Nakgol Project, Architectural Photographers of Korea

The city of Seoul holds an annual Seoul Photo Festival. In 2012 the festival’s theme was “A Thousand Villages, A Thousand Memories.” Given my interest in the ways that urban planning, urban infrastructure, daily routine, memory and image making intersect this show was hard to resist.

The intermingling of professional works with personal snapshots was handled with aplomb. Rather than reduce the personal work by elevating it to professional stature, these private documents were treated as vernacular ephemera and presented as such. In fact, while there was much good professional work in the exhibit, the tight spaces that the Seoul Art Museum’s first floor was carved up into made its presentation cramped. In comparison, the vernacular snapshots held up very well in the small rooms.

Among the standouts in the 2012 show: Dueg Young Lee’s satellite composites (or aerial photographs?) of Seoul street grids; Se Kown Ahn’s photographs of the excavation of Cheonggyecheon; Ki Chan Kim’s black and white photographs of Seoul in the early 80’s full of fun and energy; and Han Chungshik’s documentary photographs from the 70’s. The Dream Flower Factory and Union of Workers for Producing Non Waste community projects were also wonderful. (I’m a year late in noting all of this as now even the 2013 Seoul Photo Festival has concluded…)

There was one standout, in particular, for me: the Nakgol Project by the Architectural Photographers of Korea. This was an unassuming, slim, softbound book of rough halftones. The book was presented in the show as a book: one could flip through the book itself, mounted to a shelf, or follow the book’s spreads mounted on the wall. The book’s dense, tightly composed photographs depict Nakgol, an area of unlicensed shacks in an isolated hilly Seoul neighborhood, as it existed in 2001. The photographs are like an extension of Yong Kim’s photos from the 60’s (not his advertising work) or Han Chungshik’s photos from the 70’s, both of which were earlier in the exhibition.

The photographs in the catalog are dated 2001-2002, though the book appeared to have been published in 2001. Between 2002 and 2006, the neighborhood (which one might also have described as a “squatter settlement”) was redeveloped into a series of apartment blocks. Having witnessed the extreme rate of change in Seoul, this book reads both like a document meant to save the memory of the place and as one meant to hasten the process of redevelopment. The book preserves the place while simultaneously presaging its doom or rebirth depending on one’s particular vantage point.

One might consider this book in relation to Se Kown Ahn’s photographs of Cheonsgyecheon’s “re-development.” The Nakgol Project depicts an “old” Seoul about to be replaced with a modern Seoul, which in this case means a developed Seoul. In Ahn’s photographs, the process is reversed: the concrete and rebar of previous decades’ development are being removed to renew an ancient public waterway. Modern in this case is what once was. I ought to note that the comparison isn’t perfect as Cheongsyecheon is very much a modern space designed and utilized with contemporary values; but, its essence and origin is ancient.

Nakgol Project is the 2012 Seoul Photo Festival’s theme in compact form. It presents multiple ways of seeing a place. We can read into it the memory of a place that once was; a living space engaged by its inhabitants; or, an opportunity to advance the city forward. It is quite an achievement.

Nakgol Project
Architectural Photographers of Korea
2001 or 2002

(I have no other information; no link to the book, no link to the APoK… if anyone knows where I can find a copy of this publication or a link to the creators, I would very much appreciate either.)