PICTURES OF THE PASTMention photography of Korean cultural artifacts to the fellow on the street, and you will probably draw a blank stare. But in rarefied circles of museum curators and academia, the name Han Seok-hong will surely come up.
Besides photographing artifacts at all of Korea’s national museums, Mr. Han has done work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Japan Foundation in Tokyo. He also held his own exhibit in Vienna.
Despite his reputation, he firmly believes in art for art’s sake.
“A great photograph of an artifact should bring out the best in the object,” he says. “Instead of hearing people say, ‘Oh, this is a great shot taken by Han Seok-hong,’ I’d rather hear, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful artifact.’ Then I feel I have done my job.”
Mr. Han, 63, has juggled several projects in recent months. After wrapping up a shoot of burial garb from the 16th century tomb of a Papyeong Yun lady, at the Korea University museum, he will dive into photographing the Jeju National Museum’s exhibit on the 17th century Dutch explorer of Korea, Hendrick Hamel, as well as Soongshil University museum’s artifacts. He just finished a digital archiving project of nearly one thousand items from the National Museum of Korea, a 20-month-long undertaking.
In the offices of Korea’s museums and those abroad, Mr. Han’s name is synonymous with excellence in this esoteric specialty.
“He is the best in the country,” says Chung Yang-mo, a former director of the National Museum of Korea and current chairman of Korea’s Cultural Properties Committee, who first met Mr. Han in 1969. “I can testify that when it comes to taking indoor photos of artifacts, such as ceramics and paintings, no one comes close to Mr. Han. He had a deep devotion to our cultural artifacts, which enabled him to take the finest shots.”
Officials at the Japan Society of New York, whose exhibit on early Buddhist art from Korea and Japan continues until June 22, have also praised Mr. Han’s photographic cataloguing of their show.
Park Yeong-bok, director of the Gyeongju National Museum, describes Mr. Han as a “master of cultural art,” and talented in arranging backgrounds ― such as choosing the appropriate color or angle ― to make an artifact shine.
At first blush, snapping photos of artifacts may seem pretty simple. However, it is more challenging than it seems; it means striking a compromise with the setting.
“In most cases, the museum will not allow me to handle the artifacts,” Mr. Han explains. “So I have to bring a studio to the setting and make the most of the environment to create the perfect lighting.”
Mr. Han stresses that it takes more than simply cranking out one roll of film after another to attain his level of accomplishment.
“To produce truly magnificent photos, you need an eye for art. An appreciation and understanding of cultural art,” he says. “When I look at a celadon, I try to envision what color it is and how it would reflect natural sunlight. Then I arrange the lighting so that its natural color radiates in the still photo.”
On numerous occasions, he has taken scores of photographs of one object, to find that each one produced a different feeling. “The artifacts stay the same, but my photos keep changing. It has to do with my perspective; as time passes, my perspective improves.”
Mr. Han juxtaposes two photos of Korean National Treasure No. 83, a statue of a gilt-bronze half-seated Maitreya. One was taken by himself, another by a different photographer.
Upon careful inspection, a discernible contrast in the quality of the two photos can be seen. The latter shows a coarseness to the statue’s texture, while Mr. Han’s shows a fine complexion.
“The details are in the lighting effects,” he explains. “Of course, background and angle is important too, but how you define the shade brings out the best in the artifacts. I know where the lighting must go to focus on the curves and fixtures.”
Pointing to the statue’s face, he proclaims: “It’s more stunning than Mona Lisa’s smile.” Gushing, he admits to a preference for capturing Buddhist statues on camera.
Not for a moment does Mr. Han regret not focusing on the better-paid commercial work, as many of his peers have done, and indeed he prides himself on achieving a significant reputation as a cultural treasures specialist. The catalogs he helps produce ― what he calls “a moving museum” ― are valuable research tools for scholars and curators, who study them and may publish research based on their perusals of these catalogs.
“I may have not made much of a fortune, but it was a personal feat for me,” Mr. Han explains.
After graduating from Seorabeol Arts College (which later merged into Chung-Ang University) in 1967, Mr. Han never foresaw the future source of his daily bread.
But in 1970, his vocation began to take form. At the time he was doing odd jobs for a printing press, which happened to include taking photos of an exhibit at Deoksu Palace.
Lee Byung-chul, the Samsung Group’s founder and chairman at the time, was organizing his first “HoAm Collection” exhibition of his personal art collection. Mr. Han was hired to photograph the chairman’s prized artwork.
While tackling the HoAm project, he learned that the National Museum had hired a Japanese photographer for a project cataloguing Korea’s national treasures, which inspired him to become a professional in that field. As Mr. Han put it, “I felt ashamed that we had to invite a Japanese to take photos of our cultural heritage.”
The 1971 HoAm collection catalog sold briskly, according to Mr. Han. From then on, cultural arts-related projects became his forte and project offers poured in.
From Gongju and Gyeongju to Gwangju, Jeonju ― and of course Seoul ― his work has spanned every national museum in Korea.
One of Mr. Han’s most memorable projects sent him to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in 1990. The exhibit, “Scythian Gold from the State Hermitage Museum,” was to show in Korea to mark the first anniversary of the Soviet-Korean diplomatic relations, and Mr. Han was at the helm of photography for the catalog.
Leafing through that catalog, Mr. Han relives the excitement of that long-ago assignment. “Just look at this magnificent gold craftsmanship. Can you believe they are from the 5th century B.C.? We were making clay pots in this period when these people were showing exquisite skill in gold.”
This project was a milestone in Mr. Han’s career, he says, by virtue of the fact the Soviets invited a Korean to take photos of their artifacts. His recognition reached a climax in 1999, when one of the world’s preeminent art museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, opened a Korea gallery and invited him ― not one of the 22 in-house photographers ― to shoot for a catalog.
As Mr. Han explains it, the staff at the Met was not skilled at capturing the beauty of Korean celadon. “You see, photographing ceramics is a delicate task that requires extra care in lighting effects. If you’re not careful, the cracks will show. What’s more, it’s vital to bring out the innate texture of the ceramics.”
One reason why Mr. Han has excelled in his field may have to do with the lack of competition due to the small market for cultural artifact photography. It’s so small, Mr. Han has been pushed into commercial work to make ends meet.
“It’s not easy to make money merely from museum photographs,” he admits.
by Choi Jie-ho