The Korean photography world in the 1950s, as with any other field, had to be rebuilt from complete ruin caused by the major chaos during Korea’s liberation and the Korean War. Photographers did not have much choice but to break away from the existing institutions and practice established under the Japanese colonial rule, and buildan entirely new system. In this context, it is no surprise that art photography of the colonial era, which was institutionalized by the Japanese Government General of Korea and related organizations, was strongly attacked and criticized by the left-wing photographers after the liberation, and then the realist photographers after the Korean War. During this process, heated conflict and debate arose between the photographers who tried to establish the colonial-era style of art photography as “tradition” in order to maintain their privileged status, and the realist photographers who derided the style as “salon photography
Although neither side came to firmly establish their views theoretically, 1950s nevertheless proved to be a meaningful era when the conservatives and the progressives(radicals) actively engaged in debates over their aesthetic philosophy and attitude for the first time. These initial debates played a vital role in forming the discourses on photography, and the same conflict was later echoed between the modernist photographers and the post modernist photographers in the early tomid1990s. It was during the latter debates that modernist photographers attemptedto formalize their “straight photography theory.” In the process of organizing this exhibition, however, it became clear that the ideological roots of this theory traces back to the 1950s. It is in this very context that the 1950s provides a major turning point, which marked the beginning of modern era in the history of Korean photography.
Aside from the institutional competition, conflict, and actions that took place with in the photography world, various changes in the political, cultural, academic function and role of photography unfolded outside the art world as well. Sinceit would be impossible to collect and present every phenomenon in photography during this time into the limited space of the exhibition, this exhibition instead aimsto take a glimpse into the decade by focusing on “Myeongdong,” where many of the photography institutions, businesses and organizations were located at the time.
Artists : Sung, Doo-Kyung, Lee Kyoung-Mo, Lee Hyoung Rok, Lim In-Sik, Limb Eung-Sik, Han Youngsoo
Part 1. Photography Spaces in Myeongdong
this exhibition focuses on the symbolism of Myeongdong as the active center of photography, and surveys the landscape of Korean photography in the 1950s in Myeongdong as well as the surrounding areas. Because it would be impossible to examine every trend and related issues in photography from the period, the exhibition focuses on six keywords based on the photography-related businesses, organizations and exhibition spaces recorded on the map of Myeongdong printed in 1955 and 1961. Furthermore, it examines the historical significance of each keyword in both synchronic and diachronic context in order to extend the perspective beyond the spatial boundaries of Myeongdong as much as possible.
Section 1. Ruin
Korean photography in the 1950s first began with war photography. Areas of Seoul that were transformed into modern, urban centers during the Japanese colonial era, with Myeongdong in particular, were completely destroyed during the Korean War. This section examines the archive photographs of Myeongdong in ruins, shortly after the war. Documented by four photographers - Sung, Doo-Kyung, Lee Kyoung-Mo, Lim, In-Sik, Limb Eung-Sik - this section highlights the process through which Myeongdong was physically, and forcefully, transformed by war.
During this period, many photographers, including the four presented in this section, joined the army and recorded the war. Most participated as civil officials of the photography division at the Office of Information HQ, ROK Army, while some joined as part of the individual troops. There were also those who joined as part of the United States Department of State, or as press photographers. This section organizes the photographers by their affiliation and examines the regions and paths they followed.
Section 2. Material
Early on, many photography supplies merchants were operating out of Myeongdong. Most were owned by the Japanese during the colonial era, but the businesses were handed over to Koreans who continued to operate them after the liberation. During the Korean War, when the Donghwa Department Store (currently, the Shinsegae Department Store) was being used as a PX for the U.S. Army, photo studios and supplies merchants in the area began to thrive, catering to the U.S. military officers who gathered in Myeongdong and Chungmu-ro. After Seoul was reclaimed as the capital in 1953, major photography organizations and magazine publications opened their offices in Myeongdong, and as a result, attracted more photographers into the area. As more photographers frequented the local supplies merchants to purchase equipment and materials, the shops naturally became the social centers for exchanging information and opinions. Soon, Myeongdong became a mecca for photographers.
This section looks at the photography studios and supplies merchants of the 1950s through archives, advertisements in photography magazines, and the "Seoul Business Map" printed in 1955. Through this process, the exhibition hopes to inspire further research on the materiality of the medium which has long been overlooked in the history of photography.
Section 3. Consuming Image
After the 1950s, the mass-consumption of photographic images began to increase rapidly. Above all, the authorities led the way by mass-producing official photographs and distributing them to the public for political purposes. The Syngman Rhee administration was well aware of the efficiency of photographs as a medium for propaganda, as demonstrated by the "Press Photo Exhibition of the Yeosu- Suncheon Rebellion (exhibited at the Hwashin Department Store Gallery, the event drew 120,000 visitors during its two-week period)" hosted by the Ministry of Education in November 1948. Even in the midst of the Korean War, the government and military authorities hosted several war photography exhibitions, and once the war ended, issued various publications to introduce and promote anti- communist ideologies and Korea's recovery from the war, both domestically and internationally. These photographs were produced directly by the government through the Office of Public Information, but at times, outsourced from press photo agencies to meet the increasing demand.
Meanwhile, as new government policies on cultural properties and tourism industry required more photograph images, the photographers responded to the new demand by producing more photographs of national treasures and tourist landmarks, with organizations such as the Korea Photographers Association leading the trend. Through these changes, the 1950s saw the role and function of photography expand beyond art and journalism, into the realm of commercial photography.
Early examples of commercial photography in the private sector can be seen on the covers of popular magazines published in the 1950s. Photographs soon began to replace painting and illustration on the covers, and the shift clearly marked a new turning point in the mass-consumption of photographic images. Focusing on the photographs printed in the photo books and popular magazines, this exhibition hopes to discover and shed new light on the commercial photographers of this era, and to lay the foundation for research on the history of commercial photography in Korea.
Section 4. The Photography World
The photographers who flooded into Myeongdong after the Korean War began to group themselves around various photography organizations. The Photographic Artist Association of Korea (established in 1946 in Seoul), and the Photo Artist Society of Korea (established in 1952 in Busan) both relocated their offices to Myeongdong after the reclaiming of Seoul and represented the two major axes of the photography world in Korea until they were dissolved in 1961. This section explores the landscape of the photography world in the 1950s by examining the chronology of photography organizations. It traces the lineage of photography organizations around the two major axes, and creates a diagram which shows the collaborative, or competitive relationships between the organizations.
The timeline of the chronology is set around the year of the liberation in 1945 to 1961, organized around the lineages. The year 1945 and 1961 are marked as a break, as the organizations were forced to shut down by the authorities at the time. In 1945, interest groups headed by the Japanese colonial government dissolved a number of photography organizations in order to maintain control of photographic images in public, while in 1961, the Park Chung-hee administration, which seized power through the May 16 Military Coup, dissolved and merged all existing photography organizations into the Korea Association of Photography, following the decree of the National Reconstruction Committee. In the years after the liberation of Korea, numerous photography organizations began to form, both in Seoul and other regional cities. As with any other field, the photography world in the post-liberation period was also divided left and right by competing ideologies. When the capital was temporarily relocated to Busan during the Korean War, the Photo Artist Society of Korea was formed in the new capital by those who wanted to establish an organization in this region that could be represented on the national level. The organization relocated its office to Seoul after the capital was reclaimed, and since then, competed with the Photographic Artist Association of Korea(whose roots trace back to the Kyeongseong Baekyang Photography Club, formed during the Japanese colonial era) to establish itself as the most influential organization in the photography world. By the late 1950s, numerous other organizations with broader spectrum of ideologies and objectives emerged, and ultimately, transformed the landscape of the photography world in Korea.
Section 5. Exhibition Space
The creative practice of photographers centers around the exhibition space. Photography was first introduced in exhibitions during the Japanese colonial era, which until the 1920s, mostly took place in photo studios, supplies stores, cafes, town halls, clothing boutiques, schools or newspaper company auditoriums. In the 1930s, department stores emerged with dedicated gallery spaces where photography, as well as paintings, were exhibited. Numerous solo exhibitions, along with group exhibitions and art competitions, were held in these galleries at the Mitsukoshi Department Store, Hwashin Department Store, Chojiya Department Store, among others.
After the liberation, the venues expanded beyond the department stores. With new exhibition halls opening at the Office of Public Information and the United States Information Service, the spaces became popular venues among photographers. Moreover, the Dongbang Culture Center, established by the founder of Dongbang Photo News Corporation, Kim Dong-geun, became the gathering place of photographers and the literary crowd in Myeongdong. This section examines the main exhibition spaces for photographers in Myeongdong, including the Dongbang Culture Center, and the major exhibitions held at those venues.
Section 6. Publications
The events and discourses in the photography world of the 1950s can be more specifically examined through the photography publications and magazines of the period. However, most publications at the time primarily focused on the technical aspects of the medium, with the exception of Kim Yonghoon's The Art of Photography: The Path to Becoming an Artist (1959) as the only theoretical text of the period known to date. Likewise, the only photography magazine available during this time was Photography Culture published by Cho Myeongwon, which provides a rare glimpse into the artistic environment of the photography scene in the late 1950s. Fortunately, Pictorial Korea, first published by The International Publicity League of Korea in 1950, included a section entitled "Photo Salon" where major photographers of the period and their works could be found.
This section introduces the photography publications and magazines of the period, along with their publishers including the Korea Photo Publishing Company, The International Publicity League of Korea, Donghwa Press Agency, and the United States Information Service among others. In addition, it further explores a wide range of "professional photography publications (theoretical and technical texts)" published by various publishing companies, organizations and institutions.
Part 2. The Birth of Modernist Photography
identifies the 1950s as the burgeoning era of modernist photography in Korea, and introduces works which reflect the formal aspects of modernism in two sections. The first section presents the modernist-style works by four major figures in the history of Korean photography, and the second section introduces works discovered through photography publications and magazines of the period as a way to demonstrate that modernist photography was not a temporary or marginal trend, but one that had much wider influence than what is known today.
The photographers in this section were affiliated with different organizations and ideologies, but at the same time, collectively focused on the reality of the medium. As the modernist painters moved away from the representation of reality to focus on the basic elements of point, line, plane, color and form which construct the medium, the photographers likewise emphasized the photographic elements such as tone, framing, angle and close-up that construct the photograph and moved away focusing on objectivity. Moreover, as modernist painting turned to abstraction, modernist photography also explored flatness and abstraction. These modernist experimentations began to emerge around 1953, and by 1960, the trend had become mainstream, as evidenced by the overwhelming number of abstract photographs in the 12th Photographers Association Exhibition.
The current historical discourse on Korean photography primarily defines the 1950s as the era of competing styles between the so-called "salon photography" of the conservatives, against the "life-centered photography" of the progressives. However, this exhibition hopes to demonstrate that modernist photography remained another influential style of the era alongside the two competing major movements.
Section1. Through the Eyes of 4 Photographers
This section introduces four artists whose artistic achievements and legacies have left an indelible mark in the history of Korean photography. The first is Limb Eung- Sik, who was a member of the Photo Artist Society of Korea and an avid advocate of "life-centered" photography. The section also includes the work of Lee Hyoung Rok and Han Youngsoo who were members of the Shinseonhoe, an organization that advocated realist photography and collective creative practice. The fourth is Sung, Doo-Kyung, a member of the Photographic Artist Association of Korea and the Korea Photographers Association, who was more importantly an influential war photographer.
Section2. Experimentations and Trends in Modernist Photography
This section introduces works in the modernist style among the photographs that were featured in Pictorial Korea(first issue published in 1950) and Photography Culture (first published in 1956). From these two publications, photographers who were active in the early half (1950- 1957) and the latter half(1956-1959) of the 1950s can be identified, and although their works survive only in print, their images confirm that modernism was being explored by a wide range of photographers throughout the decade.
This section presents the work of nine photographers including Kim Kwang-seok, Kim Kisoon, Lee Byeongsam, Lee Ahn-soon, Choi Gye-bok, along with Park Sang-yong, Shin Sang-woo, Yoo Hoseok, and Lee Nak-seon who were newly discovered through the publications. Although the artists worked in different areas of the field, their diverse range of experimentations with the formal elements - such as tone, framing, angle, close-up and abstraction - collectively strived to express the uniqueness and essence of the medium of photograph.