A frank depiction of a Korea in flux

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A frank depiction of a Korea in flux

When an Australian photographer named George Ross arrived in Korea in 1904, the country was going through hurried transitions. Signs of modernization and Western influence were beginning to creep in throughout the country.
Tram tracks had just been laid down in the central streets of Seoul. English signs were posted on stores owned by international settlers near Jemulpo, a harbor city.
Christianity was accepted as an increasingly popular local religion, with Myungdong Cathedral, a giant symbol of the Western presence, having been built in downtown Seoul just six years prior to Mr. Ross’s arrival.
It was amid this vivid flux of tradition and modernity that Mr. Ross, one of the few professional photographers to produce images of early Korea, documented the everyday lives of locals, with the help of two Japanese assistants.
His photographs, most of them in the California Museum of Photography’s collection in Riverside, have been assembled by the Australia-Korea Foundation and Kyobo Book Centre in a 130-page photo book with Korean and English text, titled “1904: Korea Through Australian Eyes.”
One of the notable aspects of the book ― besides the startling print quality, attesting to the glass negatives’ excellent condition ― is how honestly the subjects are portrayed. The images feel like natural snapshots, with only a few composed shots that play with artful perspectives.
Overall, they reflect the curious eyes of a foreigner who was probably on his first visit to Korea without knowing much about its history. Mr. Ross’s camera manages to capture the essence of moments without seeming to intrude.
Notes written on the backs of the photos clearly show the photographer to be an outsider looking in. In one, he observes different Korean outfits, noting that “the more grotesque and unconventional his headgear, the prouder he seems to be of it ... the more important the individual, the greater his hat, and the baggier his dress.” It’s an interesting analysis, considering that male Joseon Dynasty aristocrats often wore long cloaks, or durumagi, with intricate hats often hand-woven out of bamboo.
The language barrier was what put Mr. Ross in the position of being a mere spectator, says Rodney Hall of the Australia-Korea Foundation, who helped put the book together.
“[In places] where he could talk to people and make himself understood, he tended to compose his pictures, to set up each scene and explain where he wanted his subjects to stand,” says Mr. Hall.
“By contrast, in foreign countries like Korea, he could not speak the language. It was far more difficult to intervene, so he photographed people and places as he found them.”
The photos can deepen a reader’s understanding of the period. Norman Thorpe, a Korean studies scholar at Whitworth College in Washington state, who helped put the photographs into historical context, said they document some folk customs that have been overlooked.
For example, gat, the traditional hats, are often thought of as black, but they appear white in one of Mr. Ross’s pictures. The scholar found that these white hats, called baeng-nip, were worn during times of national mourning. At the time of the photo, people were mourning the death of Crown Prince Sunjong’s wife.
Another picture, a view taken from the city wall near the South Gate, captures a Korean man climbing the 12-meter wall, risking his life just to avoid walking all the way around the city gate.
Mr. Ross’s photographs show that Joseon in 1904 was still under the influence of feudalistic traditions. Very few women are seen in street pictures, while some appear with their faces covered by jangot, long cloaks to hide them from the eyes of men.
The pictures capture other details of ordinary life that are often overlooked in written documents, such as taffy peddlers on the streets and farmers smoking pipes while plowing rice paddies.
Mr. Thorpe notes that Mr. Ross made a special effort to photograph scenes that play with depth of field, to evoke a sense of three-dimensional space in the viewer.
One such photograph is taken from a bird’s-eye view along the walls ― clearly differentiating Mr. Ross’s work from that of amateur photographers, who often shot only the front of the gates.
Stereographs were a major source of entertainment among the wealthy before the advent of motion pictures in the West. Mr. Ross, a commercial photographer, had probably hoped that his travelogue pictures of Asian countries would have wide appeal for his Western audience.
Many of his photographs were well-received, and most were eventually donated to the California Museum of Photography.
“He had good eyes,” says Mr. Thorpe. “He had a wonderful sense of space. He knew exactly what angle his subjects would [take] on the page when he set up his tripod.”

by Park Soo-mee

Some of the photographs from “1904: Korea Through Australian Eyes” will be exhibited in the atrium of Kyobo Book Centre in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, through Wednesday. Norman Thorpe will discuss the book at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Seoul Selection bookstore in the Jongno district; call (02) 734-9565. The cost of the book is 50,000 won ($43).
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