Illustration
Uli Knörzer
Date
22 March 2021
Reading Time
6 minute read
Tags

Absurdism and humour collide: Glamour Shot creates a new kind of family portrait and it’s all about fun

The traditional glamour shot gets a humorous makeover with Bora Lee and Daewoong Han, the Seoul-based photography and graphic design duo whose ultimate goal is to bring joy.

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Illustration
Uli Knörzer
Date
22 March 2021
Reading Time
6 minute read

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Remember that scene in Napoleon Dynamite where Uncle Rico wants to get some portraits taken for his new plastic bowl business? Rico, along with Napoleon’s brother Kip, takes a trip to see Deb who, amongst a variety of other side hustles, takes glamour shots. “Turn your head on more of a slant,” she tells Rico, “now take a fist and slowly ease it up underneath your chin.” In an electric blue waistcoat and brown shirt with extended collar, Rico looks enigmatic against the pink star-studded backdrop. “This is looking really good,” says Deb, nodding with acknowledgement at the composition. Kip agrees, “You can say that again”.

This iconic scene from the 2004 cult movie served as the original inspiration for the photography-cum graphic design studio Glamour Shot, which takes this vintage concept and spins it on its head to create an array of endlessly dazzling results. Established in 2018 by the Seoul-based couple Bora Lee and Daewoong Han, Glamour Shot reimagines the notion of family photography quite unlike anything else. Their work interrogates east Asian identity and how the West has recklessly homogenised Asian culture in the past, but most importantly, at the heart of every image, the ultimate purpose of Glamour Shot is, Bora tells us, “just for fun.”

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Glamour Shot: Family Photo (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

Though the original idea was birthed by Napoleon Dynamite, a moment which sparked Bora to ask her partner “can we make these kinds of pictures?”, the work of Glamour Shot (the name for the studio lifted directly from the medium) has long exceeded the cheesy airbrushed lens focussed on Uncle Rico. Emerging out of the latter half of the 20th Century, glamour shot photography was first seen as a genre of erotic photography. Its first examples are associated with “French postcards”, small vignettes sold by street vendors in France for mostly erotic motives.

Over the decades, glamour shots became synonymous with pin-up models like Marilyn Monroe in the mid-50s and, as the form grew in popularity, it spilt over to the masses, becoming a popular way to document oneself with a little extra “something something” sprinkled on top. Known for its combined use of cosmetics, lighting and airbrushing techniques to create an alluring image of the subject, Bora and Daewoong draw on these fundamental essentials, building on them with phenomenal layers of imagination and storytelling.

GalleryGlamour Shot (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

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Glamour Shot: Family Photo (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

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Glamour Shot: Family Photo (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

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Glamour Shot: Family Photo (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

Going back to the pair’s creative beginnings, neither Bora nor Daewoong could have imagined their careers would go down this route. Daewoong grew up in Daejeon, a city in the middle of South Korea, and knew from the age of 17 that he wanted to be a photographer. “But not like this,” he tells us. “I didn’t even think about shooting photos of people. I wanted to be a travel photographer.” At university he majored in photography but lost interest in the medium for a while, thinking it “passive work” for a time. During this period, he experimented with glass, projections and fog machines, then went to Weimar on an exchange, where he finally returned to photography. The resurgence of the interest came with the use of Photoshop which gave Daewoong’s practice a new lease of life. On returning to Korea, he began to prepare for an exhibition showing his work made in Germany. But before the exhibition could take place, in a catastrophic event, his house caught fire and he lost his camera, computers, mobile phones and wallet in the blaze.

He lost all the data and sadly, the exhibition couldn’t go ahead. But on the flip side, the incident taught him an important lesson. “After that,” he recalls, “I started to think my work shouldn’t be kept in my house and should be seen by people.” This is now something Glamour Shot does wholeheartedly as the work is not only for the people, it also features the people and is commissioned by them too. It’s a project all about the public, executed with a sky-high production.

GalleryGlamour Shot (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

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Glamour Shot: Family Photo (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

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Glamour Shot: Family Photo (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

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Glamour Shot: Family Photo (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

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Glamour Shot: Family Photo (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

Bora’s story, on the other hand, takes us on a different turn. She was born and raised in Busan, a large port city on the southeast coast of South Korea, a coastline known for its beautiful beaches, hot springs and nature reserves. What significantly affected her childhood was almost three years of silence. She explains further: “From the fifth grade of elementary school to the first year of middle school, I spent almost three years without speaking. I set a rule that I would never speak in front of people because of some shyness and shame.” During that time, creativity played an essential role in giving Bora a voice. She wrote, painted and drew, finding a way to communicate without speaking out loud. She remembers of these early creative flows that “it was difficult to imagine me doing something else because I liked doing these things from a young age.”

GalleryGlamour Shot (Copyright © Glamour Shot, 2021)

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W Korea magazine

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W Korea magazine

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W Korea magazine

In the years to come, she continued to pursue the arts. She studied visual communication which led her to work on posters and illustrations before starting Glamour Shot three years ago. Once Glamour Shot was established, it quickly evolved from its American filmic roots, rejecting its associated Americanisms and adapting to Korean culture instead. In turn, the aesthetic started to change. Bora and Daewoong incorporated more Asian references, specifically nodding to 90s Korean and Japanese culture. As the couple absorbed themselves into this new visual rhythm, it presented Bora and Daewoong with a new opportunity: To say something about the relationship between East and West, specifically the Western gaze and how it imposes damaging generalisations of east Asian identity.

“Western countries often don’t distinguish between Asian countries,” says Daewoong. “They just mix it together and show people ‘this is Asia’.” One anecdote they point out (which may sound familiar to any non-white person living in or visiting the West) demonstrates exactly this: “If I say I’m Korean while travelling, some people say ‘Oh my husband is Japanese! Nice to meet you!’” On a positive note, however, Daewoong and Bora have found such experiences “weird and funny” and wanted to turn this all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality into a witty footnote of the Glamour Shot ethos.

By observing Western depictions of east Asian identity, the duo noticed an amalgamation of confused Asian cultural references banded together into one image. “The funny thing,” adds Bora, “is that many Asian countries also didn’t acknowledge this as a kind of racism in the 90s.” Instead, they thought it was a style projected by European or American designers and in turn, emulated a similar collaging of cultures, unknowingly perpetuating a racist pretence. With this in mind, Glamour Shot is capsizing this notion and reclaiming it for itself. Bora and Daewoong superimpose characters onto appropriated images to tell a new narrative. In a unique combination of photography and graphic design, it hints at a variety of sub-genres from sci-fi to k-dramas and freely uses Photoshop to craft highly entertaining and often surreal situations. Stripping away the racially charged aspect of the 90s Asian-inspired aesthetic, Glamour Shot instead injects fun, humour and joy into a contemporary and elevated version of the traditional glamour shot.

When it comes to deciding on the story of an image, Bora and Daewoong go through a number of processes to come to a decision. Initially, the family or group commissioning the image, tells them what concept they’d like and altogether, they discuss the overall route for the image. “We basically set the background and the role of the character before shooting,” says Bora. “Specific stories are often created as we edit.” As the photographer, Daewoong takes the images and Bora helps the family choose which images to decide on. Bora, the expert Photoshopper, takes it from there and makes a rough sketch of the final composition. On the surface, this may sound like a harmonious enough partnership, but on the contrary, “most of our funniest images come out of a fight,” says Daewoong. 

In a battle of creative visions, an uncanny genius is borne from the friction. Bewildered cats and dogs look down on their humans in a god-like stance, purposely uncertain smiles focus on a horizon line just beyond the fourth wall, and several other tableaus resemble a K-drama climax on acid at the cusp of a crescendo. Where Bora and Daewoong’s respective ideas clash, a sweet spot resultantly ensues. Absurdism is the overriding success of each idiosyncratic composition; a haphazard combination of amateur role play raised by hyperreal superimposed backdrops in the distance. Joy may be the end goal both for Glamour Shot and the people who employ their services, but on a wider scale, the work serves as a public service; it sets the imagination alight with inexhaustible freedom of what a modern family portrait might be.

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.

jo@itsnicethat.com

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