July, 18, 2011
Park Slope Patch
Finding Identity in Anonymity
by Lilly Frances
Artist Henry Chung explores themes of technology, nostalgia and identity with his latest project, now on show at the RHV Fine Art Gallery.
Henry Chung is definitely onto something new—something new, that is, by reinventing the old.
Using found photographs, traditional artistic techniques and obsolete media, the Red Hook-based artist and photographer has set out on a mission to satisfy his curiosity of the past, both his own and of others, through his latest project, Identity/Anonymity, an ever-evolving body of work currently on show at the RHV Fine Art gallery on Sixth Avenue and 19th Street in South Slope.
Using found photos culled from various flea markets, garage sales, junk stores, and any other place apt to contain boxes of discards, along with his own unique digital and traditional artistic techniques, Chung creates unique portraits, whose purpose is to each tell their own story.
He says the initial spark of inspiration came from an old black and white photo, the only one in existence, of his grandfather, who he never met.
"That's the identity part of it," he said. "That was the photo that started me on the path of collecting old photographs."
Immediately, a desire to know more about his own past came upon him, but more significantly, a fascination developed with found photographs—portraits or snapshots of people Chung didn't know and who had never met, most of whom were most likely no longer alive, but who all had their own tale to tell. He was smitten with these people whose memory had once been cherished and whose photos ultimately ended up in "box of crap."
"I found that there was something haunting and inherently sad about the faces that looked back at me," wrote Chung in his artist's statement. "While anonymous to me, these photographs were a lifetime of cherished memories for someone else."
And so, spurred by a curiosity and a longing to know more about these people—who they might have been, what they were like—and dedicated to filling the gaps of knowledge by crafting an identity for them, Chung embarked on the project.
The initial concept began to take shape after an installation at an open studio, where Chung had digitally created a series of mock silkscreens of found photos, intended as a sort of interactive piece.
Viewers of the piece, which used a floor-to-ceiling grid format, participated by tearing off part of the grid and writing their own version of who they thought this person might be—details like their occupation, their hopes and dreams, their talents, their tribulations, what made them sad, what brought them joy.
They would place their strip in a box, which Chung would collect and use to craft for them a new life story, in a way resurrecting the memory of this man or woman, breathing new life and meaning into a once cherished memoir.
"These people became alive again with all their stories," he said.
Naturally, the next step was to render the images—something that would embody these made-up stories, but that would fit conceptually. Chung says he has a fascination with obsolete technology and, as an artist, believes that "nothing ever loses, or should lose, its usefulness."
He based his method on the punch card,which was punched through with holes and then fed to a computer (an ancient thumb drive or floppy disk), which his own mother had used at one time at a job with a bank.
The punch card technology itself, however, was unavailable, but Chung discovered another, more useful obsolete technology—black punch tape, for which the equipment was still available, and could be punched through with many holes simultaneously.
Aligned in strips to create the final image, the thousands of tiny holes form a sort of mosaic that, when viewed from afar, creates a unique visual interpretation of these people's portraits.
Chung says a major theme in his work is the repurposing of things— materials, equipment, and in this case, photographs and, to an extent, the lives of other people.
"Conceptually, it worked out really well," he said, "because I was trying to create an identity for these people who were forgotten, with an obsolete medium."
He compares the necessity of the technology of the time to the significance of these people, the impact they most likely had on the lives of those around them, and how they were probably once regarded as priceless to friends and family who once loved them.
"Punch tape was ubiquitous. The people in the portraits were important," he says.
He also sticks with photographs from a specific era, mainly the 1930's to the 1960's, and the post-war era.
Previous to that, he says, the photographs that were taken were simply, from a technical standpoint, just not viable. At a certain point in the 20th century, photography became more mainstream, and manufacturers began to design cameras not only for professional photographers, but for regular consumer use.
That's when, he believes, the really special photos were taken—not just portraits, but snapshots of people smiling, living, being who they really were.
"Things just looked more interesting," he said.
Technically, the later photographs also contained more contrast, which made it possible to work with them in the digital realm. Chung's process begins with a scan of the photograph, which he manipulates in Photoshop to his liking, converting it to only black and white and preserving only certain detail.
He then uses software he wrote himself specifically to translate the image into a format that the tape punch machine understands, and out comes the final result, in strips, to be assembled onto canvas. He finishes these with a piece of blue tape at each end, for functional purposes, but to also preserve that special touch, what he considers "the artist's hand in the final piece," and for a splash of color in what is otherwise a stark black and white image.
Chung, who studied engineering at Columbia University's School of Engineering, as well as photography, is well versed in pretty much all forms of technology as well as art.
Identity/Anonymity, as a concept, is an ongoing project; this final, digital manifestation of it is only its current incarnation.
Chung has taken the project one step further by feeding the information to a small, robotic device on wheels, to which he has given the working name "The Renderbot." The device, which has a groove designed to hold a pen, then draws its own version of the data it's been given—a sort of futuristic, techie-nerd final salute.
Through Identity/Anonymity, Henry Chung's exploration of memory, identity, technology and ancestry come together in a unique and ongoing body of work, bridging the digital and analog, the past and the present, and giving a voice to those forgotten faces of the past—he knows they've all got a story to tell.
Through one-inch strips of black paper on canvas, their stories now are there, for those who are willing to listen.
Identity/Anonymity is on show at RHV Fine Art Gallery through July 31st. For more information, visit the RHV Fine Art website.