Photography, Portrait and Face
Jang Un Kim


“The waters are disturbed
Some creature has been stirred”
– Genesis, “The Fountain of Salmacis,” track 7 on Nursery Cryme, 1971

Salmacis was a water nymph who was true to her instincts and desires. Unlike other nymphs, she would adorn herself, collect flowers and spend time in her pond by herself. Once she had seen the boy named Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, Salmacis wished to be with him forever, but Hermaphroditus rejected her proposal. In response, she wrapped herself around Hermaphroditus, praying for their eternal union. Thus, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus eventually became one. According to Ovidius, “They were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.”1

In-between Subjects

Heinkuhn Oh’s photographs of South Korea include images of the people of Itaewon, a group shooting a film on the Gwangju Uprising, Ajumma, female students, soldiers and youngsters. At first glance, these groups seem to depict diverse figures; however, Oh’s photographic subjects all represent people on the borderlines between the multi-layers of identities. They float around those margins. Itaewon Story involves actors/actresses who have grown obsolete, club DJs and service personnel working for adult entertainment industries. These individuals were living in Itaewon, a space for strangers, crossing the borderline of Korea’s typical social norms. Meanwhile, the artist happened to photograph the shooting of a scene in the film titled ‘A Petal’ (1996), the subject of which was the Gwangju Uprising. The film director recreated the protest scene on Geumnam-ro street by blending the actors/actresses with Gwangju citizens. The public authorities deployed real police officers around them to protect or monitor the cinematic reproduction. Oh’s photographs confuse the viewer because their identities are ambiguous; we cannot clearly tell whether they – the figures and the scenes are scenes from a movie or the filming of movie scenes or a reenactment of the historical incident or the historical event itself. Likewise, the figures in the photographs drift between fact and fiction. The Ajumma, female students, soldiers all belong to certain

1 Ovid, The Metamorphoses, trans. A. S. Kline (Poetry in Translation, 2000), 119.

social groups, but they sway between socially determined norms and their own voices. On the one hand, they are aware of the meaning behind what the society calls them; on the other hand, they simultaneously know and do not know the identities and social categories to which they are bound. So, we can only assume that the artist may have tried to reveal their immediate realities by using words like ‘in-between’ or ‘acting.’

Oh began his Portraying Anxiety series, which shows the features of youngsters, in 2006 and might continue to do this project. In fact, the expression ‘youngster’ is not appropriate as the artist does not actually represent the youth in these works. The figures in the pictures are in their 20s and 30s, and the diverse group includes cisgender and transgender individuals. In all cases, the represented faces seem queer in certain ways. In the unusual, weird, strange, odd and peculiar young faces of the group, I see the ‘in-between.’ This is something subtle that is two-fold and ambiguous yet clearly expressed, rather than a gap that has significant defined boundaries.

The artist refers to this in-between as ‘anxiety.’ We may need to consider the implications of this anxiety. He delves into photographic research on the intrinsic anxiety of humanity, something that has been shown anthropologically, because it is rooted in the basic characteristics of photography as a medium. Photography is never complete in the sense that it attempts to pin down time chemically. In photography, even if light as time – time in the form of light – turns into an electric signal, the result remains unstable. The instability of the medium extends into the anxiety of and about the medium itself. By fixing time, the light only provides ‘stillness,’ or a moment in the present without a future. And the anchored time is immediately linked to its disappearance. It is something scary, fearful and ardent. The instability of the medium and the inherent anxiety of humanity meet in his photographs. Thus, what we view are the results of those unsettled statuses and insecure sensibilities. The pause in time, or the situation of that time, swirls around our cognition, as it guides us to another space.

Portrait Photography and Face

Portrait photography is problematic. While its name indicates the type of photography, it is not an art form; rather, it presents a certain index about social relationships. All the visual elements on the surface of portrait photography reveal certain relationships amongst politics, society, culture and history, which members of a society actively utilize economically and politically. In the history of photography, the former refers to the commercial and cultural success of carte de visite, while the latter signifies social discrimination and control often represented by mugshots or the anthropological portrait photographs used as the logical ground for colonialization. Thus, portrait photography has become a subject of sociological research before becoming one of artistic studies. However, the aesthetic practice of portrait photography

evokes a certain anxiety in the viewers’ minds and emotions when the picture represents the ideological impact. Walter Benjamin precisely acknowledges this aspect of portrait photography. In “Little History of Photography,” he does not categorize portrait photography as art but distinguishes it from portrait painting. Arguing that there is something that keeps turning the subject to the present, he states the following:

The camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret images whose shock effect paralyzes the associative mechanisms in the beholder. This is where inscription must come into play, which includes the photography of the literalization of the conditions of life, and without which all photographic construction must remain arrested in the approximate.2

Most of Oh’s works are portrait photographs. He says that he does not ask the people he photographs to do anything; he just waits until they reveal themselves naturally. This sounds like a cliché. However, the artist does not intend to wait for the subjects to be themselves; instead, he knows that the time of the subject the person or the object in the picture and the time of representation are always at odds, so he awaits the dislocation rather than the convergence of the two different times. Joanna Lowry cites Levinas’s comment, “It was impossible to represent the face of the other, that the gaze of the other somehow presented a fissure in the field of the visible,” and argues that “photography is situated on the very edge of that impossibility, the time of the other not so much represented as interrupted, and thereby revealed.”3

When the time of the other comes, Oh uses lighting that flattens the objects/figures on the surface of the photograph. It also exposes all the material objects possessed by the subject – individual people as their figures disappear, while the textures of their garments and accessories, colors of their makeup, faces, wrinkles on their skin, gestures and gazes appear as materialized objects. Thus, what we need to pay attention to in his portrait photographs is not the individual figure, but the moment of dislocation between the time of the other and the time of representation, and the subjects or materiality of the other displayed on the photographic surface. The materiality here reveals the social relationships as well as the history, culture and politics of the time. It also demonstrates the production conditions for and understandability of portrait photography and the politics of representation, while creating the ‘object relations’ inside and outside of the works. On the one hand, the materiality of the objects revealed on his 4

photo surface unfolds socio-political and historical implications; on the other hand, it secretively codifies and expands the visual potential of portrait photography. In this way, Oh’s portrait photography establishes a new socio-cultural history, and this is the starting point where figurative photography’s potential emerges as Benjamin states.5

2 Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Walter Benjamin SELECTED WRITINGS VOLUME 2, PART 2 1931-1934, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Others, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 527.
3Joanna Lowry, “Portraits, Still Video Portraits and the Account of the Soul” in Stillness and Time: Photography and the Moving Image, eds. David Green and Joanna Lowry (Brighton: Photoworks, 2006), 65. 4 Stephen Sheehi analyzed the popular portrait photography of the Arab World in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from this perspective. See Stephen Sheehi, The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860-1910(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), xxxvii.

5 Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” 193.

Neither or Nothing

Looking at others’ faces is an ethical experience. It is true of the photographer, so too is it true of the viewers of the photographs. It may sound like the grumblings of an old man; however, looking at the numerous faces shown under the profile of someone’s social media account like Instagram is a reflective experience whether we recognize it or not. It is because, as Levinas said, the faces of others are our own.

The faces of others that Oh presents to us are obscure. They are two-fold or neutral. They are not well-defined nor clear enough. We cannot recognize who the figures are, but they are someone, indeed.
At the same time, they are nobody. They exist on the intersection between biological and cultural distinctions; they are simultaneously both and none. It is meaningless to say that they are either. Viewing their features, I return to Salmacis. I am more interested in Salmacis than in the beautiful boy Hermaphroditus, for she practically gener-ates something new after journeying through the tunnel of love, de-sire, rejection and pain. Salmacis disturbs, disrupts and destroys the object of her desires before creating a new identity and physicality. It is interesting that Salmacis gratifies her desire, yet her name gets erased and her body disappears, whereas Hermaphroditus physical-ly transforms into a different being and its new body creates a new self-identity.

The figures that the artist presents here float between Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. He reveals their presence, or the state of both and the state of neither. I’d like to call it ‘nothing’ because they are not included or co-opted into the socially determined and tolerated symmetry (symmetrical norms), but constantly render something new and disappear. Oh may intend to bring forth their irreducible duality through their portrait photographs. Details of their faces and bodies presented materially in front of a solid color background reveal and conceal their desires and attempts to function as social subjects by way of diverse layers because the rigid structural symmetry of soci-ety always proscribes their unsupported struggle. Nevertheless, the artist discloses their present, as they disturb historically constructed homogeneity. Thus, Oh’s portrait photography is revealed to us in an-other face.