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  • Traces of Life: Seen through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992 ed. by Chang Jae Lee
  • Jung Joon Lee (bio)
Traces of Life: Seen through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992, edited by Chang Jae Lee. New York: The Korea Society; Seoul: Nunbit Publishing, 2012. 136 pages, 54 plates. $30.00 paper.

Traces of Life: Seen through Korean Eyes, 1945-1992 is a photography book published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same title at the Korea Society, New York, on view from September 19, 2012, to January 31, 2013. The bilingual publication offers a rare study of Korean photography in the United States, cataloguing fifty-four images showcased in the exhibition, supplemented by a checklist with descriptive captions and plates. Though short, the book includes essays, in both Korean and English, by editor Chang Jae Lee and other contributors. The inclusion of texts in Korean is not merely for the sake of the prospective readership, but also indicative of a critical undercurrent in the book: the issues of subjectivity in Korean photography and the state of its scholarship outside Korea.

Both the book and the exhibition at the Korea Society are aimed at showcasing Korean photography of the second half of the twentieth century in Korea, an era shadowed by the Korean War and the subsequent military regime. The thirteen photographers whose works are featured are all Korean men: Ku Wangsam, Im U.ngsik, Yi Haesŏn, Yi Hyŏngrok, Kim Hanyong, Han Yŏngsu, Chŏng Bŏmt'ae, Choe Minsik, Ju Myŏngdŏk, Hong Sunt'ae, Kim Kichan, Kim Sunam, and Yuk Myŏngsim. The relatively small but handsomely reproduced black-and-white photographs are mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. They display scenes largely from everyday working-class neighborhood life, juxtaposed with views of downtown Seoul, an orphanage for mixed-race children (fig. 1), and the faces of shamans and Buddhist monks. As the images conjure up reminiscence for those who were present in Korea during the period, the hint of sepia creates imaginary nostalgia in viewers too young or distant to have their own memories attached to the pictures.

The emphasis on Korean photography, rather than photography about Korea, is deliberate: the works included come from Koreans and are drawn from their perception as Koreans, rather than filtered through the perspective of foreigners approaching the unfamiliar. In the book, this [End Page 158] aim is elaborated on by the director of the Korea Society Gallery, Jinyoung Jin, in her foreword (pp. vii-ix), as well as by Korean literature professor David R. McCann in his "Introduction" relating visual culture to literature (pp. xi-xii). Likewise, the issue of subjectivity drives the essays by Sun Il and the editor and curator, Chang Jae Lee.

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Fig. 1.

Ju Myŏngdŏk. Harry Holt Memorial Orphanage, 1965. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Dong Gang Museum of Photography.

In his essay, Lee introduces the photographers included in the book as "the first generation of realists" (p. 1), whose works are an "antidote" (p. 2) to the documentary photographs capturing the turbulent years of the nation's struggle toward democracy and compressed industrialization. The daily portraits of the working class, often punctuated by wide smiles on children's faces (fig. 2), indeed contrast sharply with the imagery of violent clashes between student activists and military guards that aired on television and ran in newspapers outside Korea in the 1980s.1 But what does Lee mean by "realists"? What is a realist photograph? If the photographs discussed in the book are an antidote to photojournalistic works, how should we define "realism" within the history of Korean photography?

The meaning and significance of "realism" in this context is discussed in Sun's essay, "Korean Realist Photography: Creating Memories" (pp. 3- 9). Sun calls for a renewed interest in Saenghwalchuŭi Realism (생활주의리얼리즘), a post-Korean War photography movement which translates as "life realism" in the English version of the essay. The leading figure of [End Page 159]

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Fig. 2.

Choe Minsik, Busan, 1965. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Dong Gang Museum of Photography.

Saenghwalchuŭi Realism, Im U.ngsik...