Traces of Life, Chang Jae Lee & The Korea Society

Kyusang Lee described Traces of Life: Seen Through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992 to me as being central to understanding Korean Photography. He felt so strongly about this that he literally chased after me following our interview to give me the book. Published in conjunction with a 2012 exhibit at The Korea Society in New York curated by Chang Jae Lee, the book outlines the post-World War II beginnings of a nascent autonomous Korean photographic tradition.

Photography first came to Korea through missionaries and other Western travelers and was later used by the Japanese as a tightly controlled political tool during the colonial period in Korea. Photographic representation of Korea and its people before 1945 was thus defined by an external perspective even when created by Koreans. In the politically charged environment of post-liberation Korea, the shift to self-representation by Korean photographers was dramatically felt and marked stylistically by an adoption of “life-realism”. This shift meant that “Koreans could finally see themselves from their own perspective,” according to Sun Il.

In many ways, this self-representation remains incomplete. For all the globalization and flattening of power structures in the art world, power nonetheless remains concentrated in Western institutions. From this perspective, Chang Jae Lee’s description in his afterward of the “paucity of Korean visual materials in the United States” as “absurd” takes on a defiant tone. He notes that Anne Wilkes Tucker’s essay accompanying the landmark “Chaotic Harmony” exhibit, “Past/Present: Coexisting Realities”, minimized or ignored the contributions made by the first generation of Korean photographers. To be clear, the exhibit and its catalog are focused on “Contemporary” Korean photography; not categorizing this earlier generation as “contemporary” is correct. However, to minimize their contributions in creating the foundations of Korean photography which the contemporary work would rise is questionable. Traces of Life can be read as an attempt to rectify the slight by reorienting the history of Korean photography from a Korean perspective.

The thought that external histories are incomplete or inaccurate is not Lee’s alone. (Nor is it specifically Korean; there is an entire genre of post-colonial literature.) Asked in an interview with KPB last year about how her in-progress survey of Korean photography might differ from Chaotic Harmony, Suejin Shin said that her work “would be the first chance to show [Korean photographic history] from [a Korean] viewpoint”. Shin’s phrasing is very much like Sun Il’s above. It is worth noting that though Kyusang Lee (who published Traces of Life) and Suejin Shin have radically differing views on photography, they are very much aligned in their respective desires to produce an authentic self-defined history of Korean photography however different they believe that history to be.

In its academic approach and pointed intent, Traces of Life could be read as a continuation of the included photographers’ laying claim to their own national identity. Robert McCann’s introduction and Sun Il’s essay offer an academic grounding for the work, placing the photographs in relation to parallel Korean art forms as well as Korean history, temporal and photographic.

Sun Il’s essay, “Korean Realist Photography: Creating Memories,” provides a valuable overview of this shift from external to internal representation and of the photo-historical chain of associations between and among the included photographers. Sun locates the starting point of modern Korean photography in Lim Eungshik’s advocacy for “life-realism”. Koo Wangsam is another early proponent of realist photography who, like Lim, advocated for it as a critic and theorist as well as a photographer. This change in style set these photographers apart from the “salon style” popular during colonial occupation and marked their work as specifically Korean. A realist mode was and had been for some time the dominant mode in Western photography, culminating in The Family of Man exhibit. What makes “life-realism” the starting point of modern Korean photography rather than an aping of Western photography is not stylistic so much as political. Advocating for and dedicating themselves to this style in opposition to that of preceding generations working under colonial rule must be read as a political act even if their photographs were, for the most part, apolitical.

Many of the photographers in Traces of Life were members of or influenced by Sinsonhoe, the first photography group in Korea seriously dedicated to photographic realism. It marked a clear separation from the salon style that previously dominated such groups, and its first exhibit was a milestone in the development of documentary photography in Korea. Sun follows the Sinsonhoe’s influence to the groups Salon Ars and the Society for Contemporary Photography which furthered the realist approach and laid the ground work for future practitioners, particularly Joo Myungduk–who Tucker, quoting Park Juseok, noted as the first Korean photographer working in a modern documentary mode.

Sun is careful to note that realist photography should not be seen as the only form of photography being used by Korean photographers at this time. In particular, Sinsonhoe founding member Han Youngsoo and the magazine photographer Kim Hanyong, though steeped in “life-realism” in their early careers, would both make a transition to advertising photography and become masters of the field.

Turning to the photographs themselves, we see a focus on people’s everyday lives. Women shop and banter in front of the new department stores. Various groups of children play (in front of posters for the sixth presidential election or atop stacked row boats). A young girl with her infant brother on her back waits before the weathered door of a hanok. An officer in white gloves directs traffic amid streetcar tracks and car traffic in front of the Bank of Korea. A man operates a wooden, pedal-powered, horse ride for half a dozen delighted children. Buyers and sellers haggle in an outdoor produce market.

The historical context within which Sun Il situates these photographs–the country’s liberation, the Korean War, and Korea’s industrialization and struggle toward democracy appear only tangentially. The long arc of historical and social change is evident if not always obvious in the background. Hand carts give way to trucks and automobiles. Traditional hanok give way to concrete apartment blocks. Mud paths become paved streets. Hanbok and traditional clothing are replaced by modern Western fashions. The interest of “life-realism” was not in biting social criticism but in the recording of daily life honestly and from a Korean perspective.

As an example: No photograph is made during or of the Korean War. Rather, its lingering effects are hinted at. Lim Eungshik’s “Bare Trees” and “Looking for Work,” both taken in 1953, are a good example of this. In the first a boy is seen among a stand of trees, their limbs broken, bare and spindly against a white sky. In the second, a slightly out of focus man wearing a slouch hat on his downcast head and an army fatigue shirt with a sign seeking work tied around his chest takes up two thirds of the frame while over his shoulder two men in suits shake hands. The destruction and social upheaval that followed the war is apparent but not central. Individuals’ lives suggest larger forces. Likewise, Joo Myungduk’s photographs of mixed race children in the “Harry Holt Memorial Orphanage,” taken in 1965 (only a portion of the photo essay is presented here), distill numerous tensions inherent in the long historical chain of upheaval and rapid social change set in motion by the Korean War.

Even more diffuse in documenting history are Kim Soonam’s photographs of shamanism and Kim Kichan’s alleyway photographs. Two of President Park’s signature policies were the Saemaul movement intended to modernize Korea’s agriculture and his push to modernize and expand the country’s urban centers. Korean “kut”, like most shamanism, is intimately tied to the earth and to place. Kim Soonam’s photographs document Korean “kut” ceremonies and shamans during this period of urbanization and movement away from the land. Kim Kichan’s series “Scene Inside an Alleyway” are lighthearted photographs of children in alleys and speak to the enduring appeal and visual wealth of quotidian happenstance. Nonetheless, the changes in the physical fabric and political situation of Seoul is apparent in the background. A photograph like “Scene from an Alley, Ch’unglim-dong, Seoul, 1978” with the hazy modernizing city in the background is an elegy for a passing Korea.

The photographs in Traces of Life are generally quiet records of everyday life within a turbulent period. The book as a whole is less quiet, particularly its texts. It is a call for a reconsideration of the history of Korean photography–a call for an autonomous perspective on Korean photography.

In 2008 Ken Schles published A New HISTORY of PHOTOGRAPHY: THE WORLD OUTSIDE and the PICTURES in our HEADS. Taking Beaumont Newhall’s 1938 Photography: A Short Critical History as its starting point, Schles examined the variegated and pervasive photo-historical (and literary, etc…) influences that color how a photographer perceives the world. Schles writes, “I noticed many lines of influence streaming through my work.” His new history traces a history of influence, replacing the canonical photographs from Newhall’s original history with his own. At the same time Schles is also slyly deconstructing the idea of an all encompassing authoritative historical survey. As I read Traces of Life, I thought back to these ideas of influence and arbitrariness inherent in definitive historical surveys. Traces of Life is an argument for the place within the foundation of the history of modern Korean Photography of a particular set of photographers working within a particular era based on the influence that their work has had on the contemporary photography that came after.

Traces of Life
Edited by Chang Jae Lee
Organized by The Korea Society
Exhibition Coordinator: Jinyoung Jin
Supported by the Dong Gang Photography Museum
Published by Noonbit
Publisher: Lee Kyu-sang
Editor in Chief: Ahn Mi-sook
English Translation: Jeon Seung-hee
Korean Editing & Proofreading: Kim Bo-ryung, Sung Yun-mi
English Editing & Proofreading: Michael Haskell, Leslie Kriesel

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  1. Pingback: Han Youngsoo Exhibit at ICP @ Mana in Jersey City | Korean Photography Books

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