Seung Woo Back, Memento @Doosan

JTF (just the facts): A total of 48 color photographs, framed in brown wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are digital c-prints, grouped into 6 sets of 8. The original found photographs are on display in an album on the desk; the prints on view are recent reprints, made in 2011, with handwritten dates/titles. Information on physical dimensions (one group was made up of images sized roughly 17×12) and edition sizes was not generally available. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Is you take an ordinary snapshot photograph and separate it from its maker, its subjects, and those who could provide evidence of its original meaning or context, what information is left behind and what conclusions can we draw from it? Korean photographer Seung Woo Back is interested in exploring these conceptual limits of the medium, and his newest project cleverly exposes the failure points in our natural tendency to construct narratives out of the simplest of visual clues.

Starting with a treasure trove of some 50000 found photographs purchased at flea markets, he selected groups of eight images, which he then gave to friends and colleagues who were asked to add their own dates, titles, and inscriptions in ink underneath the photographs. In effect, the photographs have been disassociated from their original purpose and remade into an alternate reality by someone completely unconnected in time and place. At first glance, the outcomes of this recontextualization are hard to notice; the images just look like a grab bag of random snapshots. But slowly the details start to fall apart: a smiling woman in front of a bushy patch of greenery is titled 24th Dec 1972 in one print, and later along a different wall, the exact same image (with different adjacent pictures) is called Rainforest, 1998.6.1. Two men shooting trap off the back of a ship are alternately Double Vision and Jeff. London. 1972 in different groupings. A selection of images of cruise ships, cargo vessels and other ocean going boats are seen in color, some of the images dated 1935, 1940, or 1945, while the cars and architecture in the background clearly come from decades later and the photographic process is out of chronological order. These photographs are obviously “wrong” in some manner or at least inconsistent with our notion of “truth”, so what does that tell us about what they actually document? Anything? Is one set of captions more “real” than another, given that they are both unrelated to the original context?

Back’s conceptual framework and exploration of appropriation is at once extremely simple and fascinatingly complex. It’s a delightful proof of how we construct our own stories, even from arbitrary or chance combinations of data. Back takes his idea further by offering posters on a table in the middle of the gallery, encouraging viewers to put their own captions on additional groups of eight images, complete with envelopes to send to him in Korea so they can be included in a future version of this same show. While the photographs on view here are entirely forgettable, I found this show to be a mind-bendingly thought provoking and resonant investigation of how we impose meaning on the snapshots we all take for granted. It’s smart photography about the boundaries of photography.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show (sets of 8 prints) are priced at $25000 each, although it was unclear whether collectors would be purchasing from Doosan or some other source, perhaps the artist directly. Back’s work is not regularly available in the secondary markets at this point, likely the only option for those collectors interested in following up. Back is represented on the West coast by Rose Gallery (here).

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