The MFA in Houston has an interesting exhibit of contemporary Korean photography. The above image is by a photographer called Sungsoo Koo, and it's titled Tour Bus. Most of the photographs in the exhibit were very large, very sharp color photographs like this one.
But this one was not my favorite: my favorite was by an artist named Won Seoung Won. I could find nothing about her on the internet, but her photograph was a digital collage that showed a fantasy world with a castle, a dragon of some kind, and two little girls, one riding a dolphin in the water below the castle, and the other riding a carousel horse on the land. The photograph is called "War of Sisters," and the wall plaque says that the photographer wanted to make a piece about the rivalry between her two little nieces. The younger one is cuter and gets more attention from the grownups in the family, which makes the older sister jealous. Won Seoung Won imagined a world where the younger sister could rule the sea, and the older sister could rule the land. The charm of this photograph is that the scene looks entirely convincing, as if she actually photographed it rather than collaged it together, and so it looks like a photograph of the world of mythic struggles that children inhabit in their imagination. The older sister is wearing a Snow White costume straight out of the Disney cartoon, but she's not a cartoon character. Somehow the juxtaposition of these cartoon elements and real little girls is powerful and wonderful, as if somebody photographed a dream.
The color photographs show a Korea that is much like the United States: an affluent consumer society. Sanggil Kim's photograph, "Offline Burberry Internet Community," shows a group of Koreans who met online because of their fascination with Burberry plaid products.
I had just read an article in The New Yorker about people starving in North Korea, forced to eat weeds and corn cobs just to fill their stomachs. Estimates vary on how many people starved to death in Korea in the nineties, but some estimates go as high as 2.5 million people, 10% of the population. So it was strange to see these photographs of South Korea, where apparently people live in a fully modern, high-tech, consumer society.
There were a few black and white photographs too. One was truly monumental: about seven feet tall, and its subject was the pine trees around a temple in Korea.
I thought a lot about how this photograph by Bae Bien-U was made. I think he must have used a panoramic camera set up vertically. Then the film was scanned and printed with a digital enlarger, like other large color photographs are printed these days, but with silver gelatin paper and chemistry rather than C-print paper and chemistry. I think there are a few labs that do this in the states. I liked it a lot.
The Korean landscape is apparently spectacular. Another photographer, Kim Young-Sun, photographs the many dolmens in Korea. I had no idea that dolmens were found in places other than Europe. They look very much like the dolmens in the UK and France: standing stones and also post and lintel structures like Stonehenge. They were erected around 3000 BC. Korea has about 25,000 megalithic dolmens, but it once had as many as 80,000. Some were destroyed by development. I couldn't find a copy of the photograph in the show online, however.
Korea is undergoing rapid transformation and development. A tryptich called "Lights of Weolgok-dong" by Ahn Sekwon shows the destruction of a shanty town on the outskirts of Seoul. The brightly-lit shanty town gradually fades as bulldozers destroy it to make way for more construction:
This shanty town, built on the side of a hill, looks very much like the busy shanty towns of Lima, Peru, which I saw in the summer of 2005. Steep pathways cut up a hill with densely packed neighborhoods of cinder-block buildings and jerry-rigged power lines.
South Korean photographers are obviously ambitious and technically very skilled. We can only imagine what their cousins in North Korea could be photographing if they had access to cameras, photo labs, and an audience. Maybe some day we'll find out what North Koreans were looking at while South Koreans were busy buying Burberry accessories.