Dan Chung: High lonesome

Photographer goes country with Translations at Composition Gallery

South Korean-born Dan Chung lives in rural Ashburn, in Northern Virginia, and his photographs attest to the solitude and restful pace of a small-town photographer's perspective.

Chung's black-and-white images in Translations include lonesome pine trees, family farmers and crumbling operations like a gas station that looks as if it might have been in business since the 1950s. Situated at the edge of a country road, "Exxon Station" is illuminated by a fluorescent glow that lights up its interior like a television, offering up its contents for the world to see. Inside the office/selling floor there are piles of paperwork, shelves of merchandise, unpacked boxes and the accumulated clutter of an undoubtedly decades-old mom-and-pop business.

Some of Chung's most arresting images in his show make use of artificial illumination. Buildings glow and mystery grows in the shadow-casting burn of street lamps. The way those nighttime beacons play against darkness lends a foreboding character to much of the work. In "Side-lit Tree," for instance, the tree's mad fracas of branches is given a macabre character next to an unseen light source that casts the tree's fragmented shadow onto an adjacent building. Chung's most transportive, handsome image may be "Cumberland Pine Trees," where two aisles of bone-white trees appear almost phosphorescent against the pitch-black night. Suddenly the woods seem monumental and awe-inspiring, imbued with life and importance.

Such images of night and of nature show that things we call ordinary can be invested with drama under the photographer's lens. But not every woodland scene of damply glistening leaves or river rocks undergoes that transformation in Chung's work. Natural forms are, of course, not by definition dramatic. Like anything, nature has its pedestrian you've-seen-one-leafless-tree, you've-seen-them-all moments and its "Cumberland Pine Trees" money shots. Chung can be bogged down by conventionality. Some of his nature studies are bone-dry affairs, though his images of Mexico suggest that the natural world and not people are his greater strength.

Chung's shots of Mexican children and timeworn boulevards stand on less sure ground, indulging a fascination with distant lands and people that doesn't necessarily translate. Images of a little girl running down a trash-strewn street or a musician cradling his guitar as he waits to go on stage at some small bistro are certainly more artful than the usual tourist snapshot. But Chung could stand to be more discriminating in what he shoots and offer a more cohesive thread in his work.

On the evidence of the work here, Chung works best when he works closer to home. It is tempting to imagine that Chung's two-year-running documentation of a Virginia dairy-farm family might have offered the cohesion and social-engagement missing in these non sequitur portraits of Mexican residents.

The dairy-farm project is unfortunately only alluded to in several intriguing photographs like "Dane and Bill," hanging in the gallery office. In the image two men contemplate a field, their backs turned to the camera. But their sagging posture and hands jammed into pockets prove incredibly telling, giving us ample information about the kind of men they are and the matters they are discussing. In other images, Chung crops or blurs people's faces in a way that does not always make sense. In "Dane and Bill," however, that denied access works wonderfully, capturing two working men in an honest, respectful way. The photograph's distanced approach makes you long to know more about these people and their place in the world.

Despite the gulf in quality between images, Chung's work is a steal, priced below $500 framed with even cheaper smaller prints also available. In the end, a piece like "Cumberland Pine Trees" might even make more sense isolated in someone's living room. Perhaps then, the image might draw from its own internal strengths and feel less like just one in a random collection of images.

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