Documenting Korea’s tragedy with only pride and a camera

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Documenting Korea’s tragedy with only pride and a camera

Ju Myeong-deok, 66, calls his camera his “pride.”
“Photography is the highest form of art, as it deals with the art of fact and documentation,” he says. “Ever since I began shooting, I wanted to show everything about Korean society honestly, like a mirror.”
Indeed, in his 40-year career in art photography, he captured Korea’s rise from poverty to modernity; he says he’s proud of having served as “a social mirror.”
Ju was part of a second wave of Korean photography, after the medium gained respect here as a legitimate form of art. After studying theology at college, he opened his first exhibition on his famous series of black-and-white photographs of war orphans, “Photo Essay ― Holt Orphanage” in 1966.
The photographer recently put together a retrospective of 600 of his works done over four decades.
“Ju Myeong-deok: Retrospective,” currently on display at ArtSonje Museum in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang province, gives viewers a glimpse into Korean history ― through his lens, of course.
Unlike the commercialism that defines so much Korean photography these days, in which only works that are “big and with elaborate frames” can sell, critics say his works have a “living consciousness.”
One picture of a biracial girl, which was shot in the ’60s at the Holt Orphanage, is an image Ju said he was moved to record after meeting with the war orphans.
“I have no one related to me by blood,” the girl told the artist. “I don’t have a life. I don’t have emotions. All I have is black skin and a fate I cannot disobey.” In many ways, the girl’s plight echoed the tragedy of the Korean War.
About one-third of his works are black-and-white portraits. One of them is Oh Su-mi, a famous actress who died in a car crash in the ’80s, whom Ju dubbed his favorite model. Other portraits include the Venerable Seongcheol, a Buddhist monk.
“To a photographer, doing portraits is unavoidable,” he says. “People get more energy from other people [than from other objects].”
In his “Black Landscape” series in the late ’80s, he used varied gradations of dark shades to mimic the feeling of traditional Asian ink paintings.
In the end, he went from documenting Korea’s heritage to doing portraits, moving away from nature and towards the urban landscape.


by Jong Jae-suk

“Ju Myeong-deok: Retrospective” will be on display through Oct. 31 at ArtSonje Museum in Gyeongju. For more information, call (054) 745-7075.
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