Gelatin Dry Plates in Custody of the National Museum of Korea

While my primary intent with this blog is to contribute to the critical history of Korean Photography, each of the reviews is also an opportunity for me to step into my collection and spend time with a particular volume. This is the selfish side of this endeavor: it is an excuse to spend time with these books. The subject of this review is a sort of guilty pleasure in that it doesn’t fit perfectly within my stated boundaries of my collection.

While visiting Korea for the first time in 2006, my future-wife, future-mother-in-law and I visited the National Museum of Korea. We had gone primarily for the special exhibit, though the title of the exhibit is escaping me. The only piece that I remember clearly is a gold necklace from a royal tomb and presented in such a way as to suggest the archeological context from which it had been taken. It felt like one was right there discovering the artifact oneself. After the special exhibit we wandered through the halls of the museum. Though I can’t remember any specific pieces without pulling out my notebook from the trip, the grandeur and light of the museum’s central corridor sticks with me, as does a vague memory of the calligraphy murmuring forward and back across centuries. We ended our visit with lunch and a stop in the museum’s bookshop.

The mission of the museum leans heavily towards the nations’ cultural heritage from a historical standpoint. It is very much like the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Given this context, photography plays only the smallest of roles in the museum’s collection. In the permanent displays I don’t remember seeing a single photograph. Given the museum’s mission this makes sense. I was delighted, then, to find a book of photographs in the museum shop of photographs from the museum’s collection. The book, Gelatin Dry Plates in Custody of the National Museum of Korea, presents exactly what its dry title suggests: Joseon era photographs of the royal palaces of Joseon. The photographs were made between 1909 and 1945 as part of a military survey commissioned by the Japanese government during its occupation of Korea. The survey comprised 38,000 photographs, of which roughly 800 are of the palaces. Just shy of 500 of these are presented in this book. Flipping through the book feels very much akin to flipping through a box of dry plates–and in the notes before the table of contents the description of the layout being left to right and top to bottom suggests that the layout was intended less to create a critical interpretation than an open archive of possible interpretations. This is a collection of photographs whose internal context provides plenty of direction for interpretation without need for curatorial intervention. (From a preservation standpoint, the photographs certainly require curatorial intervention.)

The photographs in their documentary rigor, inventiveness of composition and groupings of images feel oddly modern. Near the very beginning of the book there is a pair of images on pages 24 and 25 of the corridor of Geunjeongmun Gate and Wolhwamun Gate. The two photographs are like a single panoramic photograph split down the middle–as though the photographer had simply shift his lens left to take the first picture and then shifted it right to take the second picture. The pair are near mirror images of one another save for a lone ever green tree at the edge of the right hand photograph. They feel ahead of their time.

Only a few pages later, there is an irregularly shaped photograph of a wall decorated with flower designs at Jagyeongjeon Hall. The photograph’s shape traces that of the wall decoration. Again, the photograph feels like it could have been made by a contemporary artist trying to break from the generally accepted rectangular constraint of the frame. One might think of this in the exact opposite way. Only 50 years into the history of photography the photographer may have felt free to use whatever shaped frame he wished. Another view might be that the photographer was unconcerned with any formal attributes of his work (unlikely) and simply made the photographs in whatever way seemed most expedient to his task at hand.

Many of the images, owing to defects in the plates or emulsions or to damage sustained during storage, have edges that seem to bubble away, as though time is physically encroaching on the images. This is both beautiful and horrifying at once. The damage reminds me of my own Direct Forms photographs. These historical photographs are marked by the same effects of decay that I was creating deliberately. This is exactly the ravages of time that I was interested in: the way that something becomes something else, the way that time continues on. This is a personal interest. I don’t believe that it is critically relevant.

While most of the photographs resonate primarily as beautiful and nostalgic records of beautiful cultural treasures born of a distinct national history, the politics that is contemporary to the photographs pokes into many of them. There are two political aspects that I want to look at briefly: The first is the visually apparent shift from traditional to modern society. The second is the occupation that commissioned these photographs. The photograph on page 70, a view of “Gyeongbokgung Palace and Vicinity,” traverses both. The foreground of the photograph is Gyeongbokgung. The palace is shrouded with trees. One nearly overlooks it. Behind the palace, in the photograph’s middle ground and stretching to the background is the Government General Office of Joseon. This is the building from which the Japanese Govern General of Korea administered “Chosun.” In the photograph it is the brightest element. It is the tallest element. It stands gleaming. And, it is dead center. The political meaning couldn’t be more clear: modernity is here and modernity is a Japanese future. In another photograph, this one of Yeongchumun Gate, a Japanese policeman who has remained still through the exposure is staring at the camera. The rest of the people in the photograph are a blur of movement, more or less rapid. This policeman is the only figure to address the camera–and he seems as solid and as permanent as the stone gate behind him. In fact, he seems more solid and permanent as the gate has fallen to ruble along one side.

In the photographs of the Crown Prince and Princess, there is a definite melancholy. In a group photograph of the Crown Prince and Princess and their entourage at their suite at Injeongjeon Hall, there are the traces of many emotions. The one that leaps out to me most is a sadness or resignation that appears on the faces of the women standing behind the royals. In another photograph of the royals at Yeonghwadang House, it is again a Japanese policeman, standing still in the background, who becomes solid, permanent. The royals are by comparison blurred with motion, dissolving into a blur.

As with any archive, a different edit or arrangement can change the meaning entirely. This is what I find so enjoyable about this book. I can retrace my steps through Changgyeonggung Palace. Or I can flip absentmindedly through page after page of beautiful photographs of beautiful objects, many now lost. Or, I can examine critically the ways in which the photographs limn the political and historical forces at work. While this book sits outside of my primary collecting MO, it provides a sense of historical perspective and weight.

This book is volume one; I presume that there is a second volume, but it was not available at the time I visited the museum. For anyone visiting the Museum, keeping an eye out for this or the second volume would be well worth it.