Photographing the shadows of Korea's past.
Photographing the shadow of Korea’s past
Han Youngsoo used the Korean War as a prism to see his country and its people start anew. Can an artist go on to make art after seeing so much destruction?
The German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Ardono once asked, “Is it barbaric to write a poem after Auschwitz? This fact even corrodes the consciousness about the impossibility of writing a poem these days.” Many post-war artists of the 20th century struggled with answering that question as their country and friends witnessed tragedy of enormous scale. We focus on Han Youngsoo, a Korean photographer who roamed the streets of post-Korean War Seoul capturing moments of a society reeling from disaster and destruction.
Han Youngsoo was a relatively unknown photographer outside of his home country. Han showed an affinity to painting and drawing from a young age and with an inclination for the arts Han became interested in photography as a hobby shortly before the Korean War. Thrown into the front lines of the Korean War Han saw many tragedies of his home country that enraged him. But with his camera, he was able to see the country from smolder and despair to a modernized society. His series on Korea after the war was brought to light again by his daughter, Han Sunjung, with the help of artist friends and also Sunjung’s mother and Han’s wife, Pi Chunja. The rediscovery resulted in art exhibits around the world, with an exhibit at ICP Mana and the Waterfall Gallery, and three books titled ‘Seoul, Modern Times,’ ‘Once Upon a Time,’ and ‘Time Flows in River,’ released in that order. The first book was a retrospective of Han’s work as he took photos of Seoul in the wake of the Korean War. ‘Once Upon a Time’ focused on the children that would live after the pivotal moment in Korean history and lastly ‘Time Flows in River’ centered around the Han River, a major river in South Korea.
Unlike W. Eugene Smith’s work on Minamata, a Japanese coastal city plagued by mercury poisoning, or Gordon Parks’ photos of a Harlem family suffering in poverty, hunger, and homelessness, Han Youngsoo did not set foot in Seoul for us to bear witness the tragedies of the war. Yet he still focused on the everyday people putting down their roots and starting new. Han’s photos of Korea were seen through the eyes of an artist trying to create art in the aftermath of the Korean War. But his camera also played an important role in capturing the history of his country. Part ethnographer, part sociologist, and part photojournalist, Han Youngsoo captured what seemed everyday motions into a beautiful collage of the country and its people.
Around the time Han Youngsoo was walking around Seoul with his camera, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour was being shown at the 12th Cannes Film Festival in 1959. The movie’s seemingly simple plot revolved around two characters, a French actress filming in Hiroshima and a Japanese architect having a love affair, is sown in the psychological aftershocks of the living victims of World War II. The architect has experienced the end-of-days event of seeing his city leveled in the blink of an eye while the actress was caught in a forbidden romance with a German soldier. Her love affair and her stay at Hiroshima brings back memories of the past lover. Originally planned to be a documentary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Alain Resnais shifted the project’s focus to be a fictional work and that the event in Hiroshima in 1945 be refracted through the two characters in Hiroshima, mon amour. The opening sequence of Hiroshima mon amour captures the ethos of post-war and modernist cinema. A montage of photographs, newsreel, and shots of Hiroshima collides with scenes of the architect and actress entwined while off-screen the woman is listing all the things she’s seen in Hiroshima and the man replies by saying she has ‘seen nothing.’
Han Youngsoo’s photos of Korea are a clash of contrasts like the opening scene of Hiroshima, mon amour. Han’s photos were about the past and the present, tradition and modernity, the young and the old, east and the west, and beauty and remorse. We see photos of children playing with one another and we see students in school uniform trying to sell cigarettes. People dressed in traditional clothing are next to women in fur coats and heels, and a Korean village on a jagged hill is juxtaposed with boutique stores selling dresses and sun umbrellas. It is no coincidence that Ardono’s words are intertwined in Han Youngsoo’s photos and Renais’ Hiroshima, mon amour, as they both were figuring out is it possible to make art after such tragic world events. As we look at Han’s photos we ask ourselves the same question Ardono asked as he saw the horrors of World War II: is it possible to write a poem after the Korean War? Young June Lee, a photo critic, answers this question by saying, ‘it’s impossible until one builds a relationship between himself and the photographs he produces that does not end in sympathy or over-identification.’ Han’s photos were not epitaphs of his country’s tragedy or an oversimplified anthem overcoming hardships. Han used the war as a prism to look at his subjects, but never quite putting the war into the frame of his photographs. But doing so brought a new perspective into Korean society where we saw a country turn from a battlefield into a land where hidden beauty laid in the river, countryside, and most importantly its people.