Straightforward, subject driven, simply lit black and white photographs of the real world and the real people in it are not in vogue. Han Young-hee’s Portraits of 77 Literary Persons doesn’t change this. Han is an old school newspaper photographer. He began his career at the Hankook Daily in 1972 and moved to the Chosun Ilbo in 1981. The portraits in this book were made in the last two years of the 20th century, and the book was published in 2001.
These photographs are unlike Stephen Pyke’s Philosophers, Avedon’s In the American West or Platon’s recent portraits of power. They are also unlike JeongMee Yoon’s Pink and Blue Project or Kim Gang Sil’s Off-Line project. There is no singular style to unify the portraits. Rather, they are united in their subject matter, writers, and the humdrum daily spaces from which these people craft their words. There is little artistic ego but much delight. Han clearly enjoys being with his subjects and making these photographs.
The publisher’s website describes the Han’s portraits as being of “everyday surroundings of authors where their literature originates…the studies where they write, houses and rooms where they live in, and surrounding natural environment that gives birth to their literary sentiments.” The publisher calls the writers “representative;” one can assume this means that they are from a cross-section of genres, styles and generations.
In his introduction to the book, the poet Hwang Ji-u states that Han’s photographs display “a constant aesthetic intention to be something more than plain photographs of writers’ faces to be used for the press.” Too often, the photographs instead feel like unconsidered snapshots. Perhaps the plain photographs of writers’ faces might imbue a sense of the iconic and instill a kind of reverence. Han’s photographs point to the banality of creativity. The portraits rarely make me wonder who these people are and what wonders their pens produce. I do not feel the weight of genius.
Clearly these portraits are meant for posterity, primarily. The writers are Writers. The value of the photographs and of the book as a whole is as historical document. There are a handful of photographs that rise above the rest, that work as portraits and as photographs.
Park Kyung Ri looks out of the frame. Her hands cover her mouth as though she is trying to hold back some thought–or perhaps she just wants to hide her mouth. Her cotton shirt blends softly with the gray background.
Park Wan Suh, wearing a cone shaped hat, squats in the grass. He is trimming the grass with a pair of scissors. It is unclear if he is illustrating a point, making a joke or simply engaging in daily routine.
Yang Gui Ja sits serenely on a throne–actually, a pile of plastic chairs. The frame is filled with plastic chairs stacked on a walkway. She looks across the frame, her hands folded demurely in her lap, her legs crossed and her feet a foot from the ground. Her black dress forms a dark void that offsets the geometric lines and shapes repeating in the stacked white chairs.
Yang Sung Oo sits on a stone step before a white door. The door’s glass panes reflect bare tree branches against the sky, a church (?) and the edge of the awning or gable beneath which he is sitting. We wears a dark coat and a paisley scarf. His hands rest in his lap; one hand gently holds the index finger of the other. He has a slight smile and looks out at something just to the left of the camera. I am reminded of Paul Strand’s photographs from Vermont.
Lee Moon-koo stares at the camera. One arm is folded across his chest and rests in the crook of the other, which holds a cigarette, outstretched fingers against his cheek. He holds himself with an air of both authority and insouciance. He is wearing a cap and a dark coat over a striped dress shirt. Around him pedestrians are blurred as the negotiate their way around him. The novelist is still.
Lee Jae Ha sits in a folding chair center frame. Han’s wide angle lens takes in the writing table with two computers and stacks of papers off to Lee’s left and the framed, piled and half finished artworks on his right. Light pours in the glass door behind him; a clock is on the wall above it. Lee looks away from the camera; his left leg is crossed over his right; his left hand holds a cigarette; a sandal dangles from his left foot.
Chong Hee Sung sits in the midst of rows of grade school desks. The slightly downward and oblique camera angle turns the desks into a skewed grid crossing the frame. Chong’s right hand rests on the desk in front of him; he leans back slightly onto his left arm, its elbow on the desk behind him. Middle gray dominates the tonal scale; soft light from the right of the frame illuminates Chong, and he looks towards it. His expression is measured, thoughtful perhaps.
In images like these and a handful of others there ate the threads of narrative. The viewer is given material with which to weave an identity for the subject of the portrait. (I am making the leap and the assumption that the descriptive threads are apt.) In these portraits the “consistent aesthetic intention” is evident and the importance of the sitters apparent.
The book, as a whole, works wonderfully as an historical document of the Korean literary scene at the end of the 20th century. A number of the photographs stand on their own as richly appointed portraits that convey a psychological measure of their subjects. In these photographs, the everyday surroundings are indeed suggestive of their literary sentiments. The great bulk of the portraits do not rise to this level; they are rather humdrum snapshots that are elevated solely by the elevated status of their subjects.
If one’s shelves are filled by photography books with a slant towards portraiture, Han’s photographs will likely underwhelm. If one has a love for Korean literature and shelves filled with that literature then Portraits of 77 Literary Persons would be a fascinating addition to those shelves.
77 Portraits of Literary Persons
Photographer: Han Young-hee
Essay: Hawng Ji-u
Publisher: Youl Hwa Dang