Jong Won Rhee, Solitudes of Human Places

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Edition Patrick Frey (here). Hardcover (20.2×29 cm), 144 pages, with 69 color photographs. In an edition of 800 copies. Includes a short text by the artist. Design by Adeline Mollard. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Jong Won Rhee was born in Hong Kong and grew up moving between South Korea, the United States, Italy, and Australia. He studied industrial design and then automotive design in the United Kingdom, however, upon his return to South Korea, Rhee decided to focus on photography. Solitudes of Human Places is his first photobook, and as he describes it, is a “book about mutual understanding, fleeting beauty and enduring hope”, and represents his “personal interaction with Korea.” 

As a photobook, Solitudes of Human Places is elegantly simple. It is a horizontally-oriented book with a tipped-in glossy photograph on the cover that depicts a corner of a restaurant building covered with signs in Korean, with an empty lot in front and a green field with trees in the background; to the side, there is a small figure of a man squatting with his back to the camera, perhaps contemplating the emptiness that surrounds him. This first image, together with the title of the book, sets the atmosphere for its visual flow. The book cover is a rich blue color, and opens to strong red endpapers, perhaps playing with the colors of the South Korean flag. The first two pages with the title and the artist’s name then turn to a vertical orientation, a fine design element. Inside, the visual flow is consistent – photographs appear on the right pages, and there are no captions, page numbers, or any other design elements. A short text, again in vertical orientation, is placed on the back cover in black, slightly indented. The book easily lays flat, making the interaction even more enjoyable.

Rhee’s photographs capture a parade of ordinary everyday scenes: there are people walking on the street, standing outside their homes, pausing in the middle of the street, and sorting red chili peppers in the alleyway. These are fleeting, almost invisible moments that can unconsciously move us even if we don’t fully understand them. “These images of South Korea’s plain and unadorned fringes peer into the depths of human solitude,” read Rhee’s statement, “They imagine people’s unconscious striving to come to terms with their loneliness by facing up to the human condition squarely, steadfastly, serenely.” 

The book opens with a photograph of a narrow street between two buildings, with a thick canopy connecting from one side to the other, with a messy net of cables above it. Deep in the back, there is a figure of a man walking, holding a piece of paper and about to light up a cigarette; it is a gray and dull day. This image is followed by a photo of a narrow alleyway with single-level ivy-covered houses; a man smokes in front one of them. He is caught taking a puff on his cigarette and looks deep in his thoughts, spending a moment in solitude, quietly contemplating his life. 

People are present in almost all of Rhee’s photographs, usually looking away or down, caught deep in their own reveries. In many cases, their faces and emotions are concealed with hats they are wearing, umbrellas they are holding, or simply by the distance. Their presence in these often dense cityscapes only reinforces the sense of isolation and solitude they feel in these surroundings. The bright colors in Rhee’s photos appear not through the energetic presence of people, but from poppy flowers taking over a fence, blue rooftops, storefront signs, colorful umbrellas, and market stands. 

As the visual narrative moves forward, a scene depicts a cluster of men waiting for a train to pass: a man stands with a trolley in the front; another is on a motorcycle; a third man in the back is yawning with hands in his pockets; the one closer to him checks his phone; and another sits on a chair. While there are half a dozen people in the photo, the composition again creates a sense of solitude and anonymity, as everyone is consumed by their own being. Another strong photograph captures the inside of the clock repair store through the storefront window – the front wall is covered with round clocks, while the wall on the right is similarly filled with square digital clocks. The space looks rather cluttered, and it takes a moment to notice an old man quietly napping or resting in the corner. This scene of an old man surrounded by the passing of time feels like a visual metaphor for human existence. 

One of the last photographs in the book shows a gray foggy day in a rural neighborhood, and a dark suited man slowly walking away into the crowded neighborhood. The next and final image documents a wider street with colorful storefronts lit by early morning sunlight, leaving us with a new day, and a renewed sense of hope. And while there are no clear signs of the Covid-19 pandemic in Rhee’s photographs (and no indication when they were taken), the empty streets together with the feeling of isolation and solitude evoke the experience many of us have had in the past two years.

Rhee’s photobook is at once mundane and profound. Solitudes of Human Places is a story of serene perception, of looking at the obvious that swirls around us and seeing something more. As a photobook, it discovers complexity and nuance in the overlooked, turning often dull in-between moments into possibilities to look closer and notice what we’ve been missing.

Collector’s POV: Jong Won Rhee does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Jong Won Rhee, Edition Patrick Frey

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