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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review Voice Photographs by Jungjin Lee Reviewed by Blake Andrews “Jungjin Lee has been a practicing photographer for over 30 years. It’s worth noting that before working with cameras she worked with clay..."

Voice. By Jungjin Lee.
Photographs by Jungjin Lee
Nazraeli Press, Paso Robles, CA, 2023. 110 pp., 46 quadratone plates, 12x15x1".

Jungjin Lee has been a practicing photographer for over 30 years. It’s worth noting that before working with cameras she worked with clay. Born in Korea in 1961, she earned a BFA in ceramics in 1984. She later switched to photography, moving to New York to pursue an MFA. She assisted Robert Frank there, and eventually forged a successful photo career with multiple shows, books and accolades.

Lee’s photographic reputation is well established by now, but one still has the nagging sense she’s never fully left ceramics behind. Her images are imbued with a tactile quality, drenched in texture, grain and physicality. The thread of craftsmanship runs through Lee’s monographs as well as her pictures, and her latest book Voice is no exception. In fact, it might be the least “photographic” yet. The pages are huge, rough and contrasty, each spread gobbled up by one photograph sprawling across the gutter. They resemble charcoal drawings at a glance, and it takes some study to fully absorb them as photos. The subject matter is traditional enough: pure natural forms like lakes, trees, deserts and sky. Most were shot in the American Southwest, a region frequented by photographers over the centuries, perhaps shot to death even. Predecessors be damned, Lee traveled there anyway to see things for herself in 2018 and 2019, just before the pandemic.

As usual, Lee’s modus operandi on this trip was minimalist. She generally doesn’t need much to make a photo. A pinch of cloud, a line of trunk, perhaps a passing shadow, and voila: a photograph. Repeat as necessary and eventually voila: a book. Following her lead (with a nod to Aristotle), Voice is organized into four basic elements, with chapter breaks marked by solid black spreads. Leading things off is a chapter with broad swaths of sea, sky and forest. The second section hones in on trees and brush tangles, converting them to graphic monochrome masses. The next chapter clears out the brush to showcase grasslands, savannah and desert. Animals creep into the mix as chapter four darkens into hulking forms, dominated by cactus and shadow. Then the images fade to black, a literary nightfall.

The chapters add up to something immense. Voice is roughly 15 inches tall. Good luck slotting it into a bookshelf. With a tome this size, the choice of Swiss binding is practical. It frees the spine and helps the spreads open easily. Still, when held in the lap, it occupies some volume. It’s roughly on par with holding a small dog or infant, but less squirmy.

The resulting effect is concrete. In a photo world of screens, jpgs and digital impressions, Voice keeps both feet firmly planted in the real world. Lee’s process helps with that. To craft a photo she brushes liquid photosensitive emulsion onto hanji, a traditional Korean mulberry paper (she sometimes uses cotton also). She then exposes large-format negatives onto the surface in a traditional darkroom. It’s a time-consuming process, and one which leaves distinctive traces. Lee’s skies are faintly cross-hatched with atmospheric effects. Rock walls have the texture of graveyard rubbings, while dark patches are swallowed up entirely. Knowing Lee’s process and her ceramics background, the photos can be decoded. But viewers coming to them with no background would be hard-pressed to identify location or process.

That’s just fine, because Voice is not primarily intended as description. "My images should be seen as metaphors,” says Lee, “a form of meditation.” In other words, hers is not the majestic Southwest of Ansel Adams or Eliot Porter, but something closer to the potter’s wheel. Keep your nose down and your eyes open, and you might disappear into its spinning center. Ceramics ahead! “The desert allows me to see my inner self,” she writes, “and my goal is to make images of what I feel there: the eternal sense of being open and present to the world.” With this book she’s found her Voice. With patience, alert readers will locate it too.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at