Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jaeyu Lee to speak with him about photography, book making and cultural materialism as it relates to both photography and to his design day job. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
A friend wrote an essay for the Carl Andre catalog that accompanies his retrospective at the Dia:Beacon. We accompanied she and her fiance, another friend, to a preview of the exhibit before it opened to the public.
During a brief welcome talk, Yasmil Raymond noted that artists make both “Art” with a capital “A” and “art” with a lower-case “a”. A number of Andre’s lower-case “a” artworks were presented as a means of showing his artistic process. There was also a video piece that she took pains to note showed him “conceiving” a work of art. He wasn’t making a work; he was conceiving a work.
A selection of photographs taken by Andre (lower case “a” art pieces) could be read as a visual keystone to understanding his conceptual process. The photographs were of steel plates on roadways, paving stones piled on curbs and heavy wooden support beams: the observational raw materials that became his structured conceptual works.
These got my mind working to categorize photographers between observational and conceptual. The last several books reviewed here have been very much conceptual in nature: photographs created to fulfill a central concept. While these can be incisive, they can also be too clean or become illustrative and repetitive. I thought it would be good to change pace and segue to something a little more observational, a little more raw.
One of the first SSE-P zines I acquired was Hasisi Park’s [jjim jil bang] Korea. It came up in the review of the SSE-P project. Park’s straightforward photographs always held something back obscuring as much as they revealed. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for her name.
As usual, I returned from Seoul with a suitcase full of books. Because of my limited time for browsing for books during my brief trips, I generally err on the side of caution and buy a book if I see some detail that I think bodes well: a design flourish, a single image that catches my eye, a weight or density. This generally works well for me. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Taeyoung Kang’s In Between is full of promise. The simple and distinctive Aprilsnow Press’ cover design with a photo tipped into the bright red linen is an opening salvo. It calls out from the book shelf. On a cursory glance through, there are numerous wonderfully composed and engaging photographs.
A WB Yeats quote from “Sailing to Byzantium” sets the book’s tone: “Whatever is begotten, born and dies.” The first several pictures take this cue and run with it. The first picture is two empty shell sitting beside several small plants in loose soil; the caption tells us this is in a cemetery. It is followed by a pair of landscapes of the tombs in Gyung-ju; in the first, two boys wearing white back to back stepping away from one another as though dueling; in the second, picture there is only one boy, crouching. The next picture is a boy playing in a ruin; he appears to levitate off the ground, his head poking into a window in the ruin. From this strange and slightly unsettling opening, the book begins to wander.
The wandering is literal and figurative. We are brought to France, back to Korea, then on to Mauritius, Switzerland, Hong Kong, the US, Turkey, Jordan, Italy, Germany, Syria and England. All are revisited throughout the book. It is a whirlwind world tour of the everyday: street scenes, still life vignettes, grand landscapes and portraits.
Though we may travel the world, we are not among a family of man. This is not some grand statement of unity. Instead we are in a space of “between-ness”. In our shifting location we are never “here”; we are always moving between. The photographs hover between light and dark: a young girl on the edge of a pool of light steps out into the dark surround; a boy hides behind a lamp post’s silhouette before a luminous background of dirt; a man directly under a light in a restaurant covers his face; a young woman at a bar sits in a pool of light looking out at the crowd surrounding her recede into darkness. We are often divided from the subjects we view: they are half hidden by other objects in the scene; they are partly erased by reflections in glass; or they are covered by shadow. Or the we catch a moment between moments: a pair of people in mid-step, their weight neither still on the top step or yet on the bottom step; a man leaning over to lift a brazier of coals, his hand pulling on its handle but not yet taking its weight.
This is a book that I wanted to like it and expected to. There are many lovely images and as an object the book is nicely designed, printed and put together. It looks great on my book shelf. Any number of the photographs would look wonderful framed on the wall. However, the wandering is too great. We cover too much territory. A third of the images could have been left on the editing table. Flipping through the book too many images pull me from the rhythm and disrupt the flow. I can’t find reason for transitions between images; I’m not sure what I am meant to come to understand through reading this book.
with text by Kay Jun
Edited and Designed by Kay Jun, Jeong Jae-wan
Proofread by Kang Young-gyu
Translated by Angelina Gieun Lee
Printed by Munsung Printing
Published by Aprilsnow Press
First edition January 2013
Browsing through the shelves at Your-Mind Bookshop last night (I’m in Seoul unexpectedly for a week), I noticed that among the various designations of book type, generally, broken down by content medium, there was also a “Travelogue” designation. This was one of the only designations that was a genre rather than a medium. On this shelf journalistic text met illustration met design met photography met music met poetry. Looking at this shelf, it struck me that this travelogue genre is a bit like the road trip genre in the States.
As in any genre, there is a clear set of assumptions and expectations. It is the small tweaks to the formula that make a book interesting. Recent examples reviewed here include Eunhye Kim’s Berlin and London rough risograph books and Oh SeBeom’s mixture of photographs, diary, and mapping in 31 Days 807.3km. Oh’s book is particularly effective at matching good content to good design to create an effective and enticing whole.
Storage Book&Film‘s Walk zine project is what the project title suggests: walks taken through foreign places. We might read them as either a single walk through a city or as a mediated archetypal walk through that place. Simply designed–both in their layout and physical form, the zines leave the photographs to stand or fall on their own. Your-Mind had three of these zines: Walk Seoul, Walk Paris and Walk Nice. (This may be the entire series to date.) The first is from COZYSACOZY (Sanpo) and the second two are from TOGOFOTO.
TOGOFOTO tends towards open landscapes. Even the close-ups are from mid-distance. In Nice it is the beaches and walkways overlooking them that holds his attention. In Paris, it is store fronts, landmarks, crowds and tourists. In both locations, when we see people we see over their shoulder. We are part of a crowd looking.
COZYSACOZY moves in and out from detail to distance and back to detail. Shop interiors, food, nature in the city, vignettes. There are few people; they are either seen at a distance or truncated to a hand holding a flower, shoes in fallen leaves, boots walking past a merchant’s stall.
These are the rules: Uplifting Color; Respectful Distance; Suggestion; Directness; Wonder. COZYSACOZY’s Tumbler heading text is a good summation of the essence of the travelogue:
one scene +
one scene +
one scene …
There is nothing revolutionary here. An appropriate description of these zines might be bourgeoisie. The photographs are nice and show much, but they make me feel little. The cover image of Walk Nice is a couple sitting on a bench under a trellis looking out over the ocean. This is a good metaphor for the project as a whole: looking out onto the world and seeing nice light through a clean structure. The cover image of Walk Seoul suggests another good metaphor: a pair of cupped hands presenting the viewer a single flower petal. Both possible metaphors fall down though. As there are too many photographs of the same nothing. The single petal, the stand out image, is lost among the crush. And the structure appears clean and clear but gives us too little narrative.
I’ll look forward to seeing where this zine goes. I suspect that good things are in store once it hits its stride.
Day two of jury duty and I’m still sitting and waiting. Action is promised soon: I’ll either be on a jury or dismissed… So, another review ahead of schedule.
Today I brought two small books by Eunhye Kim to pass the time. These slim volumes are the kind of quick and to the point books that I love. I attended a workshop on the photobook several years back (TA’d actually) run by Ken Schles and Jeffrey Ladd. Each participant was asked to bring a couple of books that they liked. I brought a handmade book of abstractions by a Japanese photographer and Paul Kooiker slim Seminar. Both present small “i” ideas and do so without fanfare or ostentation.
Both Berlin and London are like that: simple, direct and easy. We have straightforward urban landscapes of two cities printed in rough risograph on cheap paper and saddle stitched with two staples.
Each book is comprised of street photographs made in the titular city. They tend towards the middle distance. They have the air of casual snapshots but suffused with formal compositions. The photographs are quiet; there are no spectacles, no confrontations, no human drama. Winogrand this is not.
In Berlin, the photographs on the front and back covers are the strongest, presenting a promise that the rest of the photographs cannot live up to. Some aspire but none match.
London is much the same, though there are a number of gems within the book: a group of young men playing football in a park; two flower pots on two windowsills; a pair of images following an old woman as she approaches and unlocks her door; a middle aged couple pausing in the middle of a walk with their dogs in the park; a family walking through a park in matching outfits.
These are not masterpieces, but they make no claim to be. At the moment, they are welcome diversions.
This book is an escape, and I need one. I am in Kings County Superior Court serving on Jury Duty. Thus far, I am doing little more than sitting and waiting. Having brought Oh SeBeom’s 31 Days 807.3km was a good decision as it provides welcome distraction.
31 days 807.3km is a small volume, roughly the size of a Moleskin notebook, chronicling a 31 day 801.3km trip across northern Spain. This book is one part of a larger project that includes web and video components as well. The project as a whole is one part again of Oh’s overarching one man project: World of DDanjit I cannot read any of the site’s text, but it seems to be a cataloging of the world, something to which I can relate.
31 days 807.3km is broken into roughly three equal sections. The first is a reproduction of Oh’s Moleskin journal pages written during the trip. It is from these journals that the book takes its size and shape, imitating a Moleskin notebook. This section has feeling. The handwriting has smudged and we can see text bleeding through from the backside of each page. As we read one experience we anticipate what is to come and reflect on what happened previously. This text is, obviously enough, in Korean with bits of copied text and web URLs in English. As I cannot read this text, I will say only that the reproduction of the notebook pages feels right; I feel like I’m being stealing into someone’s private thoughts (that were left laying about so I might buy them…). I assume that if I could read the text, this is what I would find, the starts and stops of experience.
The second section is a series of photographs that reprise the travelogue in visual form. The bulk of the photographs are landscapes; many are the well worn trope of a road or track receding towards the horizon. There are few people or buildings. The photographs are like walking: one foot in front of the other, slowly building into a journey of 807.3 kilometers. Several photographs do stand above and are absolutely beautiful in their atmospheric quality. One, in particular, grabs my attention: in the foreground there are mounds of dirt that look like Korean tombs but are nothing more than piles of fill, in the middle ground a line of trees extends halfway across horizon with the last few trees wind blown back, and in the background half screened by the trees a small town gives way to a blue horizon beneath a blue sky. The photographs are all horizontal, printed full page, two to a spread so that one must turn the book sideways to see them properly. There are two exceptions to this: a vertical of a church is run halfway (and could have been edited out) and the closing horizontal image of the sea that is run double truck also and forces the reader to turn the book back to its normal orientation. It is a nice transition.
The third section we return to text. Days, dates, locations and distances are in large blue lettering overlaid on top of background text describing the journey. Facts and figures; cold and hard. The design amplifies the content. We end with a blue map dotted with (Google) map pins.
We have three travelogues that reinterpret the same trip through different filters. We begin with the personal experience: direct, smudged, imperfect, tangential. One event or thought bleeding between past and future experiences. Our journey is next mediated by a machine eye. We have facts and visual clues but truth is still elusive. These facts are up for interpretation and reinterpretation. The suggest but cannot define. We end with a journey distilled into fact: distances traveled, cities visited, dates, times.
The journal pages I cannot understand, but I understand the idea of a journey that they embody. When I travel, I keep similar notebooks. The photographs present less a specific place for me than a rich suggestive vein of possibility. The facts and figures leave me cold and I can do little but flip through. It is the hand written notes and photographs that hold my attention. Neither provides me literal facts but each presents a journey taken and suggests journeys yet to be taken.
It all makes sitting in this windowless, fluorescent lit, cavernous room more bearable.
31 days 807.3km