Artist In-Depth: An Interview with Curator & Book Designer Chang Jae Lee

AGI is expanding its horizons to encompass and explore the life and work of Asian artists and people of influence from around the world. Our first guest is Chang Jae Lee. Mr. Lee: a Korean-American man with plenty of experience in book design at the acclaimed Columbia University Press in New York where he has worked on many titles, including the important Weatherhead Books on Asia series. We were happy to have the opportunity to talk with him about his work in publishing and as a successful curator of a recent exhibition on Korean photography. Interview by Tim Holm.

AGI: For our readers, could you give a little information about your background and how you got involved with book design in particular?

Lee: I became a book designer when I finally realised I couldn’t be a writer. I was fifteen when my family left Korea and settled in Seattle; English became my second language, and I still feel inadequate in both languages. I went to high school and college there; I was a pre-med student and a creative writing major. But I gave them both up when I took an art history class, which led me to studio classes. I graduated with a B.A. in art history and a B.F.A. in painting. Then I came to New York to attend a graduate program in Communications Design. At the graduation show, where NYC art directors come to find new talent, I was offered four interviews: with a small design studio; Coach; Condé Nast; and Columbia University Press. I interviewed with Condé Nast and Columbia University Press, and in the end accepted the offer from the Press. This is my eighteenth year [with them].

AGI: How do you go about designing each book you are assigned (or do you get to choose your projects?); where does your inspiration come from and what sources do you draw upon to create your work? What is involved in the entire process from start to finish?

Lee: Most often, I don’t get to choose the books I work on. So when I am assigned a book, I first try to familiarise myself with the subject matter by reading the launch and release memos, and also glancing over the manuscript. Sometimes the author suggests the look of the cover, or even a specific piece of art. By the time the project lands on my desk, though, it’s already been decided whether I have to stick with the author’s suggestion or the art director and/or editor’s counter suggestion, or I am more or less free to pursue my own direction. After incubating ideas in my head, I put my thoughts on paper or directly on screen. When I come up with several compositions, I show them to the art director. The art director sometimes asks me to develop the compositions further or to take a different direction altogether; but more often, the art director selects one or two to show to the editors and the marketing people in house. Once they approve the design, it’s sent to the author for review. If the author is fine with it, it’s great; but if not, it’s back to the drawing board and the process begins again. I draw inspiration from my love of reading and knowledge of visual arts and visual culture.

AGI: What book design work are you most proud of and why? Why is design important?

Lee: It’s not easy to name just a few for different reasons, so here’s a somewhat longer list. I am proud of the following covers: Arthur Danto’s The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art; Gianni Vattimo’s Art’s Claim to Truth (for which I was able to use a fabulous work by my favorite contemporary artist, Alfredo Jaar, on the cover); Kojin Karatani’s History and Repetition; and Julia Kristeva’s This Incredible Need to Believe (for which I was able to experiment with printing finishes). I am also proud of the following designs: Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsumonogatari, comprising nine Japanese gothic tales); Cao Naiqian’s There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night (featured in The New Yorker magazine in “Well Titled, Well Covered,” July 2009); Hwang Sunwŏn’s Lost Souls; and O Chŏnghŭi’s River of Fire (for which I was able to use contemporary Korean painter Toh Yunhee’s beautiful work). I love to design books in the humanities: art, philosophy, and literature in translation—in particular, Korean literature because I feel that not enough works have been translated into and published in English. Simply put, design is important because it gives a face and a form to a book.

AGI: It seems that these days more focus is being applied to the design of physical books, perhaps in part to counteract the rise of the e-book, which is more functional and practical in some ways, but does not usually rely on design as much. What do you think about this trend, and what do you think makes a successful design in general?

Lee: I am pretty pessimistic about everything else, but I am not pessimistic about the future of books. As you suggested, I too think adaptation is the key. The physicality of books is important, and I think it can only be further accentuated, enhanced with thoughtful design. All successful designs achieve communication—translating the written language and its core ideas into the visual language, transforming them logically, succinctly, and viscerally.

Please tell us a bit about your photo exhibition and catalogue that you curated for The Korea Society called ‘Traces of Life: Seen Through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992‘. How did it come about, and how did you choose and gather the particular photos for this project?

Lee: It actually started with a single photograph I found early in 2010. It’s called Kundong (A Flock of Kids) and was taken by Koo Wangsam in 1945. I found it while researching an image for the cover of The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost, a novel by the zainichi (permanent resident of Japan) Korean author Kim Sŏk-bŏm, published by Columbia University Press in late 2010. Initially, I contacted the Dong-Gang Museum of Photography in Korea in order to acquire permission to reproduce the image on the cover, but when the book came out I flew to Korea and visited the museum. I met with the curator and made an almost impromptu proposition of putting on an exhibition in New York City with photographs from the museum’s collection. The following year, I went to The Korea Society and proposed it. In late 2011, I made another trip to Korea to finalize the lending terms and met with one of the photographers, Joo Myungduk. Forty-six photographs came from the collection of the museum and the other eight came separately from the estates of two of the photographers, Lee Hyungrok and Kim Kichan.

I’m curious why you decided to show only black-and-white photos, and why your focus was limited to those specific years (1945-1992).

Lee: Forty years ago, in 1973, John Szarkowsky and Shoji Yamagishi co-curated New Japanese Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This legendary exhibition showcased black-and-white photography not only by preeminent Japanese photographers born in early decades of 1900s but also by emerging ones who weren’t well known in the West until then, like Daido Moriyama. Thirty-six years later, Anne Wilkes Tucker and Karen Sinsheimer organised the exhibition Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. But this auspicious exhibition featured the works of only a new generation of photographers born after 1950. My exhibition, Traces of Life, was, in a way, a reaction to both exhibitions and an argument that the works should be understood as they are, should be re-evaluated within the context of the period and against the backdrop that saw their creation. I wanted to show a past not predicated on biased, selective memories, and fill the chasm in the visual archive of the modern Korean vernacular spanning the period from 1945 to 1992. I intended it to be a counterpoint to what we often recognise as the Korean vernacular, the images doused by the turbulent history of the period itself: liberation, the Korean War, coup d’état, military dictatorship, industrialisation, and the ensuing struggles for democracy. You see, even during this sweeping modernisation and the sociopolitical upheaval, the children laughed in their play and the people lived their everyday lives.

Some of the pictures in the book were very striking to me, and they certainly show how much Korea has changed in only a few decades or so. For example, there is one photo from 1957 of a huge shantytown built on the side of a hill in Busan (found on page 52 of the catalogue), which I assume has been destroyed since that time—relatively few reminders of this period still exist in modern-day Korea—so now it likely only exists in this image. I’m guessing that is what you intended to show through this exhibition, but what are your thoughts on the rapid pace of change in Korea?

Lee: The photograph you mention is by the late Choi Minsik, who passed away in February of this year. I haven’t seen that place in person, but I know similar communities have been demolished in the name of development. Not only poor neighbourhoods met with drastic transformation but the whole country, including the city of Seoul, where I grew up. I left Korea when I was fifteen, and when I went back some fifteen years later, I couldn’t even find the junior high school I’d attended. I was completely lost and gave up, in the forest of high-rise apartment complexes. Yes, personally, I think the pace is too rapid. But I know there’s a concerted grassroots effort by activists and artists to preserve such neighbourhoods in the face of the almost blind fervour for development.

What was the response/reaction to Traces of Life in New York, and have you thought of taking the exhibition (or something similar) to other cities and countries such as London? Is that even a possibility?

Lee: I knew it would be warmly received, but the response was beyond my wildest expectations. First of all, the Wall Street Journal sent a photography reviewer and ran a brief but informative review titled “The Past and the Land in Detail,” which said, “Children are present in more than half of the pictures in ‘Traces of Life’, an appropriate visual leitmotif for South Korea, a country that has defied history to prosper.” When the exhibition traveled to the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, Wesleyan University, the Hartford Courant ran a review too. But most importantly, an international refereed journal devoted to the discussion of historic and contemporary photography from Asia, the Trans Asia Photography Review, ran a review that said, “Traces of Life marks a welcome addition to Korean visual studies, the history of Korean photography, and Korean history. … It fills a large vacuum that has existed in the study of Korean photography and should serve as an important complement to the 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, exhibition on contemporary Korean photography.” However, taking the exhibition to other cities and other countries is not so simple. For example, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College as well as the Fullerton Museum Center in California wanted to host the exhibition, but the Dong-Gang Museum of Photography declined to give a lending extension. For future exhibitions such as Traces of Life to travel widely abroad, more understanding and willingness on the parts of museums in Korea to share their collections with the rest of the world are an absolute prerequisite.

Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment and what your plans are for the future?

Lee: Two independent curators in Korea and I are working on presenting an exhibition of my book designs from the past eighteen years. As for the next photography exhibition in the States, I have ideas that have been brewing for some time, but nothing is concrete at this point. If the opportunity materialises, I would like to introduce photographers born after 1950 and include color works, with diverse approaches in contemporary photography from Korea. And, of course, I will continue to make books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *