Joo Park, founder of Hezuk Press, is worth noting. The saddle stitched pages of the two slim volumes are offset so that as one flips from page to page the images remain stationary but the edges of the pages float first up then down than back again. The photographs are suspended in the design. They are weightless in a way–perhaps we are again seeing the edge between something and nothing. Park’s design is extremely crafty and self-aware–it does not interfere with the photography but rather amplifies it. (The printing by Munsung, Seoul is also extremely good.)

Jeong’s photographs are beautiful and beguiling. Using the very limitations of the photographic surface Jeong creates expansive spatial depth. They take the thinnest slices of everyday “somethings” on the very edge of nothingness and mold them into significant moments.

In Between Something and Nothing & inVisible / Suspended Landscape
Kyungja Jeong
Book Design: Yeoun Joo Park
Printing: Munsung, Seoul
Hejuk Press

Memory of 100 years – Chuncheon Branch of Seoul Jail, Ryu Eunkyu

One year ago I was writing about Ryu Eunkyu’s cheonghkadong, Village of the Sacred Cranes. Today, coincidentally, Ryu’s Memory of 100 years – Chuncheon Branch of Seoul Jail has come up in the queue.

Memory of 100 years is a slim paperback volume with a grainy black and white photograph of a nearly featureless expanse of a brick exterior wall wrapping around its cover. The title in white text is set against the photograph’s black sky. (My photographer’s mind notes the heavy handed red filter.) A black bar juts across the bottom of the front cover with the title repeated in Chinese and English; a small thumbnail size photograph of a guard tower is set in this black bar as well.

Like those in Village of the Sacred Cranes, the photographs in Memory of 100 years are shot in a gritty, black and white, small format documentary mode–though they take this aesthetic significantly further. The deep black skies, gritty texture and high contrast belie a highly subjective description of the former prison. This aesthetic choice both accentuates the textures of the subject while also romanticizing it. This romanticizing strikes me as counter productive; it creates a veil.

Ruin porn is all the rage lately, though Christopher Woodward might argue that ruin porn has been the rage for centuries. Decrepit, decommissioned prisons rank right up at the top of the contemporary ruin porn hierarchy. Functioning prisons generally hold less interest for photographers–though we’ll come back to Pete Brook’s Prison Photography anon. This is because photography of ruins is not (generally) about the subject. Instead, ruin porn is all about fetishizing the decay of structures and the ravages of time.

(A good counter-examples is Will Steacy’s Down These Mean Streets. While Steacy’s process has its weaknesses, his photographs of inner city decline are about the larger social issues of which the decay is simply a symptom. They aren’t fetish; they are protest.)

Memory of 100 years is ruin porn with a thin veneer of poetic historical gravitas plastered on top. It could be that understanding the essays (in Korean only) or captions (in Korean only) might push the ruin porn of the photographs into documentary, but I doubt it. The photographs are too loose–like snapshots from an hour long tour through an interesting historical building. Few of the photographs feel considered, only a handful suggest the passage of 100 years or tease out the trace of human experience left in that time. Mostly we see surfaces–worn and wearied surfaces to be sure, but still little more than light on surface.

Four photographs suggest alternative narratives that might have been made: 1. A tight view of the weathered door set into a narrow structure. To either side of the structure we see the prison walls beyond and a small square of sky above them. A single thin shaft of light cuts across the featureless facade of this structure from top left to bottom right. It leads the eye from the light square of sky down to shadow–it is like some kind of unmarked, perpetual sun dial. 2. Hand painted lettering in graceful brushstrokes is above a row of barred windows and below an upward thrusting roof line. The framing is off kilter. A large chunk of the concrete wall has fallen away and taken a chunk of lettering with it. 3. A slab of plaster or stone with handwritten text is nailed to a wall with rough square nails. Poetry? Exhortation? Psalms? Schedule? 4. A calendar from 1982 and two mimeographed pages are pasted to a wall. A grid of shadow, cast by a barred window, falls across them.

In these photographs time passes and artifacts, touched by the hands of men, remain. In these photographs are singular stories by which we can understand the greater history of this place. This shaft of light has been traveling across this surface for a century. Someone pasted up this calendar in order to track the passing days. It is this kind of attention to time and artifact that could have told a more nuanced story of the Chuncheon Branch of Seoul Jail beyond peeling paint, flaking concrete and weathered wood.

Illustrating one of the book’s two essays are half a dozen archival photographs of the prison in operation taken between 1909 and 1981. They put me in mind of Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood with its deft weaving of artifacts, places and narratives in both historical time and present time; this is what Memory of 100 years might have aspired to.

Taking this thought further, I wonder what others might have made of this place and how others might have told this story. What artifacts might Bohnchang Koo have found and what might he have made of them? What unsettling details might Alyse Emdur have found? What spirits or ghosts might Kirk Gittings have teased from the architecture?

And, what does the present penal system look like? Pete Brooks’s Prison Photography doesn’t worry about the ruin of abandoned prisons; rather, it concerns itself with systemic personal ruin as part and parcel of the contemporary industrial prison complex. He gives voice to those buried away for years of their lives–or the entirety. This (unfair) comparison begs the questions: what documentary work could be done in the contemporary Korean prison system? Surely there are stories of passing time to be told in prisons at the height of operation, though there is likely less romance.

Ryu Eunkyu is a fine photographer. cheonghakdong, Village of the Sacred Cranes shows his ability to distill lived history in a place into photographs and to tell peoples’ stories. In Memory of 100 years, Ryu has been seduced by light and by texture and he has lost the thread of the story. For those who enjoy rough photographs of rough surfaces Memory of 100 years may please. For those who en joy a well told visual narrative, skip this title for Village of the Sacred Cranes, which is both a beautifully told story and a beautifully crafted object.

Memory of 100 years – Chuncheon Branch of Seoul Jail
Ryu Eunkyu
Tohyan Publishing

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.

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