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…

Kyusang Lee and Misook Ahn of Noonbit

Ji Young Lee: Oh, is MiSook your wife? [laughter]

MiSook Ahn: Yes. I was also an editor.

JYL: Did you meet each other there?

MSA: No, no.

KSL: No… at another big publisher, which published children’s books. I was an editor there. So, publishing, literature, or writing would be my background.

MSA: He is a former editor, I say. Well, what made us publish photo books is… I think our major doesn’t matter. Publishing has nothing to do with majoring in photography. We just run a publisher and happen to have majored in literature. We came to work for a publisher, which made us choose to run a publisher like choosing to establish a business.

JYL: Did you have a lot of contact with photography after that? I mean…

MSA: No, I think I was destined to.

JYL: You came to be an owner of a publisher naturally?

MSA: Yes. What made us publish photography was more that we just made a decision to publish photography, rather than that we are really interested in photography or we must do the photo works.

KSL: And there was also a trigger for this. The trigger of this decision was that the publishing company I ran was related to the art field. I saw a lot of catalogs and pamphlets when I made photographers’ exhibitions or annual books. This made me think “Oh, photography is an interesting medium.”

MSA: Photography was not unfamiliar to me. In fact, there were not many cameras in Korea in the 70s. But in my case, there was a camera in my house when I was a middle school student. I brought it to picnics or other field trips. My father allowed me to bring it. At that time, there were just three or four people who brought cameras of their own. So I took others’ pictures often. I came across photography earlier than others.

MNM: Did Noonbit start as specifically a photography publishing house?

KSL & MSA: We only published photography books.

JYL: Did you make a conscious choice to publish only photography?

KSL: Yes. Photography in Korea was limited to subjects like landscapes or children. We thought we should accept photography as a more productive medium and tried this unknowingly. [laughter]

JYL: I really like that. [laughter]

KSL: I expected this would be a huge issue the first time. It was really hard as I did it. I guess people couldn’t easily accept photos as related to publishing. When I first published the book Coreennes by Chris Marker, people said…[There is a break in recording, the end of this answer was lost. -ed.]

As Korea is a divided nation, people weren’t able to see a true picture of North Korea. The impact of the book seemed to be really huge. Also, there was a misunderstanding that I admired or supported North Korea. When looking at the pictures, ideology or politics are eliminated in people such that people couldn’t accept any of them. Yoon-mi [the office assistant -ed.], would you bring a copy of Coreennes?

MSA: [Showing the book] In that period, as communist countries collapsed, many things were freed. That this book could be released corralated with this fact, and I became interested in the book.

KSL: This is the first book I published.

MNM: This was originally published in France, correct?

KSL: Yes. This came out in the 50s. These are just real pictures of North Koreans, but it seems that people couldn’t even accept these.

MSA [to KSL]: Didn’t you enjoy these as well? You came to know the new thing.

JYL: What was the purpose of establishing Noonbit and publishing this book?

KSL: To understand North Koreans well through the photographs.

MSA: About this book…

KSL: It was intended for people to see through this book and the photos in it that the same people, the people who have the same identities live in North Korea as well. The words at that time, not the photos, said “Communism is bad,” and “Communists have horns on their head,” which means we didn’t know the real state of affairs in North Korea at all. That’s why I thought I wanted to make sure that things like national homogeneity were understood. Photography is a great medium for that. One can see how North Koreans lived after the Korean war.

MNM: What kind of books does Noonbit publish? Are you interested in a specific kind of photography? You said that you wanted to expand away from simple landscape work. Did you move into documentary or street photography? Did you have a direction in that way?

KSL: Yes. At that time, I decided not to publish photos like nudes or landscapes but to publish photography related to history and to show our lives.

MSA: Our catalog includes publications about theory to everything about photography. We just wanted to exclude commercial genres like landscape or nudes as KSL said.

JYL: I think you made a good decision [laughter].

MSA: We did this because commercial photos can be published by others anyway. Others who are interested in them can make books about them.

KSL: I think it was because of the situations in Korea. I guess taking landscape pictures in national parks, taking nude photos, or shooting children were thought to be the entire breadth of photography. That was the situation in Korea, in the mid-80s.

MSA: I don’t think that’s bad; it was just the situation. So we wanted to do something different.

JYL: Different things, like documentary?

MSA: Yes. We had a shortage of documentary or books on theory, so we tried to translate and release foreign books.

JYL: Did you discuss the matter with each other then? Like, “Let’s do it together,” or you just thought you wanted to do it naturally?

MSA: Oh, that story. How can I tell the story…[laughter]? How and where are you going to use this interview?

JYL: On Mike’s blog.

MSA: On his blog, OK. I think I should speak more specifically about the birth of Noonbit itself. Kyusang used to work for a publisher but quit the job after our marriage saying he wanted to write something. While he was doing that, a person who used to be at the same publisher with him came back to Korea from abroad. When he learned that Kyusang had quit he called him. He was founding his own publishing house with other colleagues, which was Noonbit, and had decided to publish photography books. The other three people asked Kyusang to join in, and he did so. The first book came out from those four people, but there were a lot of difficulties in publishing the book because of financing issues. Kyusang was told the publisher would be closed after the first book was released [laughter]. The situation was really poor. In fact, the first owner ran two publishers, including Noonbit, at the same time. As the circumstances of the other, his original publishing company, that he owned became harder, he decided to close down Noonbit. After that, Kyusang came to me and… I had majored in Korean literature and worked for another publisher at that time, not with Kyusang. I was also preparing to establish a publishing company related to photography. Initially, I asked him to join me as he didn’t seem to be working, but his first answer was no, saying that he was working for Noonbit and writing something. He later came to me and told me Noonbit would be closed down if there was not anyone who would take it over, so…

JYL: You thought what should you do?

MSA: Yes. In that way… how can I say? I was concerned about the direction of photo publications, whether towards documentary or others. The important thing was, when I asked Kyusang if he would jointly run the publisher together with me when I took it over, even if the others said they would quit working with him, he said yes. So we took over the publisher and have been running it since the second book was released.

KSL: The back story [laughter]…

MSA: I’m talking about this because I think I should speak my mind if you post this on Mike’s blog.

MNM: The first book, the Chris Marker book, why did you choose to start with a Western photographer rather than a Korean photographer?

KSL: It was difficult during the period discovering Korean photographers. And, the photos [in Coreennes] were well suited to the ideas we were aiming to examine. We thought these were not ideological but showed the reality of North Korea well. This is why we started with Chris Marker’s book.

JYL: Was Chris Marker taking pictures of North Korea at that time? I don’t know much about it…

KSL: In 1956.

MSA: This is a book first published in the 50s.

JYL: Ah, you re-published the book…

KSL: Yes. it was published in France first. It came to be out of print there after a while, and we…

JYL: You collected the materials…

KSL: Yes, we collected the photos and made a book.

MSA: This book is released exclusively under our imprint.

KSL: We are the one and only one who publish this book.

MSA: This book was originally released in the 50s in France and went out of print. After 30 years or so we revived it.

MNM: From that book to what you’re doing now, has the mission or the goals of Noonbit changed at all?

KSL: We’re doing the same thing but trying to do it more deeply. I prefer that documentary photographers record Koreans’ real lives deeply so that they go into political situations and cover them. I’ve always had the ideas like the ones the first book showed to me, and have tried to do this work more deeply.

MSA: I would rather say, all the Koreans who are interested in or majored in photography come to our publisher when they want to make their photobooks. That makes us keep doing this work. [laughter] It’s the same thing.

MNM: Could you talk a little bit about the new series that you just published? I know you did a series of eight or ten books by different photographers.

KSL: [showing the books] These are the ones.

Recent series of Noonbit books

JYL: Oh, yes. What motivated you to do this work?

KSL: Oh, this story might be very complicated. [laughter]

MSA: Do you know the anthologies published in Chang-bi or other literature magazines?
[Translator’s Note: Chang-bi is the name of a Korean publisher. It is the abbreviation of ‘Creation (composition) and Review (criticism). It is famous for publishing national literature anthologies in Korea.]

JYL: No…

KSL: They wouldn’t know that.

MSA: Then let me explain that first. [To Yoon-Mi:] Would you bring the poetry collections….?

KSL: We tried to extend the range of photography from just the idea that photography is recording something..

JYL: And you chose the photographers yourselves, or…?

KSL: We chose them all. I thought we would set direction in that way. What I mean is, Koreans usually think of photography books as being pretty expensive and having nothing to see, and this makes publications difficult. So, we want to show that photobooks are easy to read like poetry, novels or essays.

MNM: Are you going to continue to make books like these or do a second series like this?

KSL: Yes.

MSA: We expect to make 100 or 200 books.

MNM: You’re going to do 100?

KSL & MSA: [laughter]

MSA: We are not going to make them all at once in the short term, but continue to make them over time.

MNM: With this as a segue, it strikes me as a fairly specific role you see these books playing within Korean photography in terms of making photography accessible. We talked about Noonbit being an academic source, a sort of reference of Korean photography. Did you set out to make that the role of Noonbit, or did it happen naturally?

KSL: I thought these books would show the varied aspects of photography, and that contemporary photography has its own essence, not harmonizing with contemporary art, even though the basis of Noonbit’s books is documentary. [Ed. Note: the translation “not harmonizing” might suggest an antithetical stance toward contemporary art that is stronger than Mr. Lee might have intended.]

MNM: Broadening this question: what role do books play in doing that within Korean photography? Not just Noonbit’s books but photobooks generally, what roles do you see them playing?

KSL: Do you mean the way to approach photography easily?

JYL: Yes, do you think it’s better to teach through books, or you just recommend this way even if there are other methods?

KSL: Ah… I hope people can feel something through books. Words can be spoken by anyone, but I think seeing and learning through these kinds of works are more effective.

MSA: There are a lot of people who are moved by poetry or novels and who really like them—I see this as a literature major. But people tend to think about photography in too huge a way, as being done by a small minority of people, as being difficult, or requiring that they be published as a massive book, not like people are moved by photography. So we sought a way to approach photography lightly like poetry or novels and to move people with photography. We chose subjects which are small but expansive and include meaningful content. Our intent in publishing these books is that they can move people.

MNM: You’ve been publishing for 2 and a half decades now, right?

MSA: Yes.

MNM: Have you seen any changes in the way photo books have been used? Has their role been constant in that time or do you feel the way books have been used by photographers in Korea has changed in the last 30 years?

KSL: Yes, it has changed a little. In the analog era, it seemed that books were needed a lot. As photography was digitalized, things like preciousness of books has disappeared, I think. [Ed. Note: When Mr. Lee says the “preciousness of books has disappeared”, I believe he means that they no longer are highly valuable as a means of sharing content given the immediacy of digital sharing.]

MSA: It is quite ironic. It has changed, but not in a good way in the field of books.

JYL: The situation is getting more difficult?

KSL: We have had resistance for 30 years, which makes us take a firm stand.

MSA: We wonder how the photography market and publications are in America, as you studied photography there. [laughter] We wonder if the situation is similar to ours… [laughter]

[Ed. Note: The following answer has been significantly condensed; the short answer could have been a simple “yes”.]

MNM: It is a similar situation in America or the West more generally. There are, I would say, several types of publications being created. There are the museum catalogs or high-end gallery catalogs like those produced by Kukje Gallery here in Korea. On the other end of the spectrum there are artist books being made in very small editions. In between are small presses making highly personal photo books and larger publishers like Hatje Cantz producing more straightforward monographs.

KSL: Mass publications?

JYL: Yes, the one is to show artworks in museums and to publish books, and the other is, small publishers designing books and…

KSL: Artbooks?

JYL: Yes, artbooks. And they are artistically oriented.

MSA: You mean they approach photography?

JYL: Yes. It seems there are a lot of small publishers doing that kind of work.

MNM: There are small presses that have similar intentions to Noonbit. One publisher in particular is popping to mind; in response to the ballooning prices of some out of print photo books, Errata Editions was started by Jeffrey Ladd and Ed Grazda to make books that have become inaccessible accessible. Rather than simply reprint these books, they reproduce the book’s spreads as a kind of study. So you’re not buying a new copy of book, but it’s more an academic publication. So there is a range of things happening in America in photography publishing. Most of it is beautifully done, and many of the books are finished art in and of themselves. There are a lot of things happening in the middle between the museum publications and the individual handmade artists books. And I’m leaving out all the “coffee table” type books as well, which are something else entirely.

KSL: Yes, that may be one of the good ways, as shooting itself or mechanism of photography has been improved. The photos will be well-printed, because close-ups are good.

KSL: Someday, we will give you the chance to see the books of Noonbit in New York.

MSA: Is there something in New York, like artbook… something…

KSL: I think it is called ‘Artbook Fair’…

MNM: Yes. Printed Matter runs the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA’s PS1 each year.

MSA: There is a Korean working at Columbia University Press named Chang-yeol Lee, who designs books, and he said Japanese private publishers do some exhibitions or participate in the Fair there. But Koreans don’t do that.

JYL: It would be great if Korean publishers did that.

MSA: Yes, I think so, but I don’t know how things are done there. I would like to try to make it happen.

JYL: I’ll try to find out, and let you know if it is possible to do that.

KSL: Next. [laughter]

MNM: I think, overall, that book publishing in America is no easier than here. [laughter]

MSA: Is it hard publishing books itself, or publishing documentary photography?

MNM: I think what makes it difficult—it’s easy to produce and print books. It’s hard to sell them; it’s hard to get them in front of the right people. And photobooks tend to be expensive. Print runs tend to be 500 or 1000; most photobooks don’t sell more than 1000 copies in the US.

KSL: 1000 copies?

JYL: Yes, 1000 books.

MSA: Ah… even in such a big market as America…

JYL: To print and publish photography is easy, but it is difficult to sell it. It needs to be supported… (laughter) but it doesn’t seem to be easy.

MNM: Yeah, it’s hard to make money. I mean, most photographers in the US, not all, but most photographers do projects that are personally significant as well as do commercial work of some kind. Books tend to drive print-sales, or they tend to drive commercial promotional campaigns. And in many ways a book doesn’t make one money directly, but it’s a tool to help make money in other ways, [laughter] which makes it difficult.

MSA: [sighing] It’s the same everywhere.

JYL: Oh, is it the same?

MSA: Photographers need to exhibit and sell their photos.

JYL: Yes.

MSA: To publish books is…

JYL: Yes, Mike says it is hard for him to make books as well.

MSA: But it is really important for photographers to publish books. Exhibitions end after a few days, but photographers can keep releasing books and explaining their photos to other people. That’s why they should make books.

MNM: Yes. I was talking to Suejin Shin last week…

JYL: Do you know Ms. Suejin Shin?

KSL: Yes.

MNM: And one thing that she talked about is how important it is for her to make books because that is the thing lasts after an exhibit. The exhibit is temporary, but the book goes on.

MSA: Photographers should make books even spending their own money, actually.

MNM: Yeah. In America, a lot of publishers want to either share the cost, or have the photographer pay.

JYL: We have a lot of friends who are photographers in America. One of them is well known and a professor. Unlike Mike who does some commercial work, this friend is focused on exhibiting, selling prints and teaching. Despite his work being fairly well known and well regarded, when he decided to publish a book the publisher required him to pay a significant portion of the production costs.

MSA: Production cost is not supported there? I mean, the production cost is hard to be met. It’s the same as here.

JYL: The same as here? Is it similar?

MSA: Well… we try not to have photographers pay money themselves, but sometimes we do this if the quality of a book becomes too high that we can’t cover all the cost. It’s very similar.

KSL: I think photographers themselves should be changed. The crucial point is not to adapt photographs to viewers, but to make photos interesting, embodying the characteristics of photography, not heading towards fine arts. But in case of fine art market, they don’t need to make books, I think.

MNM: I’m going to take a step back here. Has the internet or the advent of digital technologies made things more difficult as a publisher? Have you experimented at all or looked into ways of publishing in the digital realm, either in conjunction with printed books or as stand-alone digital products like apps?

KSL: I’ve thought about it, but never tried yet.

MSA: What is it like in America?

MNM: It’s still people figuring it all out. [laughter]

MSA: We need to be prepared for it. Someday we should do it, but the market for e-books is not large yet. Just 20%, compared to paper books. We can join in the market when the ratio becomes at least 40%, but we are preparing now anyway.

KSL: The e-book market still lags behind in Korea. It is not active yet. Instead, I agree with what Professor John Pag said, we need to show pictures utilizing various media. Actually that was the idea of 4-5 years ago, but there hasn’t been much progress since then. This is the situation in Korea. So… if paper is gone, [laughter] we should view pictures through monitors, like LCD ones. But I think you must print your photos with paper at least if you are a photographer. A lot of things can be learned in doing so as you see how colors in photos are embodied. Many people say they’re photographers themselves, bringing any cameras they have, because any cameras are good these days, but I think if they think they are photographers, they must print their photos. I think so because I am the older generation. If they don’t print their photos, it’s just like an amateur job. A lot of people don’t print their pictures, as you know. [laughter] Photographers should print though the process to their final works.

JYL: Neither do people in America. Some people try to, separately, but there are still a lot of books, while art books are not made as e-books.

MSA: I guess so, though I think it is not possible for images to be made to e-books.

JYL: You’re right.

KSL: I guess we need to catch what common viewers wonder and make photos more various, designing projects well… I always reflect myself about that. [laughter] We need to increase the perception by people that photo books are worth seeing, after making projects well. This is very important thing.

KSL: Next.

MNM: Next. [laughter] Ah… umm…

JYL: By the way, does Noonbit mean the light in one’s eyes?

MSA: Yes, it means the light in one’s eyes seeing the world.

MNM: Did you ask what Noonbit means [to Ji]? I forgot to ask that question earlier; went right past it. [laughter] Just two more questions to a kind of close it. The first one is easy, and the second one is more difficult. First: are there any publishers or specific photographers who are making books who you admire as innovative or forward-looking?

KSL: Oh, I like ‘Skira’ both in America and in Italy, and ‘Perpetual’… which I used to read when I was very young. And in Korea, yes, there are some publishers that are doing well, which deal with Korean historical ones. And I am also interested in making high-level publications like ‘Skira’. Oh, I also like ‘the Friends of Photography’ in San Francisco.

JYL: (to MNM) Do you know ‘the friends of photography’ in San Francisco?

MNM: No…

MSA: There are more than 3000 publishing houses just in Korea, you’d never know all of them. (laughter)

JYL: Wow, there are a lot.

MSA: Yes, more than 3000 publishers.

MNM: In America, many photographers will simply start their own imprint to publish their books or the books of two or three collaborators. Do photographers in Korea do the same thing, simply start their own publishing house just to publish their own books?

KSL: Yes, there are some things like that. Photographers mainly make digital prints. In my opinion, an editors’ stance is important when photographers make books. For example, a photographer might make a book on his or her own, but their books may have reasons for disqualification as a photo book. If they just want to have their own books, then it’s up to themselves. But a lot of things in books need to be filtered to be released to mass media or viewers. That’s why the role of editors is very important. Editors should exist between photographers and readers.

MSA: I often see the books like Mr. Lee. Of course, anyone can make their own photo books. I mean, they may make their opinion, but to shape and form “real” books… you know, editors are not there in vain. Editors are the most important people within publishers to make books. If photographers make their own books, the books are just collections they have. But they should listen to editors to have their books distributed to bookstores or help them connect with readers, because editors’ roles are to make books with photography. However, photographers make something with their photos rather than make photo books. They have no understanding about books. Editors can make more persuasive books when books are read to viewers, because editors include their understanding about books into them. The books photographers make can be personal source books; many photographers know it is impossible to make books on their own even if they want to.

MNM: The last question I’ve been asking people is this: How do you define Korean photography? Is there something that runs through it, ties it together? Just looking at this series of 10 books, they are all very different subject matter shot with different photographic styles. Is there anything that runs through them that makes them all Korean, beyond simply being made by Korean photographers?

KSL: [laughter] Wow, that’s very a important question because the main idea underlying these 10 books is that we need to show our identity as Koreans. I mean, we should make a record of this. What I always think of when making books is… well, I’m not a chauvinist: people all over the world are the same. Of course there are cultural and historical differences, but I think we need to show the differences through Korean pictures. These pictures should spread out throughout the world. These are the tradition and identity of Koreans. Korean photography puts all these things together, I think. [laughter] This may be a little difficult to understand…

MSA: As I have been doing this job for more than 20 years, what I think is, I mean, history is recorded in written forms. Our own history or the world history is inherited by descendants in writing, correct? We came to think that we are writing Korean history with photographs and we can show history through them by doing this job. We made up our mind to record history with photography. This idea made us find out the subject, for example, these books can be the history books that show our lives in 100 or 200 years, even though these are just photographers’ books right now. Photographers’ private works are now seen as just private, but they can be historical materials in 100 or 200 years, where we can see the Korean history. Photography changes from being an artwork to being a historical record. For example, landscape photos remain the same now or in 100 years. They don’t have any difference. They can’t show us 100 years before. But these documentary photos can be changed into kinds of historical materials in 100 years. After 100 years, our real lives can be seen through these.

KSL: What I mean is to leave records of people’s lives. There are lots of people who study abroad. Describing the specific situation in Korea as only “Korea is a divided country,” and “there was a dictatorship in the past;” photography can show the components that interrupt the most humane things. I think foreigners want to see the specific situation in Korea. Most Koreans want to show the beauty of Korea like our beautiful national parks to foreigners. I don’t agree with them, I think showing our lives makes foreigners understand Korea better.

JYL: The reason Mike writes his blog is to expose others in the Western photo community to Korean photo books. Is there any one thing that you see as being crucial to someone understanding Korean identity or at least understanding Korean photography?

KSL: I would like people to see Koreans’ lives are also precious.

MSA: The appearance shown through the media and the real lives of Korean people are totally different, actually.

KSL: All human beings have basic tendencies. It is said that photography is the easiest tool to approach humans’ basic tendencies; I really hope Korea would be more peaceful and not fight one another.

JYL: I hope so too.

KSL: I would like to contribute to the nation’s peace through photography. What we should do for it is, not to repeat the disgraceful experiences through photography even though they are seen as shameful and sore now.

MSA: Many other countries may have that kind of experience, I think.

KSL: I like Lewis Hine’s photos, and when I see the state of young laborers working in his pictures, I feel really sad.

JYL: Yes, one does.

MSA: In coffee farms or somewhere else?

KSL: No, in a factory or other places. They are the real situations people are in. I think photos sold for millions of dollars don’t have any realities in them. Of course they have beauty and other things, but I hope pictures contain true experiences of people and make people understand each other. I don’t want people to think photography is just for hanging on the wall or selling, but want to use photography as a medium to enjoy and understand each other.

MSA: What Mr. Lee says might be words that make fun of commercial photographers. [laughter]

KSL: Oh, I like commercial or sports photos as well.

JYL: Mike has no choice but to do commercial jobs… [laughter] He should make money anyway. Making a career in art was his initial intent, but it is hard to do so, as you know.

KSL: That’s right.

MSA: If just one work succeeds, you will hit the jackpot. But it is also true making just one work go well is very hard to accomplish.

KSL: I know how hard it is for photographers even if they’ve published 10 books. I think people should buy photographers’ books if they don’t want to see photographers in Korea vanishing. People should support photographers by buying books. Publishers need supporters that can help photographers keep working without worrying too much about the condition of their lives. I think we should be helpful to photographers, so we emphasize those points to readers. Koreans are used to prints like these poetry books or other kinds. But they think pictures or photos are difficult to accept. I want to say to them these are not difficult but are accessible.

MSA: It’s easier rather than harder.

JYL: Yes, I agree with you.

MSA: Yes, it is easy. People buy these books (printed literature) again, thinking they will read them again and again. But they feel it is enough to see those books (photobooks) just once. I mean, people buy literary books and read them later again, but don’t buy photo books, saying, “Oh, I’ve already seen them.”

KSL: There is a cultural difference in this point. We take exams like Korean SAT with printed paper. But in America or Western countries, people have easily seen a lot of photography and art books, which makes them accept photography easily. Westerners can read and interpret images, but Koreans cannot. It is so-called the period of images these days, but Koreans are not educated about images. When you see the internet sites in Korea, they are a kind of madhouse.

JYL: A madhouse? [laughter]

KSL: Quite messy.

JYL: Yes, it seems a little complicated. [laughter]

KSL: That’s because people easily use others’ photos without permission, or are not wholly educated about these fields. It seems they haven’t had any training about images.

MSA: I think historical reason underlies these situations in Korea. We, Koreans, made much of eyes, which was based on Korean paintings. This still remains now, and…

MNM: It’s true to America, too.

MNM: So, really the last question now.

JYL: Really the last question… [laughter]

MNM: Where can someone who’s not in Korea find your books? How can someone who’s in America or in Europe, purchase or how can they get your books?

KSL: Ah…

KSL: Foreign countries? Not yet in foreign countries…

MSA: It is not possible yet.

KSL: I tried selling some books on eBay and Amazon. I think this is a kind of project to solve little by little. There are some bookstores supporting this idea in the West Coast of America. So I sometimes think I want to go to bookstores, trade and write books, or open even a store if there is the minimum number of people to buy our books.

JYL: Wow, wonderful idea. (translating into English)

KSL: It will be successful if 1000 copies are sold, or, at least 500 copies.

MSA: [laughter] What are you talking about? 1000 copies are huge, even in case of popular genre.

KSL: But there are a lot of overseas Koreans. [laughter]

JYL: Yes, I think you can make it.

KSL: It is said a million of overseas Koreans live in LA, so I thought 1000 copies would be sold there. But they are quite far from books…

JYL: I guess you should come to New York. [laughter]

MSA: I’m wondering what you think about markets in New York and West Coast. I think New York is better.

MNM: I think the worldwide photography community is fairly small. In America there are probably ten thousand people who really care about photography, and that probably includes the photographers, gallerists, publishers and buyers, maybe it’s 25 thousands. But it’s not many.. [laughter]

JYL: The styles of the people are a little bit different, I think. Styles may vary depending on who does the work. Don’t you think that people in the East Coast are more engaged in the art-world?

MNM: No, I think LA and San Francisco have their own active communities. There’s a huge photography scene in Arizona because of PhotoEye which publishes its Photobook Review, sells books and has auction sales of high-end used books. There’s a lot of intellectual exchange that happens through the internet, and in person through events like, like The Art Book Fair in New York and the AIPAD shows and Review Santa Fe where hundreds of photographers come together with gallerists, publishers, editors to look at work and receive feedback. I think there is a lot of exchange between people working on the East Coast and West Coast.

MSA: That is different from Korea. We don’t have any places like that.

JYL: Photography itself is very popular among Americans, so many people want to do this job. Don’t you think it’s same here?

MSA: Yes, a lot of people do photography and want to. There are a lot of people who want to do this job, but they don’t shoot documentary photos or make photo books.

MNM: That’s the core problem. [laughter]

KSL: One of my friends runs a publisher of mountain climbing, but he says Koreans go hiking a lot but don’t buy books about hiking.

MSA: No, they don’t buy books. (laughter)

KSL: It seems the same: people take photos a lot but don’t buy photography books.

MNM: That makes sense to me. Do you get a lot of people submitting books to you?

KSL: Yes, there are a lot of people who want to do that.

MSA: We don’t deal with scenery photos or other common things, but it is thought that when a documentary photographer make a book in our publisher, he or she is verified in this field. We are a small publisher but highly valued in this field.

KSL: Sometimes we discover the works.

MSA: Not only that, but…

KSL: Well, and, although taking pictures is getting common now, having a camera itself was very difficult in the past. I’ve collected the photos taken by the U.S. Army, as I try to look for the records of our past lives. You know Kodak Club, right? The auction for selling slide films of Kodak Club and etc. was held on eBay, so I bought the lot. I will make a book when I collect more of them. There are a lot of great photos in the slide films, but I don’t know who took them.

JYL: That sounds very interesting.

KSL: Those photos were taken from the perspective of the US army, and now they are seen in ours as well, like seeing, and interpreting the photos. So after the Korean war… oh, it’s not after the Korean war. When Korea was liberated in 1945, there was some time the US army established military administration after the Korean Independence. I collected the pictures taken in that time, about 100 sheets recently, and…

JYL: I have never seen those kinds of photos yet.

MSA: And in the early 1900s, before Japan invaded Korea, Catholic or Christian missionaries came to Korea and took a lot of photos here. That allows contemporary people to know what Seoul was like 100 years ago, as I told you before.

JYL: Actually, I am trying to find books like that these days, but there aren’t many. When we went to the Seoul Photo Festival we bought the catalog. It it showed that buildings in the past looked like this way or that way.

MSA: There are a lot of things like you said. [laughter]

JYL: I thought the photographs were so extraordinary.

KSL: I like to say today is the treasure made by accumulation of yesterdays. But if someone thinks about today only and forgets about yesterdays, I think he or she is not a human being. I also think we need to show our history to people honestly without hiding or concealing anything, even if it is a kind of shameful record. Photography can play a crucial role for this. Photography is very important medium. Photographers should make photo works showing specific situations in Korea. I think Korean photographers shouldn’t imitate what foreign photographers do. I want to say, ‘Why don’t we have the unique aesthetics of photography? Then foreigners would like our photos.’ [laughter]

MSA: Every country has their photographic record. Both in written form and in photography, the world is recorded. Photographers’ and our role [as editors] is to record things with photography and to publish it.

KSL: I guess Mike thinks like… we consider photography as an art.

MSA: Of course it is the photography as well.

KSL: Those photos are highly evaluated among people, of course. Photographers like Atta Kim receive a lot of attention. But in my opinion, their photos don’t have “Korean Soul”, which don’t last longer. It is better to consider photography as a medium related very closely to our lives, not as pure art.

Too normal or formal photos are not enjoyable to me. And also they look too similar. I think when photos have messages or emotions in them, they are good ones even if they are not that well taken.

December 2014


Special thanks to Kyusang and Misook for their generosity in sitting down with Korean Photography Books for this conversation; to Ji Young Lee who patiently facilitated the interview as translator; and to Yoonsun Jung for transcription and translation of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity post-translation.