Magnum Korea – a 2point8 Reader’s Response

Editor’s Note from MDM: I’m pleased to offer this examination of Magnum’s current “Korea” project, from a friend of 2point8 who lives in Asia. This reader spent a fair bit of time considering Magnum’s project, inside and out, and I’m glad I can share their perspective with you here. While it may not be customary to include content without a byline, I think it’s best that way, and hope you enjoy this reader’s insightful critique (which is also an appreciation of Harry Gruyaert) of a large-scale project that hasn’t received much/any press Stateside. As a companion resource, you may want to check out, but be warned, it’s flash-heavy, and doesn’t accept image-level links or I’d link-up all the pictures and photographers referenced below.

Got a chance on Tuesday to go and see Magnum’s Korea project, currently on exhibition in Seoul. They shot it over a year between 20 different photographers, though I think each photographer was only here for a couple of weeks. They were “invited” to do the project by a Korean newspaper and magazine company, which I think means Magnum did it on commission, but I’m not sure. There was work from some of the usual suspects–Erwitt, Parr, Webb–as well as from other Magnum photographers I’d never looked into very much. The front of the exhibition featured individual galleries of a few large prints from each photographer, and then as you worked towards the end they shifted to large grids of smaller prints, each grid organized around one of eight themes. At least one theme–religion–featured a few larger prints, as well, including a picture I wondered if they’d find, of churchgoers with their eyes closed and hands in the air at one of the more fervent Christian churches in Seoul.

The pictures making up the grids were almost universally forgettable and generic, like flipping through a Lonely Planet with higher production values–people throwing fish at the street markets, traditional Korean dancers, etc. Whereas the work in the individual galleries presented a unique viewpoint from each photographer, the grid images bled together stylistically, with two exceptions: the Webb pictures were easy to spot for their dogged determination to geometrically balance multiple figures in the frame; and the pictures that stood out all seemed to come from Bruno Barbey. Given how generic the imagery was, grids seemed a smart choice of presentation, for the way they subordinated the individual image (which, in most cases, wasn’t strong enough to stand alone).

If the grids were a wash, the rest of the exhibition–the photographers’ showcased prints–were a mixed bag.

Majoli had a short series of diptychs where the left panel was a b/w image and the right panel a minimal color image. It was interesting to see how well these worked and refreshing to see a bit more experimental approach compared to the completely uninspired documentary work in the grids…there was one of a squid on the left (I think…I can’t quite remember which subjects were paired with which others) against a portrait of a young man dressed in white and red on the right. The silver tones from the b/w picture and the dominant white in the portrait seemed to work together to set off the red accents.

Pinkhassov’s pictures were dark and beautiful. I stood there wondering how they managed to be so dark without being murky–dark without looking dark. More than almost anyone else’s, these pictures seemed to evoke the mood I associate with Seoul.

I remember two of DAH’s portraits–one in strong blue and the other in dslr-under-incadescent-red–and have forgotten the rest.

Sarfati’s portraits of young Korean women were among the more memorable pictures in the show.

Webb’s work was remarkably weak all over, both in the grids and in his showcased prints; at least one of the pictures was just pure bullshit. This is the second time I’ve seen Webb photograph on a short timescale and turn out such underwhelming work–the first instance was his Brazil story for National Geographic, and those pictures were at least a few levels above this Korea stuff (and made over a correspondingly longer timescale). This is not to smear Webb. It got me thinking that, while time is obviously important to all photographers, it is clearly more important to some photographers than to others. I think Webb’s best, most essential work–the pictures that define the apogee of his style–fight the odds more than most pictures do. Looking at his books and then at the Geographic and Korea work, it would seem that the only path to such pictures is through a sort of narrow stubbornness and many, many failures–‘failures’ being work that consistently gets 80% of the way there, but on a logarithmic scale of improbability–over a considerable period of time. Time (and persistence through that time) marks the difference between what we think of as Webb, and what appeared at the exhibition to be a lesser photographer imitating Webb.

“For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner” – Alex Webb

It was also curious that the A1 prints of Webb’s pictures looked the worst, on inspection, of all the exhibition work at that size. A1 certainly seems a pretty huge enlargement for 35 mm film, but there were other A1 prints in the exhibition that also looked small-cameraish and filmic, so maybe this reveals the limitations of Kodachrome? Do newer emulsions stand up better to enlargement?

(Incidentally, all the prints were ‘pigment prints’ off an HP DesignJet, on three different papers: Hahnemuhle smooth fine art; HP Premium instant-dry satin photo paper; and HP Advanced photo paper.)

Parr’s A4-ish prints of food–recalling Common Sense–looked uncannily 3D, and I couldn’t figure out what accounted for the effect. I’d never seen anything quite like this from a print. Immediately before Parr’s section, one of Ian Berry’s pictures had been made actually 3D, in the same way as you used to see on lunch box stickers in the 80s. The 3D-ness of Parr’s prints was so pronounced that when I first glanced them from 10-15 feet away, I thought Berry’s faux-hologram was introducing a new section of the exhibition, and that Parr’s prints were produced using some hybrid of this 80s lunchbox-sticker technology. On closer inspection they were just regular ink on regular paper, but I can’t overemphasize how the pictures seemed to pop off the surface of the paper when you stood a few feet back. We thought it might be some perfect storm of an ultra-sharp emulsion, narrow dof, and the drop-shadow effect the flash produced. It was weird.

Erwitt’s work seemed to show his age. It looked tired and in a 50s aesthetic, just in color now, as though someone had painted color into his early work. If it was an appeal to a sense of timelessness, it had opposite the intended effect.

Each photographer’s individual gallery had a laptop playing a kind of greatest hits slideshow of their total body of work. We spent as much time standing at the laptops as in looking at the showcased prints, and I was hoping, perhaps naively, that they might be selling a CD compilation of these slideshows, but no such luck.

It was thanks to one of these laptop slideshows that I came upon the greatest reward of the exhibition: the discovery of Harry Gruyaert’s work. His showcased prints were the most purely evocative of Korea, for me:

and he produced what was easily my favorite picture from the show:

which is even better in an A1 print, where you can easily read all the figures inside those tiny boats.

I can’t understand why no one seems to talk about this guy. His work contains veins of Webb, Manos, and Meyerowitz:

but he’s also capable of an entirely different direction of image, something that I don’t feel I’ve seen much explored in the context of small-camera photojournalism:

So why doesn’t anyone talk about him? Look at this stuff!

What was most striking about the exhibition total was how little journalistic intent seemed to lay beneath it all. It was surprising, for example, to see nothing about what the kids go through in the school system here (middle and high school students go to school all day and then to academies until late at night), or about the obsession with English education, or the US Army presence, alcohol abuse, etc. Instead, Magnum produced a–sometimes generic and sometimes stylized–cursory and superficial treatment of what Korea simply looks like, and then only what the pleasant bits look like. There were exceptions, as certain individual images seemed insightful, seemed to speak more deeply to the place and its culture (among them, Parr’s picture of four older women all seemingly reaching for the same last bit of food in a tiny bowl set between them), but generally there were no stories being told. It was as though the world’s top photojournalistic agency had been conscripted to produce an elaborate brochure. Or worse, the half-century late Korea entry for the Family of Man. Look, Koreans also get married. They also play with their children in parks.

Moreover, the mode was predominately honorific, the general tone strongly tilted toward flattery. No drunks, prostitutes, or homeless people here–even though Magnum members have variously photographed all of these subjects in Korea, with the photos available on their website.

No doubt Magnum needs to make money and do assignments, but it’s bizarre to see such uninvested, kowtowing photography in a project they’ve stamped as their statement for an entire country.

2 thoughts on “Magnum Korea – a 2point8 Reader’s Response”

  1. Its probably true but there were probably other issues at work. The basic one was not enough time invested. You cant really say much when you spend 2 weeks in a place so that leaves a surface to scratch. Im also very skeptical about the ability of Korean people to see hard hitting criticism of their country. So Im curious how much input other forcs had in the choice of work. i know that for example the book was totally changed from personal essays from each photog to a mish mash of different images.

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