ajumma, Hyoung Kuhn Oh

The very first Korean word that I learned was “ajumma.” That makes no sense; why not “ahn nyong ha se yo” or “sarang hea yo”? I don’t know; the word must have just come up somehow. Anyway, let’s talk ajumma, Hyoung Kuhn Oh’s ajumma.

I got this book on my first trip to Korea. It should never have ended up in my basket. The cover was tatty; the title was difficult to read against the dark cover stock; some of the signatures were starting to fall out; the printing is flat and dark. The photographs are, however, poignant and funny and a little sinister. The book is not without its charms (and two essays with English translations…).

In straight forward direct portraiture, Oh presents a taxonomy of the ajumma. He worked for two years with a square format camera photographing middle aged married women on the street. By working with an on-camera flash combined with a high sync speed (and mechanical vignetting or shadowing along the bottom of the frame) he places the women into a permanent evening from which they emerge, glowing–or glowering, as the case might be. The photographs are not kind, though they do have a kind of affection.

The ajumma is a type, one that Oh breaks down into fine gradations. An ajumma is a middle aged married woman with overtones of aggressive assertiveness, an unfashionable sartorial aesthetic, and a lack of class. Oh’s photographs leave this general description aside for specific individuating captions. “A young ajumma; an ajumma with a floral scarf; an ajumma wearing a jade green hanbok; an ajumma wearing a tiger fur print dress; an ajumma with a bag; an ajumma with a crocodile bag. The photographs are captioned with the significant marker of an ajumma’s particular ajumma-ness: clothing, accessories, characteristics. The captions are deadpan, as though from a detail one might extrapolate an extensive explanation of everything ajumma.

In the harsh glare of the flash, one might consider Oh’s photographs distant cousins to Bruce Gilden‘s flash lit street photos or with their attention to individual fashion choices as dark quirky precursors to The Sartorialist‘s street fashion observations. Or they might simply be off beat outliers like the very idea of the ajumma, something uniquely Korean.

Ajumma was produced with support from the Artsonje Center and accompanied an exhibit there in Spring of 1999. It includes essays by critics Ji-Sook Paik and Young June Lee.

Photographer: Hyoung Kuhn Lee [With the exception of this book and the attendant exhibit, his name is transliterated: Hein Kuhn Oh.]
Hong Design Publication