Magnum Korea

Alex Majoli

The Hankyoreh, a newspaper and media company in Korea, commissioned Magnum to produce a series of photographs to commemorate South Korea's 60th anniversary and the company's own 20th anniversary. The Resulting project is apparantly the largest single undertaking by the Magnum agency, who sent 20 of it's photographers to South Korea between the end of 2006 and the start of 2008 with each spending between 10 and 60 days in the country. (Though I think Eugene Smith's Pittsburg photographs might be a contender for the costliest Magnum project..)

The Magnum Korea Exhibition opened in Seoul in the summer of 2008 and was a roaring success, with record breaking attendance. It has just opened in Deajeon, where I am staying, so I went to check it out.

I have to say it is a bit of a mixed bag. I was actually pretty underwhelmed by a lot of the work. More than a few times I though to myself, 'I don't care who you are, that is a crap photo.' I got the impression that a few of the photograpers were either just going through the motions, or just didn't bother to try. About half way through looking at the photos my wife screwed up her face and said, 'It doesn't really say anything about Korea, really.'

She's Korean, so I take it she should know.

She also pointed out a Martin Parr photograph that showed a bunch of brightly coloured products - in typical Parr fashion - that were in fact Japanese. Oops.

I guess this is the problem. If a photographer is sent to a country to photograph without a specific agenda then the result can sometimes be little better than what any visitor with a camera might discover. I started to think that there was not much to Korea except the streets of Seoul and some fairly recognisable tourist spots.

That said, It wasn't all bad. In fact, there were a lot of amazing photographs, ones that you would think deserving of photographers who were part of the notoriously elite 'world's most famous' photography agency. However, these images got a little diluted in this exhibition. Perhaps it is a matter of expectation. You would expect every photograph to come from Magnum to be exceptional. Why would it be otherwise? This agency is the 'old boy's club' of photo agencies. You have to be something special to be a member. In reality though, a Magnum photographer can take a bad picture just like anybody else.

Maybe I'm just being a bit hypercritical though. As I say, there were a ton of good and great photographs in this collection, enough to keep me happy. Every photographer had more than one excellent image in the show, and in particular I enjoyed the work by Alex Majoli, David Alan Harvey, Steve McCurry and Jean Gaumy, whose series on the fishing industry stood head and shoulders above much of the rest for me. He seemed to be the only photographer who had really focused on something, followed it and produced some great photographs as a result. He is well known for his work on this subject so perhaps it wasn't too hard for him but still, an excellent series nonetheless.

There's no doubt that this was a huge project, and despite some glaring ommissions, some mediocre photography and even a few dodgy prints I think this is a fantastic introduction to Korean culture, and one which is well worth a look. There is talk of the exhibit travelling outside of the country and I hope this actually happens. The best photographs in this exhibit are amazing and even if with my limited experience of Korea I consider the country to be woefully under-represented here I would still recommend checking it out.

Steve McCurry

The Korean version of the publication that accompanies the exhibit is well produced and contains a slightly different selection. An english language version will be published before the end of the year, and I will probably succumb to my book fetish and buy a copy. There are photographs here I will want to look at more than a few times.

As an aside, you can check out some of the photographs from my first visit to the country here.

A slideshow of some of the Magnum photographs can be found here.

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