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Seung Woo Back, an emerging photographer from Korea, describes his artistic vision as follows: “I am not a serious artist who records history or an artist who seeks sublime beauty. If I had to define myself, I am an apprehensive, cynical daydreamer who looks at the world then distorts it and with a bit of imagination. I dream of creating my own world.”These words are concise yet they accurately define the core of his work. This essay intends to focus on his new series Blow Up (2005- ) and reveal the methods Back uses in depicting his consistent ideas and to create his distinctive photographs.
Before probing into the series Blow Up, it is worth revisiting Seung Woo Back’s Real World I and II series that portray the artist’s constant interest and concern about depicting “his own real world” that explore ambiguous boundaries between reality and unreality, fact and fiction. In Real World I, Back photographs miniature models of famous buildings in the world that are located in an amusement park in Korea (not in its original location around the world), composed with the existing cityscape in the background to show the overall scene in a natural manner. In Real World II, Back cleverly arranges small toy soldiers in an actual landscape as if they have snuck into a quiet village. All of these photos have been created without special manipulation of the camera or post production work; they are real photographs using only the tools of composition like camera placement, camera angle and placement of the subjects. Still, they appear unreal and fictional. An image composed of a mix of the World Trade Center, Turtle Ships and modern high-rise apartment blocks or another composed of an assembly of small toy soldiers intruding the front lawn on a dark night are both photographs that seem unrealistic but are not manipulated – and they are representative of the artist’s intentions. What is fascinating is that this seemingly unrealistic world is actually the real world and it depicts actual existing subjects.

Like so, the artist’s objective is to distort previously fixed ideas and boundaries, to blur the dividing gap between reality and unreality. Back adapts a different methodology in Blow Up from the methods used in the Real World series but he nevertheless continues examining this analogous theme. At a glance, Blow Up, a photographic series of Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, appears starkly different from the other two Real World series. In comparison to the clear, vivid and seemingly unrealistic images of Real World series, the photographs in the Blow Up series appear grainy and blurry at times. Photographs in the Blow Up series appear ordinary and realistic as if they are old newspaper clippings or stills from a documentary film. However, when one pays careful attention to its production process, one realizes it is a very intriguing body of work.
As one can assume from the word “blow up”, which means “to enlarge”, Blow Up series is comprised of photographs that are taken first hand and subsequently enlarged in specific parts. In photography, “blow up” is a simple technique in which the entire negative film or a certain part of the film is optically enlarged during printing. However, the words “blow up” take on a greater significance in Seung Woo Back’s work. It involves the process of discovering and recognizing the subjects that could not be perceived at the click of the shutter due to the external restraints in approaching the subjects, exposing the gap in the time elapsed between the moment of original photo taking and its comprehensive result as the enlarged print. Blow Up represents the co-existence of this set of issues that result in conceptual significance of the works concerning reality and unreality.
Original photographs taken by the artist under the title of a photojournalist during his visit to Pyongyang in 2001 in the Blow Up series are more like to documentary photographs. As the only Communist country in the world today, the North Korean administration only permitted photography in designated areas to all visitors and every single photo taken was under strict observation and control. Furthermore, any photographs that deviated from their permissible range were confiscated during the subsequent film inspection. Hence, he returned from his trip with only the most typical set of photographs of North Korea. A few years later, Back had an opportunity to take a second look at the film and at this time he discovered interesting details that he had not noticed at the time of shooting. He began to enlarge the photos one by one. In the end, the Blow Up series consists of images of detailing the 35mm film tenfold through enlargement and thereby unveiling hidden parts of North Korea.
Recalling his month long stay in North Korea, Seung Woo Back stated, “The city of Pyongyang appeared to be an expanded set of The Truman Show, the movie.” Pyongyang he experienced was an unrealistic place designed to systematically show internationally isolated North Korea appear more idealistic and attractive to its outsiders. Moreover, he felt that the residents of Pyongyang were like fictitious characters playing fixed roles to serve this purpose. He witnessed over the month, same smiles and same stories told by the residents upon meeting outsiders, always following a fixed schedule, never deviating from their set path.
However, the photographs Seung Woo Back took in the appointed sites with the camera aimed at limited scenery failed to capture the reality of this unrealistic city. He could only portray what the North Koreans wanted him to portray: images of high-rise buildings, well-planned roads and numerous vehicles, well-trained performances on a large stage. However, the act of enlarging parts of the film exposed their features in a more concrete and realistic manner. Faces of the people who appear in Blow Up are surprisingly dark and expressionless, propaganda phrases like ‘We are Happy’ and ‘Revolutionary Spirit of Baekdu’ can be found engraved in modern buildings and people in the grand study halls and general hospitals appear desolate and uninspired as if they were confined in a shelter. The scene of the stage is also interesting when one assumes the general view obtained in the original image. Contrary to North Korean regulations to prohibit English language, the enlarged image reveals the “YAMAHA” trademark on the keyboard that the children play and the enlarged view of the stage background reveals the most unrefined and unsophisticated flower decorations.
In this way, the photographs reveal images that were neither perceived by Back himself as he pressed the shutter nor the officials who were responsible for inspecting his film. Thanks to the characteristic nature of the photographic medium to transfer the scene instantaneously, the Blow Up series allow a new perception of a subject that was not previously perceived at the moment the photo was taken. Passing of time and enlargement of the image are key elements in the Blow Up series. These ideas contribute to an active acknowledgement of the limited human perception and the idea that camera can capture more than the human eye. Moreover, it suggests that not all images are finalized the moment it is shot and the middle process can develop one work into another work by taking a new direction.
Thus, the process of enlarging images plays a decisive role in the Blow Up series. The title of this series is Blow Up and not “Pyongyang”; comparable to the movie by Antonini, also entitled Blow Up (1966) and not “The Murder”. The “enlargement” process itself is the core element instead of the subject “Pyongyang”. Similarly, the main character, a photographer in the movie Blow Up discovers a lead in a murder investigation in a photo he took through “enlargement” of the film but he ends up trapped in the mystery while trying to get closer to the truth. On the other hand, Seung Woo Back clearly emphasizes that he is not interested in documenting history and therefore the city of Pyongyang (as the capital city of the only remaining Communist nation) is not interesting to him as a subject in the sense of documentation but it serves to show an unrealistic world that seems to be nonexistent. Conversely, the act of “enlarging” an image becomes an essential element of his photographs because it plays a vital role in revealing the fictitious reality of the city in an extremely realist manner. Back changes ordinary documentary photographs of North Korea that are no different from a common tourist’s images into artworks through the process of “enlargement”. The works therefore convey his consistent theme of exploring the boundary between reality and unreality.
For the artist who tries to create his own world and distort reality using different methods in every project, “enlargement” is a tool unique to Blow Up series. In the Real World series, Back showed a world filled with his imagination shaped by his camera angle placement and arrangement of the subjects but it still depicted a realistic world. Blow Up shows another viewpoint due to his minimized role, restrained by external forces. However, in the end, he recovers his role as an artist in the active process of “enlargement” in order to once again portray the unrealistic world (of North Korea) in his own gaze in a realistic manner.
Likewise, Seung Woo Back shows the image of North Korea that is drastically different to that of South Korea. He tackles ostensibly grand subjects – a park with crude miniature models imbued with contradictions of modernity or the depiction of the image of Korea as a battle ground in Western society. However in actuality, countries and societies are only environments in which he is placed. Back is more concerned with his own identity which he must examine and realize within the given surroundings. Moreover, he is interested in the ambiguous boundary separating the reality and unreality of this world; sometimes what people regard as real is actually fake and when something is thought to be nonexistent, it appears in front of our eyes.
Most importantly, the potential in Seung Woo Back’s photographs is evident in the ability to depict these rather serious themes lightheartedly in a comprehensive visual context. He has also approached a consistent theme from a variety of different angles and methods. When contemporary photographs seem unrestricted in portraying the real world in its true existence, Seung Woo Back’s pioneering spirit to create and to show various forms of reality and the world is probably what we anticipate as an important aspect in contemporary photography.

By  Hye Young Shin
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