Photography of Area Park: Dialectical Images and Photography Per Se

Seo Dongjin

Think of W. G. Sebald…

Born in Germany, Winfried Georg Sebald (1944-2001) spent many years living in the U.K., although he still wrote his novels in German. Reading Sebald before going to sleep might be a foolish idea, but once I start one of his books, I’m glued to the pages like a fly stuck to flypaper. Every novel consists of experiences and events that are composed into a complete story; this is true whether it is a tragedy, comedy, or epic, or if it is utilizing the rhetoric of some other specific genre. Regardless, a novel solicits the reader’s participation in the story by delivering a moral or by eliciting self-reflection. But reading Sebald’s novels immerses us in the sensation of encountering a person who is completely alone in the world, with no one else. This sensation might be due to the fact that all of his characters are either immigrants or travelers. After all, characters who wander the world without finding their place inevitably evoke the conflict of the individual versus the world. In a bildungsroman or adventure novel, the world is often an allegory of temporal transition, or “transformation”; the narrative arises from the protagonist’s growth, maturity, completion, and discovery. In this temporal transition, the protagonist must cut through or even transcend the world in order to finally move forward into the future. But this is not the formula for a Sebald novel. In his novels, the world is not an obstacle preventing entry into the future; instead, it is a dangerously unstable world, utterly without form or contour, where the temporal horizon of the present is hazardously shaken by the incessant infringement of the past.
   This impression is reinforced by the photographs that continually appear in his books. Sometimes these photographs seem to have been taken by Sebald during travel, as an “aide-mémoire,” or as a sort of shorthand for his experience of the world (The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, and Austerlitz). Other times they are more like postcards or photos from a family album (The Emigrants and Vertigo). In any case, every few pages, readers of his novels encounter these photographs that cannot be simply explained by the relationship between text and photograph, a concept that is central to the theory and criticism of photography. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), for example, was a major proponent of photo-montage, who argued that text had the capacity to stop the phantasmagoria produced by a photograph. Furthermore, in criticizing the mythological features of photography, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) claimed that textual descriptions of a photograph typically serve to reinforce the photograph’s ideology. But it is impossible—or at least irrelevant—to try to describe the relationship between the photographs and text in Sebald’s works in the same way that Benjamin and Barthes consider the photo/text relationship, i.e., in terms of photography’s aesthetic and ideological effects. Indeed, the photographs that appear in Sebald’s novels are not mere accompaniments to the text; they are pure photographs, in and of themselves. Calling a photograph a photograph means that it provides a direct stimulus or shock that necessitates a reaction from the viewers, that compels them to talk, regardless of the information that is conveyed. This power of photography—to force viewers into narrativity—does not derive from the details of what is being represented or even the effects of the representation; rather, it arises from the viewers’ delusion that they have discovered the fundamental power of photography, which triumphs over all.
   These ideas help to explain the irony of Sebald’s use of photography. Most of his photographs are taken from archives, which means that they are bound to the world of documentary photography representing specific facts. Such photographs, when compiled in someone’s photo album, are testimony to the biographical facts of the person’s life. If they are photographs of someone’s travels, they might also serve to record the identity or characteristics of the people or places visited. These are the attributes of photographs that belong to archives. But Sebald either ignores or rejects the concept of “photographic images as representation” that is so firmly attached to archival images. In his works, archival photography transforms itself to exist only for the eyes of the person who shot it and the person who looks at it. Archival photography is meant to be nothing more than a direct and objective explanation of the represented subject. But Sebald separates archival photography from this function, absolving it of its voluntary responsibility to provide a record of the world. As a result, the photos rush off in the opposite direction. The photography in Sebald’s works exists solely for the people who are forever glancing around with restless and sullen eyes, the people who have never been able to construct their world, and have thus never been able to find their place in our world. Accordingly, this type of photography, rather than existing as a representation of the world, becomes a catalyst for a phenomenological awakening, as the life of the viewer unfolds.

From “Studium” to “Punctum”: Photography’s Ontological Switch?

Sebald’s works can provide a useful model for assessing how our attitude toward photography has recently changed. Indeed, when I read Sebald’s novels, and above all, when I am immersed in melancholy from the photos that are packed on every page, I cannot help but think of Area Park. Park’s photos, whether they are landscapes, portraits, or even fashion shots, effectively remind viewers of the fact that they are looking at photos—nothing more or less. His photos are not inscribed with any certain information about the represented objects, which is what makes them so beautiful. He does not direct viewers to see the represented objects, and that is precisely why they grab our eyes.
   To borrow the infamous binary opposition proposed by Roland Barthes, the photography of our time seems to be constantly converting “studium” into “punctum.”① I have often discussed this situation with one of my colleagues who studied with John Tagg, who argued that photography was the primary visual apparatus of modern disciplinary power, based on his theory of photography as evidence. Indeed, my colleague clearly belongs to the studium generation. In one memorable exchange a few years ago, he told me that “this damned punctum” should be abandoned, and he has occasionally expressed similar views in angry Facebook postings. But despite such vehemence, I think it’s now safe to say that the “studium generation”—i.e., the generation pursuing political criticism of photography—has been defeated. This generation served a vital function in exposing how photographic representation, along with the production, distribution, and consumption of photography, consists of and duplicates the unbalanced power relationships between capital/labor, imperialism/colonialism, man/woman, and heterosexuality/homosexuality. This generation also explored the evolution of photography into a liberating and combative political medium. However, the world has quickly changed, and the popularity of terms like “criticism” or “liberation” has significantly declined. The discursive politics of photography is seen as yesterday’s news, boring and obsolete. Today, people seem to prefer more enigmatic topics, like the ontology of photography. Some might still disagree with this notion of a transition to punctum, as well as the numerous theorists who have supported this transition.② To be honest, I’m a little suspicious of this somewhat cryptic concept of punctum myself.
   Can photography be neatly divided into the categories of studium and punctum? Can punctum serve as an analytical concept for photography, as well as a theoretical and political guideline? Maybe punctum only refers to the private attitude of someone with an excessive attachment to photography, in which case it need not be invoked in discussions of photography that belongs to the social sphere. One approach has been to focus solely on the signification (or signifying practices) of photography in terms of semiotics, thus ignoring or disregarding the more complex aspects of photography’s materiality as a technological and chemical medium. Perhaps punctum represents an epistemological and aesthetic breakthrough that will allow us to discard this approach. Or, as some have sarcastically noted, punctum may be yet another façade intended to secure the noble title of “art in and of itself,” relying on the repeated chants of those magic words: “specificity of medium.”
   While some modern photography critics have posited punctum as the basis for the new ontology of photography, others have utterly dismissed punctum as ridiculous camp. Having spent considerable time scrutinizing the arguments of each side, however, has only served to deepen my doubt and confusion. Nonetheless, these are compelling and significant issues that demand our attention, especially given the barrage of photographic images that each of us encounter on a daily basis, not to mention the ensuing questions about the effects of that barrage. With this in mind, a useful model for examining these pertinent issues may be found in the work of Area Park. Indeed, Park’s photography represents a desperate yet essential attempt to address and resolve these very difficulties. As such, the trajectory of his individual career reflects the overlying transition from studium to punctum that is changing the face of contemporary photography.

Photography of Sociology - Photography of Scenes

Area Park came into the public spotlight with his 2004 exhibition Seoul: The Society of Gaps, which included many beautiful and powerful images that people still remember and discuss to this day. With this exhibition, Park consciously addressed the concept of society, as is evident from the exhibition title. Indeed, the first of the two sections of photographs from the exhibition was called “social landscape,” and the concept of “society” repeatedly appears in the exhibition catalogue. For example, Park’s notes from the end of the catalogue include the following passage:

For me, until now, photography has been a vague habit of looking at society through immature and naive eyes, and an almost unconditional tool for communicating with that society before I look at the society as living within its contemporaneous time.

In particular, Seoul: The Society of Gaps included a series of photographs of part-time workers, which may be seen as a condensed example of the sociological use of photography. At first glance, the photos seem to be simple portraits of ordinary people. The subtitles give some basic information about each person, such as “Kang Changhun (22, Gangbyeon Expressway, Seoul), earns about $40 for a half-day of work”; “K (Jungnangcheon, Seoul), earns about $1,100 per month”; “Yun Giung (24), $65 per day, and Choe Cheolho (21), $37 per day, in Hongdae, Seoul.” But it is crucial to understand that these photos of individuals actually constitute an image of “society.” Although the society does not directly appear in any of the images, every viewer is thinking of (Korean) society as the invisible subject of these works. The demographical information provided by the subtitles makes us see these people as sociological specimens, rather than as individuals with unique personalities and a wealth of ideas and experiences. They become abstract entities, identifiable solely as members of the specific society that we ourselves are living in. This recalls the ideas of Michel Foucault, who wrote that a member of contemporary society is no longer a sovereign individual, but an imagined person reduced to various vectors, e.g., birth, death, disease, education, occupation, etc. For Foucault, an individual is nothing more than a symbol of a person as imagined and visualized by the biopolitics of demographics, and this is the fate of every human who constitutes the imaginary world of “society.”③
   Sociological photography can appear in a number of different forms. Indeed, one possible form is to participate in the state’s production of sociological imagination. Or, taking a more corporate stance, photography can help to produce and constitute images of “sociological groups” based primarily on class and stratum. In such case, photography represents social strata (e.g., laborers, farmers, racial groups, etc.). Indeed, the social context is imperative to any consideration of the photos that Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans took for the Farm Security Administration, or for understanding the work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Photography has often been seen as an asset for political education, propaganda, and mobilization, and various social movements have used photography as a vital tool for social reform, often in the name of “social documentary.” But even in those cases, photography has been made the serve the “society.” It’s not an exaggeration to claim that the entirety of contemporary photography is imbued with such sociological applications. Yet in a world governed by (Neo-Liberal) politics, it is difficult to believe that sociological photography can persist.
   In this regard, Area Park’s photography from the mid-2000s seems to be intrinsically shaped by a certain disturbance. He carries a large camera to a location of his choice, carefully sets it up, and controls the exposure to create a panoramic scene of a landscape that is severed from the larger world. Without exception, his landscapes are populated by one or a few people. In his famous photo #1 Scene of the Suicide of a CEO, Hannam Bridge, Seoul, in the lower left corner of the frame, we see a reporter and TV crew reporting from the scene of the suicide of the CEO of a major company. Some distance away, in the middle of the frame, two men wearing police uniforms are looking towards the river, with their backs to the camera, while a few more people are gathered on the right side. Like a line connecting all of these people, the lower part of the photo is filled with flame grass, radiating a reddish hue and bending to the right. A similar composition can be seen in other works by Park, such as #9 Campus on Sunday, Kyung Hee University, Seoul; #13 Tapgol Park, Renovated, Jongno, Seoul; and #14 Parents’ Day, Jungnangcheon, Seoul. Notably, this style of composition is typically associated with panoramic landscapes, and thus creates certain expectations among the viewers. We expect the represented scene to be an astonishing visual spectacle that will overwhelm us with its sublimity, while also allowing us to feel as if this daunting scene is entirely within our control. With Park’s photos, however, these expectations are consistently betrayed.
   We receive a lot of information from his photos, but that information does not necessarily help to us to conceive a single image. Rather, his photos seem to convey the difficulty of achieving an image, or (in his words) an “imaginary” of a society, let alone constructing the society itself. In his photos, the people are scattered here and there, always grouped separately. The space between the people is filled with surfaces that spread out horizontally, such as a river or stream, an empty park, a cement floor and stairs, piles of rubble at the foot of a hill, or a tennis court surrounded by cement bleachers. In this regard, it is difficult to see his photography as social documentary. Instead, his work seems to imply the fundamental problems involved with trying to imagine a society. His photography shows the impossibility of a society, which grants it more powerful and poetic implications than mere documentary photography.
   Even when Park focuses on people, they do not conform to any certain image. On the contrary, the human subjects of his photos contrast so dramatically with their background that they are strongly presented as “people of no world.” This is most striking and evident in Park’s series Boys in the City (2005). The photos from this series—including Surveillance Camera, Putting Arms Around Each Other’s Shoulders, Boy Turning His Back and Puma, Boys Taking Over Apts. 1, and Some Promise—are portraits of boys, but it is difficult to distinguish these portraits in any meaningful way. They do not seem to identify or visualize the adolescent generation within a sociological context. As such, the Boys in the City series draws our interest to the “city,” rather than to the “boys.”
   In these images, the boys are presented within landscapes that seem to be utterly random and meaningless. Again, Park employs a panoramic style to give the images a highly photographic quality, using the camera to carefully control the scale and exposure time. But the landscape does not provide us with any useful information about the world that these boys inhabit; if anything, the opposite is true. The inconsistency of the landscapes subverts our expectations, dissolving the seemingly self-evident social iconography of these portraits of adolescents and frustrating our impulse to interpret them as social portraits. Notably, Park extended this aesthetic strategy in his more recent series, which he ambitiously titled Way of Photography (2012). As discussed, Park’s earlier photos do not belong to the category of social documentary; instead, they show the dissolution and disappearance of the conditions through which the political medium of “society” controlled the twentieth century and enabled social documentation. By filling in the wide gaps of his panoramic landscapes with flattened horizontal or vertical spaces, he effectively drains them of their vitality, making them look dead. Thus, although his works initially seem to appropriate the style and aesthetics of social documentary, they in fact register the negativity that makes a society impossible.

“Way” of Photography, or the Technical Phenomenology of Photography

Social documentary photography is only possible within a certain discourse that includes the documented or represented object, along with the codes that formulate the existence of the genre and provide the context for reading the photographic message. This discourse allows the viewers to receive a specific type of visual pleasure from a specific type of photography. In turn, there is no possibility of visualization without the condition of recognizability, a point that is driven home by Area Park’s series of panoramic photos from the mid-2000s. In these works, Park does not document, testify, or report; instead, he reveals the conditions of photographic production that make the acts of documenting, testifying, and reporting so difficult. To play on the words of Alan Sekula, we might say that Park’s photography denotes the conditions in which a photographic image drifts. In discussing how to obtain meaning from a photographic image, Sekula proposed the concept of “traffic,” suggesting that the meaning of a photograph is not necessarily derived from its subject, but rather from the cultural system in which the photography is produced, distributed, and received. Of course, the notion of “traffic” would seem to entail the existence of a destination (or at least a stopover), implying optimistically that photography always arrives at a certain meaning. Park’s photography, on the other hand, is stubbornly pessimistic.
   The second phase of Area Park’s photography began with his exhibition Hidamari (ひだまり): Brilliantly Falling Lights (2008). In the catalogue for that exhibition, Park wrote of his desire to break free of the “social-contemporaneous perspective,” which had been such an obsession that it prevented him from seeing the essence of an object. He resolved to instead believe in photography’s intrinsic capacity to capture time and space, and thus to shoot “photography-like” photography. Through this resolution, Park abandoned every element or practice of contemporary photography that has been granted constitutive significance (e.g., codes, context, institutions, discourse, archives, etc.). All that was left for him to focus on was photography per se, photography in and of itself. Perhaps this drastic move can be read as Park’s attempt to determine the inherent nature of photography—is it mere represention or can it become real, in the phenomenological sense?
   Like some previous photographers who have pursued photography per se, Area Park incorporated the theme of memory into Way of Photography. In this case, it was the memory of the Fukushima disaster that shocked the world. Of course, there is no empirical object or physical vessel for perceiving a memory, which allows the notion of memory to implicate infinite dimensions. As such, the theme of memory can serve to highlight the unique capacities of photography, which may explain why so many photographers have utilized memory as a strategy for seeking new photographic practices. Images of memory are different from official or pre-defined historical images, in that images of memory transcend the object of photographic representation, and thus draw attention to photography’s singular capacity to enact such transcendence. The creation of a historical image requires an object or event that meets certain qualifications to be worthy of remembrance. But images of memory are different. First of all, images of memory need not be derived from a predetermined memory-object that is linked to a certain ideology (e.g., political ritual, war, protest, unrest, industrialism, or poverty). Indeed, images of memory can be created from any object at all, since every object has the right to serve as a potential memory. Therefore, images of memory have multiplicity. Also, unlike historical images, which require viewers to identify with certain political and social subjects (e.g., nationality), images of memory appeal to the eyes of the viewers without eliciting any such position or stance. Thus, images of memory are private (rather than collective), imaginary (rather than symbolic), and asocial (rather than social).
   The Way of Photography exhibition includes a series entitled Album of Kaneko Mari, which was uniquely installed: the floor was purposely slanted by four degrees, forcing the audience to view the works from a slightly slanted position and thus encouraging them to experience their viewing of the works as a sensible emergence. In explaining the concept to me, Park referred to the materiality of photography. We now live in the era of “photography after photography,” wherein photography exists primarily as pixelated and digitized information. Within this era of immaterial photography, however, Park wishes to stress the power of analog photography. In the process, he uses all of his strength to emphasize the intrinsic power and vitality of photography, which is now in real danger of being forgotten, except perhaps as a casualty to be mourned. In the site of omnipresent disaster, where everything seems to die or to be destroyed, it is shocking to witness this type of photography that adamantly proclaims its existence.
   Visiting the disaster site of Fukushima, Park found a photo album belonging to a woman named Kaneko Mari. Desparately seeking this woman, he wrote her a letter and showed her photographs to the viewers. The childhood photos of Kaneko Mari do not portray some sociological character that belongs to the political or historical landscape of postwar Japan. They are not historical images, nor are they images reminiscent of genre paintings. They are irrelevant to the object they represent, and yet they are Kaneko herself. Through this photographic presence, Kaneko exists, despite the fact that her physical presence seems to have been erased by the disaster.
   This project represents Park’s firm resolution to pursue the intrinsic qualities of photography, to achieve photography per se. Notably, he chose to do so using images and acts of memory, since memory does not restrict the photographer’s choice of what to shoot. In fact, the theme of memory presumedly liberates a photographer from numerous technical and aesthetic considerations of how to represent the object. Rather than referring to the usual topics and subject matters of photography, images of memory enable a photographer to question the nature of photography, which means seeking a different way for photography to function or exist. To borrow Park’s terms, through images of memory, he is looking for a “way” of photography. But what is this “way” that he is seeking? Perhaps he is trying to find a new path to restore the power of photography, which has been irreparably diluted in the wake of new technology. Or maybe he seeks a return to a pure form of photography, the way to photography per se.
   Park’s series Natori City (2011) comprises photos of objects that he collected from the site of the Fukushima disaster, such as framed photos, cameras, backpacks, baseball gloves, beverage bottles, and even statues of Venus. But these photographs do not simply show the objects respectively; instead, they present the objects as part of an equivalent relationship: “framed photos=photography”; “baseball gloves=photography”; “bottles=photography”; “statues of Venus=photography,” etc. As such, photography does not hide itself in the represented objects, but in fact reveals itself through those objects. This startling transition urges us to open our eyes to the amazing capacity inherent in photography. Photography criticism often interrogates the way in which images produce ideological effects, and the nature of the dialectic relationship that is formed between the visible and invisible aspects of a photograph. But such criticism has nothing to say about Park’s work, because in his photography, there is nothing to hide.
   If any single photo captures Park’s ideas about the Way of Photography, it is Snowfall in Early Summer. Looking at this photo, we do not have to think about what is invisible, i.e., the power, discourse, and codes that structure photography’s aesthetic and political effects. The photo simply captures a rare snowfall in the early summer. By telling us that it has nothing to hide, the photo gives us permission to forego the critical practices of decoding or interpreting the clues that trap the image. In the process, it reminds us that photography can contribute to the world’s own development through the production of pure images, concealing nothing.

Images “Making Sensible”

Has Park gone too far down his “way” of photography? He demands photography that lets us see photography per se, to discover “photography-like” photography. Of course, such gestures and efforts do not come without preconditions. These days, we are bombarded by images, almost all of which slide by us with no effect at all. Maybe Park’s photography can be seen as corroborative evidence of the sterility of images today. In light of this, his wish to produce photography per se is easily understandable. Amidst the contemporary deluge of representational images, if photography is to have any effect on the viewer, it must have some independent existence, some self-presence. Significantly, in the trajectory of Park’s photography over the last twenty years, we can see not only his own personal journey, but also his quiet yet earnest attempts to confront the fundamental issues that are being faced by contemporary photography.
   Responding to the question of whether people can be represented, Georges Didi-Huberman (relying on Benjamin’s concept of dialectical images) wrote that people have no singularity, identity, totality, or generality.④ Therefore, Didi-Huberman refutes the notion that we can materialize people through a political category, or confine them to a single, legitimate, and universal image. Does this mean that “people,” as a multiplicity, do not exist? Are we only archipelagos of individual persons, each simply expressing his or her own interests and desires? Didi-Huberman denies such pessimistic, even nihilistic ideas about the futility of humanity and the impossibility of visualizing people. But then who are “people” and how can they be represented? According to Didi-Huberman, certain types of images are needed to negate the ubiquity of images, to awaken viewers from the deep sleep induced by the dominant image system. For him, an image can record and represent something that survives, or an image can capture something that is nameless. It is not important which of these two functions an image performs, but what is vitally important are the powerful “sensible” effects of an image. The power of images to “make sensible” enables us to recognize a kind of outline of the aesthetic and political program of photography that has recently appeared. With this in mind, Roland Barthes’ binary opposition of studium or punctum might be viewed not as a conflict, but as a synthesis. Perhaps the path of contemporary photography is not diverging into either studium or punctum, but converging into both, simultaneously.⑤
   Photographic images are not only representation; they are the sensuous real. Photographic images are not only linguistic signs; they are the sensuous physicality. Photographic images do not only produce a community; they can reveal the symptoms that negate the possibility of producing a community. Area Park’s work seeks to open up this path, or “way” of photography. We cannot predict how long he will keep to this path, especially given the deep melancholia that is barely concealed in the clear, bright surfaces of his fully exposed photos. Of course, this melancholia is not his alone; it is the despair and malaise of our time.

* footnote

① Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).

② I am thinking of the critics who have been most active in composing the ontology of photography, even those who do not directly reference punctum. A few who have been widely read in Korea are Philippe Dubois (L’acte photographique), Vilém Flusser (Towards a Philosophy of Photography), Georges Didi-Huberman (La survivance des lucioles), and Michael Fried (Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before).

③ Foucault, Michel. Sécurité, territoire, population: Cours au Collège de France (1977-1978), ed. Michel Senellart (Paris: Hautes etudes and Gallimard-Seuil, 2004).

④ Didi-Huberman, Georges. “Rendre sensible,” in Qu’est-ce qu’un peuple?, ed. Alain Badiou et al. (Paris: La Fabrique, 2013).

⑤ Refer to Rancière, Jacques. “Notes on the Photographic Image,” in Radical Philosophy 156, (Jul/Aug 2009), and “The Pensive Image,” in The Emancipated Spectator, trans. G. Elliot. (London: Verso, 2009).