N.B. I am writing a series of research posts to introduce a selection of Korean landscape photographers, in part expanding my Literature Review for CS, but will also inform BoW.
I was first introduced to the work of Joo Myungduck (b. 1940) by another renowned Korean photographer Park Youngsook in 2014. Joo’s series Lost Landscapes was a departure to anything I had seen before. The technical terms you would use to describe a photograph like Mt. Halla (see fig. 1.) would be low key or more critically nit-picking underexposed. They are an image that needs to be seen in order to be felt. Something that comes with age and maturity. These ‘black landscapes’ are his trademark, but they don’t even scratch the surface of his story.
It is important to recognise the trajectory of Korean photography to date in the context of with Joo’s career. Like the countries rapid modernisation post-war, photography was playing catch-up. His early work as a journalist documents the cultural climate in the years after the Korean War. His portraits of mixed-race orphans (see fig. 2.) could be reminiscent to Western readers of early documentarists such as Lewis Hine in their use of photography to inspire social change. While his photographs of rural families coincide with the nations early development towards industrialisation. Little wonder Joo is considered “the father of South Korean documentary photography.” (Lee, 2015). He is the equivalent of both the FSA in 1930’s USA, and in career terms Bill Brandt, with his evolution from documentarist to artist.
Joo’s development as an artist came during “…the rapidity of globalisation through the hosting of the 1988 Olympics and the 1989 liberalisation of overseas travel, and the views and attitudes of photographers underwent a tremendous change.” (Lee, 2016). Within a country emboldened by its sustained growth and recognition in the global arena, photography at this time became like it had already done in the West, an accepted art form in its own right. Joo’s reputation, perhaps like Brandt before him some 40 years earlier, had an experienced path that distinguished him from other Korean photographers that had studied in Europe and the US earlier in the decade.
And so back we come to Lost Landscapes. Joo’s subdued tones which through the prism of Ansel Adams’ zone system rarely make it up to IV, contemplate a nondescript nature recognisable mostly via caption. But ‘where’ is not of great significance to Joo’s landscapes. What is of significance is atmosphere, reflection and emotion. Photographs like Mt. Odae (see fig. 3.) are for me reflective in tone of what fascinated Tanizaki so much. There is no fear of this darkness, but a melancholy. Printed is the only way to see Lost Landscapes to understand the craft of successfully using such a limited tonal range. And to be drawn in to the particular beauty of shadows.
Being seduced by the poetic is an easy thing with Korean photographers. Joo quotes a Tang Dynasty Zen (Chan in Chinese) master in his explanation into why he struggles “…to offer rationally ordered explanations or to set forth any aesthetic clarification.” (Joo, 1993). This will no doubt frustrate many a more methodical person. The lyrical vagueness is quite common in the descriptions of many a Korean photographers approach. Though he is more forthright in how he reflects on his career. He regards his documentary years like many in the West did, as having something to say on the role of photography and “…to improve in some small way, the society to which I belong”. And yet his desire for change was later succeeded, perhaps with age to a purpose of sharing his “…appreciation of Korea’s natural beauty” for posterity.
Another of our documentarists Don McCullin sought solace in his landscape after all he had witnessed. The comparisons with our photography history are there for me, but beyond that is something more in my interest of Joo. It is that for Korea he has been a distillation of all these people, crossing genres, subjects and intent. Contributing to its contemporary cultural identity like few others.
Joo, Myungduck (1993) Lost Landscapes. Kyoto: Kyoto Shoin ARM.
Lee, J (2016) Public to Private: Photography in Korean Art since 1989 Seoul: Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Lee, M (2015) ‘Joo Myung Duck: Motherland” at the Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery in Chelsea’ In: ICP-Bard MFA Blog [online} At: https://icpbardmfa.wordpress.com/2015/04/05/joo-myung-duck-motherland-at-the-miyako-yoshinaga-gallery-in-chelsea/ (Accessed on 28.10.18)
List of illustrations
Figure 1. Joo, Myungduck (1990) Mt. Halla [Photograph] At: http://www.miyakoyoshinaga.com/artists/Joo_Myung_Duck (Accessed on 28.10.18)
Figure 2. Joo, Myungduck (1965) Holt's Orphanage [Photograph] At: http://www.miyakoyoshinaga.com/artists/Joo_Myung_Duck (Accessed on 28.10.18)
Figure 3. Joo, Myungduck (1989) Mt. Odae [Photograph] At: http://www.miyakoyoshinaga.com/artists/Joo_Myung_Duck (Accessed on 28.10.18)