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.
The cover is a full bleed image of Jun Min Cho’s photograph of photographers sitting on a roof top waiting for something to happen on the street below. A parade? A motorcade? The monotone image is printed in red and superimposed on top of it are four 3-d Cartesian coordinate graphs showing different shapes: a square, a quarter cylinder, a quarter sphere and a curved tube. The implication is that the city is the Cartesian coordinate system on which the photographers trace the vector of history and politics.
The first set of photographs is by Jun Min Cho. Taken in the 1970s and 1980s, the classic documentary black and white photographs depict the edges of a metropolis on the cusp of massive development. This is the beginning. There are still fields being tilled in Apgujeong-dong. People stand in lines at an outdoor bus terminal. Crowds ice skate in Yeouido Park before a still low slung skyline in the distance. Photographers wait expectantly for history to pass on the streets below. And pass it will. These photographs are the ground upon which the remainder of the book is built.
From here we move into the realm of contemporary color photography; all of the photographs were made between 2005 and 2010. The aesthetic tends towards formal considered urban landscapes; large format work predominates. Development and re-development is center stage in every sequence of photographs. Between each sequence of photographs is a flashback. We are presented with a historical editorial article from the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. These articles tie the work at hand back to a historical ground or present a jumping off point for new directions. These are a mixture of text and photography.
Each of the nine contemporary photographs has a different take on the urban environment. I think it is crucial to note that it is the environment and not the experience that we are speaking of here. People are excised entirely from the environment. Clearly they exist because someone must be driving and executing the changes in the built environment, but the day to day lives that create and happen within this space are absent.
At this point I want to give a one sentence description of each of the nine photographs’ sequences whose work follows Jun’s:
Cha Zoo Yong: the more or less prominent symbol of the cross, done up in neon, scattered in the urban landscape, repeated across vistas, glimpsed through split window tinting, nearly invisible in a monolithic apartment block apartment window: ubiquitous.
Ahn Se Kwon: formal large format landscapes depicting the physical process of old neighborhoods being replaced by development or replaced by redevelopment.
Che Onejoon: traces of social and political history in the abandoned government infrastructure unearthed by development or made stark by its contrast with development.
Hwa Duck Hun: compressed urban landscapes of a deep, rich, low rise, urban tableau taken with long lenses on an 8×10 view camera from elevated but not aerial perspectives. (Ends with a shocking and stifling frame filling photograph of an unclad concrete apartment tower.)
Lee Deug Young: banal and dull aerial photographs of a developed Seoul; weak sauce compared to what he’s capable of.
Lee Jang Seop: a claustrophobic reprise of Hwa Duck Hun’s elevated perspective; now though, new development rises behind, around or through older, lower buildings.
Lee Gang Woo: paired panoramic images of Sabuk, a former coal mining town in the Taebaek mountain rang where we are shown how small changes in vantage or angle of view entirely shifts our seeing.
Baek Seoung Chul: large towers rise behind life size dioramas of day-glo religious scenes done up in fiberglass.
Ryu Byung Wook: photographs of airports composited from myriad satellite images of airports.
So what does it all mean? What is the narrative that ties these disparate discrete works together aside from a bound edge? There must be something greater than that each sequence describes a different shape along the three axes of the City’s coordinates. Where to begin tracing a line? What is the equation that pulls these nine sequences into order?
The “Z” axis is the only axis with its label capitalized in the title. On the cover, it is the vertical axis, height, that is labelled “Z”. (Though in the last Cartesian coordinate system it is the horizontal axis pointing off to the right that might have the “Z” label.) Height is a possible link between images that might create narrative: the height of nothing in Jun’s photographs. The height of the cross raised up on rooftops. The height difference between older and newer construction. The exaggerated emphasized height of crass sculpture in the foreground.
Or it could be the height of the camera. Jun, the eye-level photographer on the ground. Cha on the ground but looking up. Ahn, Hwa and Che beginning to elevate the camera but still tied to earthly support. Lee and, especially, Ryu breaking free to great heights; mechanical eyes in the sky looking down.
Perhaps the “Z” axis is time. Most of the sequences could be understood as tracing a shift from “then” to “now,” or at least “later”. Ahn, Che, Lee Jang Seop and Lee Gang Woo excavate the strata of historical time in the layers of development, of what is built upon what came before.
In truth, I have no idea what this book is about exactly. Whatever its overarching narrative might be, it allows for numerous interpretations and lines of inquiry to be made by the reader. While I’m not left feeling fulfilled, xyZ City certainly has its moments. Two that come to mind: In Hwa Duck Hun’s sequence we are shown half a dozen images that are of the same cloth: low rise buildings shown through the compressed perspective of a long lens and immense depth of focus from a tilted lens plane. The tableau are rich and varied. In the series penultimate image we run up against a wall: the unclad unfinished concrete facade of a newly 30 story apartment tower encompasses the entire frame. Flipping the page is literally like running headlong into a wall. Lee Gang Woo’s paired panoramas build slowly. It takes a moment to notice that the two images are (generally) of the same scene. The angle of view or vantage point shifts subtly and it is like taking in a new vista. Every relationship in the image changes. Our point of reference on the Cartesian system is no longer fixed. We have been unmoored.
xyZ City is an interesting book. If I had the framework of Lee Young Jun’s closing essay (or bothered to find the English originals/translations of the texts on the city selected by Seo Dong Jin) I might find greater meaning than I’ve thus far muddled together–though it might also make it too pedantic. If I were looking for any of the particular photographs from the photographers presented in this book I think I would elsewhere to other photo books. If I were figuring out where to put this book in the Dewey Decimal system I would be hard pressed to put it under photography. Photography is the means of argument not the meaning. A more appropriate primary classification would be Public Structures (725). While that classification probably has a specific meaning that is lost on me, the urban fabric is a public structure writ large. xyZ City is concerned with not only that structure but the way we conceive of that structure, our mental model of it, as individuals (artists) and socially.
Photographers: Jun Min Cho, Cha Zoo Yong, Ahn Se Kwan, Che Onejoon, Hwa Duck Hun, Lee Deug Young, Lee Jang Seop, Lee Gang Woo, Baek Seoung Chul, Ryu Byung Wook
Essay: Lee Young Jun (editor also?)
Text Selections: Seo Dong Jin