Last fall, Ji and I took a road trip south out of Seoul with her mother and sister to Jirisan National Park looking for Cheonghakdong. We did not find the village of myth where Daoist sages ride blue cranes. What we found was rather more prosaic: a restaurant where we had a lovely lunch of roots and vegetables harvested from the surrounding mountain slopes and a chicken that the proprietor slaughtered for our meal. After lunch we purchased a box of persimmons to snack on during the rest of our road trip.
Photographer Ryu Eunkyu has spent over half his life photographing Cheonghakdong. The village he has found does have a hint of myth about it. After reading a newspaper article about an unusual village on Mt. Jirisan where the inhabitants grew their hair long, wore traditional Korean attire and lived by farming Ryu’s curiosity was piqued, and he traveled to the mystically suggestive village. After his first visit in 1982, Ryu returned again and again building friendships and making photographs. He is, as of the publication of the book in 2007, still photographing his friends, some of whom have now left the village.
Ryu works in a humanist documentary style. These photographs would not look out of place in a vintage Life magazine. While the photographs belie an easy familiarity, they do not get in the way of the subject and suggest an objective coverage of the subject. There is no flash and bang, only the story, gently told.
We are led into the village slowly by classic black and white photographs. The first photograph is of a large rock in the middle of a stream or pond. A gaggle of jangseung greet us next. We then come upon piles of stones in a row followed by a slender chimney (a pair of pipes, really) sending smoke skyward over thatched roofs with mountains in the background. It is not until the sixth photograph that a figure appears–and then only with his back to us as he walks up an incline, his long braid hanging down his back. Time is ambiguous.
Having been introduced to the village and given a form of welcome, we are then presented with the question: “Where are the Blue Cranes?” The answer is in the village’s children–who we now find laughing and playing in the wild of the woods. These scenes give way to students in the Confucian Schools before the book moves onto the fields and workplaces of the village. These scenes are intermingled with portraits and still lives.
Leaving the daily work Ryu brings us into the spiritual life of the village. This section falls short for me; it is too literal: people at prayer. The two photographs that stand out for me are the photograph of three men praying on page 103. The man in the center has raised his head and confronts us directly. Have we interrupted? Are we about to be scolded? Is that a look of pity that he is giving us? The second photograph is a nighttime flash lit photograph in which a group of men are performing a ritual. The white clothing of the man closest to the camera is burned out by the flash, while the clothing of the third man in line is gray and the fourth man has disappeared entirely. Are we coming forward out of darkness and dissolving into the light or are we slowly cooling from white hot to a diminished coal black? These two photographs speak to me of the underlying question of religious observance far more than the literal photographs of people praying.
The final chapter of the book is of meetings and partings: marriage and death. Here the layout shifts slightly. Throughout the book to this point the layout has followed two different templates, each with two variations: half page images at the top of the page either singly on the right hand page or a pair of images opposite one another or full bleed images either vertically on the right hand page or running double truck across a spread. (There is one outlier: the opening image of the religion section.) In the marriage and death chapter we still have full bleed images either on the right hand page or running double truck, but once we hit death the half page images at the top of each page have become smaller third page sized images running at the bottom of the right hand pages. It is unclear why the change has been made. Why diminish these particular images? Or why draw attention to them in this way? I note this design shift and wonder at its meaning because the design of the book seems so considered. The construction of the book feels particularly intentional with each detail reinforcing the content.
The book is wrapped in a plain cardboard slip case with only the title silk screened on the front. One must gently work this open before cracking the covers. The simple dust jacket gives the photographer’s name in small type and a photograph of a laughing middle aged man in addition to repeating the title from the slip case; on the rear of the dust jacket the title and photographer’s name is given in English, German, Chinese and Korean along the left edge. The books’ cover is even simpler: natural, slightly rough, white paper wrapped boards with only the title foil stamped on the spine in English, German, Chinese and Korean.
The design throughout the book is likewise simple and unadorned. The only color to appear in the book is the title page spread which is red. The remainder of the book is white pages with the plates and black pages with text denoting and describing different chapters. (All text is given in all four languages noted above.) At the end of the book an interview of Ryu by Kim Nuiyeon is printed on rice paper. This is followed by two sections of additional photographs; the first, a selection of then and now comparisons of various subjects from the book printed on light gray paper and a final section of additional photographs acting as a sort of timeline tracking changes in the village with vertical columns of images running chronologically by year from left to right.
The span of time represented in these photographs covers an enormous shift in political and social life in Korea–something hinted at in the interview and closing chapters of the book but not made into a moral judgement one way or another.
This is a beautiful quiet book. It has none of the flash or fireworks that much contemporary Korean photography tends towards. It is a work of classic humanistic photography, sharing with the viewer the human experience of a place.
This book was published by 2007 by Wow Images, and this review is of the hard cover edition. There is, I believe, a later paperback edition.