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Koo Wangsam, A Flock of Children, 1945
(Collection of Dong Gang Museum of Photography)

On Wednesday, September 19, The Korea Society held an opening reception for two of its current events, Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, a Korean film series currently being shown at the Museum of Modern Art, and Traces of Life: Seen Through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992, a photography exhibit at The Korea Society Gallery showcasing the work of some of Korea’s pioneering photographers.  I attended the reception because I was more personally interested in the latter, as I had never before seen such a large collection of photographs taken in Korea during that time period, which encompasses Korea’s liberation from Japan, the Korean War, and a host of other landmark events in modern Korean history.

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Visitors attending the photo exhibit during the opening reception (Photo by The Korea Society)

Indeed, as I had suspected, it was the first time that the 54 black-and-white photographs were being shown in the United States, according to Mr. Chang Jae Lee, an independent curator who, along with The Korea Society, organized the exhibit. The exhibit features thirteen of Korea’s pioneering realist photographers who helped shape the future course of Korean photography:  Koo Wangsam, Lim Eungsik, Lee Haesun, Lee Hyungrok, Kim Hanyong, Han Youngsoo, Chung Bumtae, Choi Minsik, Joo Myungduk, Hong Suntae, Yuk Myungshim, Kim Kichan, and Kim Soonam.  The photographs are on loan from the Dong Gang Museum of Photography.

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Kim Hanyong, Hyewha, Seoul, 1950s
(Collection of Dong Gang Museum of Photography)

What makes this photo exhibit particularly special is perhaps best summarized by Sun Il, the curator of Seoul National University Museum:  “Koreans could finally see themselves from their own perspective, and they could turn from objects captured on film to the subjects who record.  They could finally begin to create their own memories about themselves. This is why we should pay attention to these photographs.  This is why they are invaluable.”

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Lee Haesun, In Front of the Sixth Presidential Election Posters, Seoul, 1967
(Collection of Dong Gang Museum of Photography)

Modern Korean history, as it is often taught here in the United States, makes it easy for us to objectify our view and understanding of Korean society.  After all, South Korea is a country that went through the Korean War, military dictatorships and, along the way, a rapid modernization that propelled it into the ranks of one of the world’s richest economies—all in a span of about a half-century.  There is only so much that can be absorbed, so much that can be imparted in a lecture, a semester-long college course, or even a modern Korean history book.  And more often than not, the lives of ordinary people are ignored in favor of studying the state, Korean corporations, and other powerful agents that helped mold South Korea’s transformation.

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Lee Hyungrok, Muddy Street, Seoul, 1954
(Collection of Dong Gang Museum of Photography)

However, the photographs on display at the exhibit serve to humanize Korea’s recent past for us—a welcome break from the conventional dialogue on modern Korean history.  We learn that even in the midst of a society that was constantly in the throes of change, Koreans still went about their daily business, much like how South Koreans today go about enjoying their everyday lives, seemingly immune to the threat of their northern neighbor.

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Chung Bumtae, Map'o-gu Gongduk-dong, Seoul, 1964
(Collection of Dong Gang Museum of Photography)

These photos enable us to steal an intimate glimpse into Korea’s past and to marvel at how much things have changed over the years, and at how some things have stayed the same.  For me personally, they contain some of the stories that my parents and relatives shared with me about their experiences growing up in Korea.   In Lee Hyungrok’s Waiting, for example, I can see my mom holding her little brother on her back as they are waiting for their father to come home.  While observing Lim Eungsik’s Early Summer, I can imagine my late aunt being one of those women in the picture who are wearing fashionable dresses and holding parasols to shield their faces from the sunlight for fear of getting freckles on their clear, white skin.  But I suppose these photos will have different meanings to different people.  The point is, the focus of these photographs is the Korean people and the ordinary lives they had lived against the background of Korea’s dynamic evolution.  And I believe that this is the story that many Koreans would like to tell.

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Visitor observing the photos on display (Photo by The Korea Society)


*The Traces of Life photography exhibit will be open until December 7, 2012.  Please note that twenty-nine of the fifty-four original photographs are on display at The Korea Society Gallery.  The rest can be found in the catalogue Traces of Life: Seen Through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992 (edited by Chang Jae Lee), which can be purchased at The Korea Society.  Much of the information on the exhibit that has been included in this article has been taken from the catalogue.  

The Korea Society Gallery is located at 950 Third Ave., 8th Floor, New York, NY 10022.  For more information on The Korea Society (which is entirely separate from the Korean Cultural Service), please visit their website at www.koreasociety.org.