강운구 - (Kang Woon Gu)





While dropping off some film to get developed at a lab in Seoul called photopia (thanks to Chang for the info!) I saw a poster advertising an exhibition at The Museum of Photography, which I didn't know existed until that moment. So I went to check it out.




The exhibition was of recent photographs by Kang Woon Gu. There were many images from rural Korea, which seems to be a recurring theme in his work. Many of the images were simple scenes or details. He had placed some images in short sequences of 4, with each photograph enlarging a detail from the previous, as if he had taken a shot, walked a few paces and taken another and so on. Some of these worked better than others.



The photographs on one wall caught my attention more than the others due to the fact that they had a more documentary feel to them. They seemed to be slightly out of place amongst the abstract depictions of shadows and footprints in the mud. I felt like I wanted to see more in this style. Then, as if by magic, my wish was granted when I spotted a big black curtain behind which was a room where a DVD projection was showing images from a previous exhibition by Kang Woon Gu with work from a series entitled 'Images of Three Villages'.



This project was carried out in the 70's while he was a journalist and during a period of much change in Korean society. It was of great interest for me because it depicted a society I could see vestiges of in my travels around the country and was related to some aspects of the photography I am currently doing here in Korea. There was no commentary except for the occasional introductory text (in Korean of course) which my wife helpfully gave me a summary of. One phrase she translated stuck in my mind - it was a quote about how 'after awakening from the beauty of the mountain I could see there was much misery in their lives'.





There is hardly any information in english I could find about this photographer in my brief searches but I did find links to some of his books, so hopefully I will be able to post some more about his work.


I did find an english translation of some text related to the 'Images of Three Villages' project, the first portion of which reads as follows


Since the time when these photographs were taken, some thirty years have passed. In that period Korea has changed tremendously. What country in man’s history has changed lock, stock and barrel in such a short time? Clearly all the dissent, disorder and discord arising in this country today are due more to the speed of change than to change itself.

Even if not a dictatorship, it’s been going the way of an industrial society. In shifting from agriculture to industry, many things have to assume different aspects. During this country’s vaunted 5,000 years, almost all morals, culture, and customs sprang from agriculture. But many problems inevitably arose in the course of changes during the period of dictatorship, when we were deprived of liberty and justice,

The phrase “Tilling is the great root of all in the land” was nothing but a patronizing sop from the ruling classes. Since farming was a matter of fate and not choice for small tillers, who were little more than serfs, those words were small comfort. From their point of view, it was “Root of all, my ass.” When the industrial society came on, the farmers mistakenly thought they had another destiny. Forsaking the “great root”, they flocked to the city outskirts.

A city may have been a vortex, but it was the remote mountain villages and their people that bore the brunt of destitution and disintegration. Just as they were at the end of their tether, in swept the mindless whirlwind of the militant Saemaeul Movement, ordering all the houses stripped of their thatched roofs. The houses and villages visible from the roads were the first to go, one after another. Of course the honchos were there, watching and orchestrating it all from the road. Houses that had stood the test of millennia got tin roofs all shlocked up with red and blue paint, and presto that was a Saemaul. That was the Saemaul uniform, just like the army’s. The decisive break with those “customs” and “traditions” that we so like to flaunt occurred then, all at once and by force.

That’s when I as a press photographer sensed how realism and documentary are part and parcel of photography, and managed to find the direction someone who would be a decent art photographer in an art-loving country has to go. So, seeing the dire state of affairs, whether as artist or reporter, I was in a hurry and rather stupidly began to feel my way around the mountain villages. But little did I expect how fast the whole country would be turned inside out. Thinking about it now, everything around should have been a photo, but if something didn’t look like much I would hesitate and just take one or two. If the spirit didn’t move me, I would find it hard to move my finger. Whenever I took a picture I would hope to capture something beyond my ability and beyond what I could see.

In the course of human history or in the history of the Korean people, thirty years do not amount to much. But for an individual it is a long period of time. Looking back, it’s embarrassing to say, I really knew all too little of life and the times. And I had no skill, barely a clue. At that time, while I couldn’t even have guessed about some things, I took other things very seriously. So I wandered wide-eyed from village to village like a skittish vagabond.

Thinking of it now, I’m not ashamed of the poor photos I took then. But it’s too bad so much was missed altogether, whether out of ignorance or failure to realize its importance. If there’s something I took a bad photograph of, at least there’s that. But if there’s something I missed, I have nothing.

The settlements in Images of Three Villages are no more. Had some semblance of them survived, little would be lost even if the photographs were discarded. But since nary a trace is left, there is all the more reason for keepsakes such as these. In effect, fossil remains is what they are.

Quite a large part of the photos have appeared in books, magazines or exhibitions. But because of space or other considerations many that I originally thought should be published have not been. In setting down the luggage carried for so long, I can now feel somewhat at ease. And with fewer obligations than long ago, I may be freer to go a bit farther.


---


A couple of passages really struck a cord with me.


This one:


...seeing the dire state of affairs, whether as artist or reporter, I was in a hurry and rather stupidly began to feel my way around the mountain villages. But little did I expect how fast the whole country would be turned inside out. Thinking about it now, everything around should have been a photo, but if something didn’t look like much I would hesitate and just take one or two. If the spirit didn’t move me, I would find it hard to move my finger. Whenever I took a picture I would hope to capture something beyond my ability and beyond what I could see.


And this one:


...Thinking of it now, I’m not ashamed of the poor photos I took then. But it’s too bad so much was missed altogether, whether out of ignorance or failure to realize its importance. If there’s something I took a bad photograph of, at least there’s that. But if there’s something I missed, I have nothing.


Both of these address a couple of my favourite issues; the ethics and motives behind what you photograph and the dialogue between aesthetics and content. These are things I think every documentary photographer struggles with.


Kang Woon Gu is definitely someone whose work I will be checking out in a bit more depth...


In any case, The Museum of Photography in Seoul is worth a visit if you are in the city. Aside from the photography there is an excellent view (the gallery is in a high rise) and the Olympic park is just opposite so you can take a stroll before or after if you have the time.



3 comments:

Benjamin said...

Really loved your blog ... thoughtful and great commitment to pointing people in the direction of the stuff they simply wouldn't get a chance to see.

You might enjoy this on our blog. Chucking Out ... its a bit different to when your Grandma was growing up here!

http://duckrabbit.info/blog/?p=364

Benjamin said...

Really loved your blog ... thoughtful and great commitment to pointing people in the direction of the stuff they simply wouldn't get a chance to see.

You might enjoy this on our blog. Chucking Out ... its a bit different to when your Grandma was growing up here!

http://duckrabbit.info/blog/?p=364

Tom White said...

Thanks Benjamin - Duckrabbit looks like a great project.

T