Category Archives: Urban Landscape

KID NOSTALGIA: Portraits of South Korean Youth, Park Sung Jin

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, Cover

Park Sung Jin’s KID Nostalgia is a collection of sensitive, square format, black and white portraits of South Korean youth in school uniform taken between 2001 and 2009. The subjects are set center frame with side street or back alleyway urban scenes surrounding them. The portraits are roughly evenly split between waist up and full length views. The black and white is the soft gray of a subtle, classic aesthetic that doesn’t call attention to itself. The books uses a simple layout in which each portrait is presented individually on the right hand page of a spread.

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, interior spread
With a few exceptions, Park’s subjects gaze directly through the camera towards the viewer. This gaze is direct but not confrontational. In fact, there is a kind of softness to this eye contact. While there are the outward signs of youthful rebellion–cigarettes, mussed hairstyles and punked-out uniforms, the youths’ eyes belie a certain reticence. They hold themselves with an awkwardness that suggests naivete or innocence. There is longing and insecurity. There is intensity, too; so much so that they seem ready to burst into flame. These cool kids smolder.

Photographs are of their maker as much as of what stood before the lens. The choices that one makes in selecting a subject, deciding how to depict and frame that subject and ordering the resulting pictures in series all are decided by and define the maker’s state of mind. Though born in Seoul (where many of these photographs were taken), he came to New York City in 1987 at the age of 17. In New York, Park found “a place where every conceivable race [lives] side by side, but they don’t actually mix… Instead they live within their own identities.” Park notes that Kid Nostalgia is, in a sense, his “trying to find [his] own forgotten roots.”

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, interior spread One comparison that springs readily to mind when viewing Kid Nostalgia is with Hein-Kuhn Oh’s Girls Act. The subject matter is quite similar, and the black and white aesthetics are even similar. The photographs come from entirely different mindsets, though, and these differences are apparent in the details. In Park’s “남산동 2005” for an example, the camera has been fitted with a slightly wide lens and positioned at the subject’s eye level. This even footing grants an instant conversational familiarity and shows the subject within an environment. Oh’s photographs, such as “Jin-hee Han, age 17, 2003,” are shot from a low vantage point. The viewer looks up at the subject, who becomes monumental. Oh’s low vantage point and longer lens places the horizon low in the frame, minimizing the subject’s relationship to her surroundings by placing her against the relatively neutral ground of the sky. The lighting is different, too: Park’s light is soft and coming from behind the subjects; it is probably the filtered light of an overcast sky. Oh’s light is hard, directional and frontal–direct flash on axis with the Oh’s lens.

These subtle differences in how the photographers use similar black and white materials to depict similar subjects limn a critical divide between them. Oh looks outward with a critical gaze and a clear concept (both Girl Act specifically and in his work broadly) that is as direct and hard as the light in “Jin-hee Han, age 17, 2003.” This concept can loosely be defined as the way that social markers of identity both bind groups of people together but also alienate and limit those same people.In contrast, Park looks inward. His vision relies on his subjects being their “raw and fresh” selves. In fact, it is precisely his subjects’ refusal to play by the rules, their skulking about on the “periphery” that makes these kids such powerful avatars for Park. The soft light that suffuses Park’s photographs denotes a kind of romanticism–it caps the subjects of “남산동 2005” with halos such that one might read them as mischievous alternative saints.

Kid Nostalgia, Park Sung Jin, interior spread For all Park’s talk about his subjects’ rawness, the photographs are remarkably chaste. This is not Elle Perez’s ghettopunk and not even within shouting distance of Dash Snow’s Polaroids. These kids may be full of excitement and energy but that energy never breaks the photographic surface. Park treats the youth with incredible sensitivity but imbues them with a nostalgia that is unlikely their own. It is the nostalgia of someone looking back. One wonders how these kids might depict themselves.

Kid Nostalgia is, physically, simply appointed. It’s design is minimal and straightforward, mirroring the subtle aesthetics of the photographs while relying on them to carry their own weight. The heavyweight glossy dust jacket features the image “가리봉동 2005” on the front; the title, photographer’s name and publisher in English and Korean are on the spine; and a UPC code on the back. The book’s hardcover boards are a cheap glossy white with only the title and UPC code on the blindingly bare front cover and title, photographer’s name and publisher in English and Korean on the spine. The plates are nicely but not luxuriously printed on paper stock thin enough that a reader can nearly read the photographs through each page’s backside. The production quality of the book will not win any awards, though it does its job in delivering the photography simply and without fuss.

KID NOSTALGIA: Portraits of South Korean Youth
Park Sung Jin
Edited by Kim Kwangchul
Translation by Colin Mouat
Design by Gang Moonsik
Printed by Sinsago Hi-techj
propaganda press (site, contact)

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

Bright Shadow, Sohn Sung Hyun

Bright Shadow opens with a photograph of the Mongolian steppe. The horizon line is low in the frame, marked by mountains in the blue distance. The brown of dry grassland stretches out to meet the mountains. The land is receding; it is falling out of focus. A cloud filled blue sky dominates the picture, or would if a pair of truck mirrors in the foreground weren’t breaking the frame. The mirrors mar and distort the steppe caught in their surfaces.

We come to the city. It is seared by sunlight. The sky is blue and dark. There is no ground; buildings seem to sprout from their own concrete. A billboard advertising an apartment complex, still under development, promising elegance and luxury, dominates the photograph. We are in Mongolia.

A bolt of yellow: a woman in a yellow shirt and large white sunglasses is transformed by the photographer’s flash, which overpowers the sun. The background is dark (a trick of balancing the ambient and flash exposures in favor of the flash). More portraits of people picked out of their surroundings by the photographer’s flash follow: a middle aged, large bellied, man in a dress shirt; security guards; a young man with a hip haircut and popped collar; three young women, one looking away; two soldiers in their fatigues; a rancher in his chaps; construction workers; businessmen (or gangsters). The portraits are full of strong color and hard light. They bring to mind Hein Kuhn Oh’s ajumma portraits as well as Philip Lorca Dicorcia’s strobe lit street portraits and Bruce Gilden’s aggressive street photography.

The portraits are interrupted by a series of full bleed double truck urban landscapes in grainy black and white. Cars commingle. Cranes loom over rising buildings. A fountain’s spray dissipates into a gust of wind. The flash lit portraits continue: a man in uniform; a young man, hip; a young couple; a boy and a teen.

And then there comes a break: a black and white portrait of a young girl in some sort of costume–Mongolian? Korean? Play?. A second black and white portrait follows: an older, heavy set Native American woman with blotchy skin and thick fingers. Another portrait, this one in color: a Native American woman (neither young nor old) who looks away from the camera. We return to black and white: another woman, cropped tightly, her collar bones and upper chest are bare. And then color: a stark portrait of a Korean woman wearing a nurses uniform sitting before an off-white wall and staring intently into the lens. Three Korean boys look uneasily into the camera. A Mongolian family, four people covering three generations, stands on a plaza before what appears to be a government building; they stand erect. The husband’s face is marked with anxiety; he pulls his son in towards himself. The son looks off to his left away from the camera. The mother smiles; there is pride mixed with bemusement. The grandmother, leaning on her cane, wears a traditional costume with two government medals pinned to it. She looks towards the lens but not into it–perhaps she is looking beyond it. This family is followed by a group portrait of Korean healthcare workers; or maybe they are Mongolian.

The book ends with a final portrait: a tightly cropped photograph of an older Native American woman’s softly lit, wrinkle-etched, face. Her eyes are moist. In them we see the photographer’s reflection.

Interspersed throughout the book are roughly printed pages with multiple black and white documentary photographs. They are not only of Mongolians but also of the Korean diaspora and Native Americans. They depict daily life, rituals, landscapes, and portraits. In these mash-ups Sohn plays his hand.

When I say that Sohn has played his hand, I mean that this book engages his broader interest in the historical, societal and economic stories of the Mongoloid race told through the visual arts. (This is paraphrased from his bio. As this parenthetical note probably makes clear, I am uncomfortable with the word “Mongoloid”.) Sohn’s work is interpretive rather than documentary. Though this book is ostensibly about the effects of rapid economic expansion in Mongolia, the mash-ups and closing sequence present tangential forays into origin myths, the Korean Diaspora, racial affiliation and historical or colonial injustices. How could one talk about the effect of rapid economic expansion without also speaking to these other ideas? They feed one another.

As noted in Kay Jun’s essay that concludes the book, Sohn is both a photographer and an anthropologist by training. His previous books, The Circle Never Ends and Close Encounters of the Fourth World, pair photographs with essays and seek to bring into the light the stories of Native Americans. In “Bright Shadow” Sohn drops all text and “attempt[s to] touch on [the] complexity of history of humanity only through the prism of photographed images” according to Kay. This is a particularly photographic endeavor, and one that steps away from an objective stance. This is apparent from the first image of the out of focus landscape that comes into focus in the mirrors’ reflections. Though in focus, this reflection is distorted by the curves of the mirror. With this opening, Sohn is stating that he is no more objective than the mirrors. His perspective and his interests inform (or distort) what is before his camera.

Sohn is entirely transparent in this. His camera is not invisible. Instead, it makes itself known in the pop of the flash. The portraits are stories that build within a larger Story. When we come to the crux of the narrative, rapid economic development creating unforeseen societal consequences, we shift into black and white. Our world goes gritty. When we’re following his free associates between parallel stories not only does the aesthetic style shift into a traditional documentary mode but also the paper selection, printing and design shifts. These shifts are too rapid in the final sequence where they feel awkward, heavy handed. I find that the ending presents a tangle compared with the puzzle that the rest of the book puts forth.

As an object, Bright Shadow is lovely. It’s cover boards are beautifully wrapped in some kind of rice (?) paper with metallic flecks. The cover is bare except for the Aprilsnow Press logo embossed in the lower right corner. The photographer’s name, the book’s title and the publisher’s name are embossed on the spine. The printing quality is very good. The design is sparse and yet entirely appropriate to the themes that run through the book. There a few design flourishes such as the red, yellow and black ribbon page markers. Kay’s essay is enlightening, if not perfectly translated. There is a discussion between Sohn, Lee Young June and Kim Nam Soo, as well, though it is not translated into English.

Much like Jaeyu Lee’s Fragments in Scene, I find this book a wonderful agglomeration of anthropological process and visual communication. While it is highly conceptually driven like much contemporary Korean photography, Sohn’s integration of cross-practice methodologies and reliance on purely visual storytelling (leaving aside Kay’s essay and the discussion) gives the viewer rich opportunities to make broad connections and find their own insights from the work. It’s conceptual drive is expansive rather than reductive. In the end, this overwhelms the book, which falls apart in its final sequence. None-the-less, it is an interesting and engaging book.

Bright Shadow
Sohn Sung Hyun
texts: Sohn Sung Hyun, Lee Young June, Kim Nam Soo, Kay Jun
Edited and Designed by Kay Jun, Jeong Jae Wan
Proofread by Kang Young-gyu
Translated by Angelina Gieun Lee
Transcribed by Lee Hyunsong
Printing and Binding by Munsund Printing
Published by Aprilsnow Press

nowhere, now here; Mi-Jeong Baek

Recently on this blog I wrote about Chanmin Park’s unbound book Blocks. I am quite enamored of that book, both for its quietly discomfiting photographs and playful interactive design. Mi-Jeong Baek’s nowhere, now here, also from IANNBOOKS, makes use of a similar unbound design.

A yellow belly band holds the folded leaves of nowhere, now here together. Removing this band and opening the cover, one finds an 8 page insert on thin tissue-like paper. This insert has two plates of overlapping ghosted images and a poem (in both Korean and English) that acts as a kind of coda for the photographs:

I am in a faint state of being,
neither asleep nor awake.

My eyes open at a force that
seems like an explosion.

We come to the photographs. The photographs are suffused with faintness: light overwhelms; fog and snow diffuse; focus drops away; color is muted and soft; location is indistinct; orienting references are absent. It is as though we have drifted into a waking reverie, gliding through the world, lost in a mindful whimsy. And within that faintness a point of clarity becomes apparent and takes hold. It might be a singular detail in an image or the pull of recognition across a sequence; this point pushes us into a state of awareness. Continue reading

Fragments in Scene, Jaeyulee

An Acela Express train is whisking me back to New York City, but I’m already there.

Jaeyulee’s Fragments in Scene is open on my lap. It is suffocating and cacophonous. Photograph after photograph bombards the reader. A compressed tonal scale and a rough half-tone accentuate the visual density of the individual photographs, which run helter-skelter across the gutter. The pace is relentless. There is nowhere for the eye to rest. New York City screams from each page.
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On The Line, ed. Shin Suejin

Here in American it is Memorial Day Weekend. It is the official start of the summer driving season. BBQ grills are on overdrive, and nearly everyone is gathered around one. In Brooklyn the cyclists are out in droves, and the mood is festive. The skies are blue. And, oh by the way, the weekend is meant to provide an opportunity to memorialize those who have given everything to preserve this country in the many (military) struggles it has been engaged in and to reflect upon their sacrifice.

To extend this memorializing and reflection to another country and another culture is dangerous. To even broach the raw emotions of contemporary politics is more dangerous still (and rude). Well, so be it.
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xyZ City, workroom

As I’ve noted in the past, I’m a bit of an urban planning geek. It comes from my grandfather who was involved with local government. I find the urban space endlessly fascinating. A proper city is always in a state of flux. Blink and the city changes. This interest is reflected on my bookshelves and my personal photographic archive. I dig cities.

It’s no wonder then that I was drawn to workroom’s xyZ City, though I’m not entirely clear what the book is. An illustrated treatise? An exhibition catalog? An exhibition in book form? There is no English text, so I’m left with the title, layout and photographs themselves to decipher it.
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untitled (Annual Image Book), Go Dae Gun, Yoo Byung Seo & Lee Yun Ho


After interviewing the crew at Corners, Jimin and I took a cab over to The Book Society. During the brief taxi ride I tried to describe what made a book interesting to me. The essentials of my explanation was that I liked highly idiosyncratic personal photographic visions published in object like book form. At The Book Society, she pulled a small volume off of the small publishers and self-published shelf and, holding it out, said, “I think you’ll like this one.”
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Blocks, Chanmin Park


Every time that I have gone to Korea I have been absolutely astounded by the pace and the sheer volume of hi-rise apartment construction. While most of this astonishment has been a general sense of enormity suggested by the breadth of this construction, over my last several visits I have been able to watch one particular development being built across from my mother in law’s apartment complex. What was once a small tangle of streets forming a neighborhood is now a construction site from which half a dozen towers are rising. (Alan, the post office from which we sent the DIY first issue letter is now gone and its postmark now rare, if not valuable.) This development sits directly between two existing developments and within spitting distance of at least three other new developments.
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