Pictorial Seoul and Seoul Essay

Sometimes a photo book isn’t a photo book. These two titles make extensive use of photography, but are not what one might ordinarily think of as a photo book. The photographs in both are used as practical illustrations; the books are wonderful photographic documents depicting Seoul at specific points in history. In a way, Seoul Essay is an update forty years on of This Is Seoul. Though, really, it would hard for any book about Seoul to be considered up to date even a week after publication.

I’ll start with This is Seoul, as it is older. My copy is rather ragtag. It’s dust jacket is dog-eared, it’s soft covers are wavy and it has a definite musty smell. Several pages were once stuck together and show some water damage. It was never meant to last this long–and I’m sure the publisher would prefer, if he were alive today, that I set his publication aside and get something a little more up to date, something that sings the current praises of Seoul. This is a marketing piece. It was meant to encourage tourist visits to Seoul and was lavished with a fair amount of attention. The book opens with a four page pull out that has a panoramic view of Seoul from Namsan along its top half and a history (sales pitch) of Seoul along the bottom. This design flourish feels remarkably contemporary–as do several other pages in what are generally irregular layouts. The bulk of the book is photographs of Seoul: vistas, street life, treasures and modern advancements. It implies where one ought to stay, what one ought to see, and what one ought to bring home as mementos.

Seoul Essay is similar in that it is a document of the city at a point in time. The structure of this book is of a journey from Gyeong Bok Gung south along various avenues, across the river and to the Seoul Arts Center. This traverse of Seoul is plotted over an 18th century map of Seoul placed on the book’s frontispiece. The book is broken into chapters focused on a particular neighborhood or road along the traverse. Each chapter is roughly evenly split between text (Korean only) and photographs. The photographs are absolutely banal: this building is here; the signage looks thus; the avenue is wide; the outdoor market is crowded. There is no guile in or anything beguiling about the photographs. They are descriptive only–and often barely that. This is what Seoul looks like. (Or, more accurately looked like. The text does all the heavy lifting (or I assume it does, as I cannot read it and had only the TOC translated for me) in terms of giving significance to the facts presented by the photographs. (To be fair, there are a handful of good photographs; many of which are aerial views of the city.)

The city presented in each book is entirely different from that of the other and different again than the present physical Seoul. To make the point quickly: On the rear cover of Seoul Essay is a photograph looking down Sejong-ro as it approaches Gyeong Bok Gung. There is the statue of Admiral Yi surrounded by 17 lanes of traffic. Even five years after this picture was (likely) taken (and four after the book was published) this vantage was already drastically different. The center seven lanes of the avenue were given over to a pedestrian mall. The statue dominating the scene is now that of King Sejong. A couple of years after that an underground museum dedicated to King Sejong was opened. Even a casual glance at the buildings at the intersection with Saemunan-ro will show that there is enormous change in the city’s physical fabric. Looking at any number photographs from This is Seoul and comparing them to modern Seoul is surreal. The image running across the spread of pages 28 and 29 shows “A night view of Seoul.” There is darkness in the foothills in the background; there is darkness on the smaller streets. Darkness is in short supply in modern Seoul; it is one of the brightest if not the brightest city that I have ever been to.

While neither is intended as a photo book as that term is generally applied, both are fascinating photographic documents that define Seoul at a point in time. They are like twin time capsules.

Seoul Essay: A Portrait of Modernity, Traversing Seoul
Photographers: Kim Hong-bin & Joo Myung-duck
Publisher: Youlhwadang Publisher
Copyright 2002
184 pages
Printed in Korea

Pictorial Seoul / This Is SEOUL
Photographer: Photo Department, Bando Hotel
Editor: Kim Young Sang
Publisher: Chai Pong Koh, Chief of Editorial Committee of Seoul History, Editorial Committee of Seoul History
Copyright 4290 (Gregorian Calendar: 1957)