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 distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Jong Won Rhee was born in Hong Kong and grew up between South Korea, the United States, Italy and Australia. He studied industrial design and then automotive design in the UK, however, upon returning 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 photo book, Solitudes of human places is elegantly simple. This is a horizontally oriented book with a glossy photograph on the cover that depicts a corner of a restaurant building covered in signs in Korean, with a vacant lot in front and a green field with trees in the background. ; next to it is a small figure of a man crouched with his back to the camera, perhaps contemplating the void around him. This first image, together with the title of the book, sets the mood of its visual flow. The cover of the book is a rich blue and opens with bright red flyleaves, perhaps playing with the colors of the South Korean flag. The first two pages with the title and artist name then turn to a vertical orientation, a nice design element. Inside, the visual flow is consistent – the photographs appear on the correct pages and there are no captions, page numbers or other design elements. A short text, always in vertical orientation, is placed on the back cover in black, slightly indented. The book easily lays flat, making interaction even more enjoyable.

Rhee’s photographs capture a parade of ordinary everyday scenes: there are people walking down the street, standing in front of their house, stopping in the middle of the street, and sorting red peppers in the alley. They are fleeting, almost invisible moments that can subconsciously move us even if we don’t fully understand them. “These images from the simple, unadorned fringes of South Korea delve into the depths of human loneliness,” Rhee’s statement read, “They imagine people’s unconscious striving to come to terms with their loneliness in facing the human condition squarely, firmly, 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 network of cables overhead. At the bottom of the back there is the figure of a man walking, holding a piece of paper and about to light a cigarette; it is a gray and dull day. This image is followed by a shot of a narrow lane with single-storey ivy-covered houses; a man smokes in front of one of them. He is caught taking a puff of his cigarette and stares into 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, deep in their own daydreams. In many cases, their faces and emotions are obscured by the hats they wear, the umbrellas they hold, or simply distance. Their presence in these often dense urban landscapes only reinforces the feeling of isolation and loneliness they feel in this environment. The vivid colors in Rhee’s photos appear not through the energetic presence of people, but from poppy flowers taking over a fence, blue roofs, storefront signs, colorful umbrellas and market stalls. .

As the visual narrative progresses, one scene depicts a group of men waiting for a train to pass: a man stands with a cart in front; another is on a motorcycle; a third man in the back yawns with his hands in his pockets; whoever is closest to him checks his phone; and another is sitting on a chair. While there are half a dozen people in the picture, the composition again creates a sense of loneliness and anonymity, as everyone is consumed with their own being. Another strong photograph captures the interior of the clock repair shop through the storefront – the front wall is covered with round clocks, while the right wall is also filled with square digital clocks. The space seems rather crowded and it takes a moment to notice an old man quietly taking a nap or resting in the corner. This scene of an old man surrounded by passing time looks 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 man in a dark suit walking slowly away through 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 renewed hope. And WAlthough there are no clear signs of the Covid-19 pandemic in Rhee’s photographs (and no indication when they were taken), the empty streets as well as the feeling of isolation and loneliness evoke the experience that many of us have had over the past two years.

Rhee’s photobook is both banal and profound. Solitudes of human places is a story of serene perception, of looking at the evidence swirling around us and seeing something more. As a photobook, it uncovers the complexity and nuance of the overlooked, turning often boring in-between moments into opportunities to take a closer look and notice what we’ve missed.

Collector’s point of view: Jong Won Rhee doesn’t appear to have any gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following should probably connect directly with the artist through their website (linked in the sidebar).

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