Views of Joseon in Japanese eyesLike old photographs, politically and socially sensitive issues can fade over time. What remains unchanged, however, is the justice of history, which leaves behind compelling stories.
Decades ago, a startlingly gruesome photograph depicting Korean civilians being lynched by Japanese soldiers might have caused a national outcry. But, such photos in a Korean book, “Postcards From Joseon,” published last month (Minumsa Publishing Co., 20,000 won or $20), seem to have been reduced to a nostalgic reminder of the country’s bygone era.
Yet this is a substantial 284-page book, containing photos of more than 300 postcards of the Japanese colonial period, from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The author, Gwon Hyeok-hui, has divided the book into two segments: the cultural interpretation of the early postcard as a means of communication, and images of Koreans in the late Joseon era as seen through the eyes of the Japanese.
In 2002, the Korean author was deeply inspired by the book “Orientalism” by the late literary critic and Palestinian activist Edward Said. His theory on imperialism argues that colonization extends beyond control of the territory, resources and governance of the colonized nation, and that the prejudice of Western countries affects the culture of the colonized country, through such means as novels, films and commercialized artifacts.
Formerly a museum curator in Busan, Mr. Gwon now works for the Cultural Property Division of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. He confesses his three-year research on the subject of colonial postcards was that of a dilettante, and notes that compared to the academic research conducted by America’s leading cultural institutions, such as the Smithsonian Institution, his book is more of a liberal arts tome for the general public.
But the author’s compilation, which differs from previously published books in Korea on images depicting the lives and personalities of Koreans in the same era, sheds new light on compelling sociocultural interpretations between the colonizers, the Japanese, and the colonized, the Koreans.
Of the approximately 1,500 images he has collected, mostly consisting of postcards and prints, Mr. Gwon used 200, which make up about two-thirds of the images in the book; the rest are from private collectors and museums. The photographs of folk customs are the author’s own prints made from the ambrotypes (an early form of photography on glass plates) produced by the Japanese scholar Murayama Chijun (1891-1968). The Japanese scholar’s collection, about 30,000 images of Korean culture, is now part of the National Museum of Korea.
Through postcards, a highly commercialized form of photography in the 19th century, Mr. Gwon delves into the so-called “politics of representation,” or the relationship between the photographer and his subjects.
In her critique of the book, Kim Mi-hyeon, an Ewha Womans University professor, wrote that it approached “postcards as the miniature of imperialist nations” from a cultural angle, which suggests “violence inflicted upon Koreans through the camera, a weapon more lethal than the gun.”
“Before, only the photographic portion on postcards mattered, so Japanese and English captions were lopped off. By leaving the way Koreans were described by the maker [of the image], we can better perceive the producer’s original intention,” Mr. Gwon explains. “The postcard was a new, cheaper way of communication incorporating modern printing technology, and images of the colony and its people specially made for curious foreigners were highly commercialized.”
Mr. Gwon obtained his holdings from individual collectors as well as online shopping malls. A postcard typically cost him a few thousand won, but a rare one fetched over 100,000 won ($100). He says the condition of the existing postcards is very good since high-quality paper and Japanese printing technology were used. These postcards were sold and thus were common in Japan, but because they have been avidly purchased by Koreans, they are now hard to find.
The author begins the book with a black-and-white photograph of prisoners. Pointing to the shadow of the hidden photographer in the frame, Mr. Gwon ponders whether the scene was staged. “Producers of postcards in those days probably looked for ‘interesting’ souvenir photos that could sell well,” he noted.
On tourist postcards targeting Japanese and Westerners, for example, “exotic” images of Joseon women shrouded in hanbok overcoats were sold along with those of Algerian women in chador.
Many photographs have fixed formats, which Mr. Said criticized as “falsely romanticizing” Asian traditions. Women and men of various social classes are posed to show details of Korean hairdos and costumes. There are studio shots in which “models” portray the Korean way of life. The photographs are mostly black and white, but there are hand-painted prints in color. The book includes actual postcards carrying personal messages as well as popular songs and poetry of the time.
One of best-selling types was photographs listing the measurements and scientific descriptions of naked Korean males, who appear to be nothing more than specimens for anthropological research. For comparison purposes, in the first part of the book, the author included postcards sold in colonial America, which depicted “specimens” of Native Americans and Africans.
While the documentary-style photos on the crude lives of Josen people were considered exotic, even grotesque, to foreigners and starkly beautiful to contemporary eyes, they caused outrage among Korean intellectuals in those days. Mr. Gwon found a newspaper article describing how the Korean elite resented the Japanese exploitation of Korea through photographs.
Throughout the book are outdated yet desperate attempts by the Japanese to define Korean aesthetics, which the author compares to the cliched analysis of Westerners persistently introducing “civilization” through missionaries in the Third World.
The book ends with a postcard with an English title, “Latest Fashions,” in which a young woman tries on an overcoat while being watched by male passers-by. This is an ordinary market scene, but the author wants readers to see the hidden layers of relations ―who’s really watching and being watched ― at the height of commercialism, all in the somewhat faded context of history.
by Ines Cho