Seung Woo Back’s work emerges from the way in which the pervasiveness of digital image processing negates the need to produce original photographic images. Taking this as both a necessary condition and a point of departure, Back has developed work in which he deploys archives of photographs, some taken by him and some by others, to expose the realm of images and offer it as a reconstructed world.
Back’s use of archival images started with his Blow Up (2004–5) series, a set of enlargements made from regular snapshots taken by the artist during a visit to North Korea in 2001. During this extremely rare opportunity, Back could only photograph what he had been granted permission to shoot. In addition, his films were all confiscated before he left and returned as cut-up negatives and prints compatible with a positive image of North Korea. Unsatisfied, Back initially neglected these photographs. Only after reviewing them years later did he decide to use them, blowing up particular details. The results are pale, severely cropped and blurry. Yet by focusing on overlooked details from the vastness of information contained in the censored photos, Back subverts the control to which they had originally been subjected.
He continued to work with images from North Korea for the series Utopia (2008–11). In these images, Back altered North Korean propaganda photos of buildings from posters and postcards through distortion and the use of primary colours in the background. These altered images, while indirectly referencing Russian Constructivism, also heighten one’s awareness of how they were constructed. In a Utopia work from 2011, the artist divided some of these images into 13 equal parts that were sent to 13 countries with identical printing specifications. When all 13 parts of the same photograph were returned, they highlighted the different printing results. Since whatever was considered the ‘original’ image comprised one set of specifications, these results highlight how, at the moment of taking a photograph, it is impossible to foresee what effect different processes will have on the image produced.
Also addressing unforeseeable effects of the processes that images undergo and the myriad reconfigurations of the information they contain, Memento (2011) was constructed from archives of found images collected by Back. For this work, he asked eight people to make their own selection of images from over 50,000 photographs that once belonged to numerous individuals. The choices and arrangement of these photographs taken by others were made in accordance with each selector’s projected narrative. These reconstructed narratives, like the methodologies Back used in Blow Up and the Utopia series, interfere with the intentions present not only at the time the images were taken but also with the subsequent decisions that were made as they were collected.
Originally published in the March 2014 FutureGreats issue, in association with EFG International