Photographs chart history as recording becomes art

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Photographs chart history as recording becomes art

Although it is hard to imagine today that photography was once seen as merely a recording tool, it took quite a few visionaries with artistic passion to show the world the medium is an art form capable of expressing one’s philosophies, insights and emotions.

In an ambitious, large-scale exhibition, “Man Ray and World History Photo Exhibition,” encompassing over 450 photographic works by the pillars of modern photography, the Kim Young Seob Photogallery aims to showcase how photographs turned from strict documentation to art.
The gallery, which specializes in photography, has been working toward this exhibition since its opening in 2003. “This exhibition is both a retrospective of modern photography and a retrospective of the works represented at our gallery. In a way, all the shows at our gallery have been in preparation for this exhibition,” said Choi Yu-jin, director of the gallery.
With a spotlight on Man Ray, work by 66 photographers, including Nadar, Andre Kertesz, Robert Doisneau, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Avedon will be featured. Because of the scale, the Kim Young Seob Photogallery has borrowed the Seoul Arts Center’s Hangaram Art Museum, from Nov. 4 to Dec. 16, and divided the exhibition into two main parts. All photographs are original vintage prints.

Hall 1 of the museum will hold a Man Ray exhibition with 120 works by the late surrealist. Hall 2 will display the “World History Photo Exhibition.” The latter will feature one section showing around 30 works by each of nine major photographers who defined the borders of this art form (Euge Atget, Kertesz, Doisneau, Brassai, Bill Brandt, Robert Frank, Stieglitz, Garry Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson). The photographs by the remaining 56 artists will be displayed in chronological order, from 1840 through to the 1970s, so the evolution of photographic movements they belonged to can be seen in order as visitors walk through the hall.
Man Ray, the American photographer, painter and filmmaker who was a significant part of both the Dada and Surrealist movements in both the United States and France, has been especially highlighted in this exhibit. The gallery claims, “Man Ray exhibitions, featuring only this one artist on such a large scale, have been rare, not only in Asia but all over the world.”
The impressive collection of 120 photographs by Man Ray show the dimensions of his artistic journey quite clearly. “As a gallery owner and not speaking as an art critic or art history professor, his works are very desirable as they are on the fine line between commercially viable and experimental avant-garde, which makes them relatable but at the same time mysterious and evocative,” said Ms. Choi.
Man Ray himself once said that his art was designed to amuse, bewilder, annoy or to inspire reflection instead of showing off technical innovations.

However, his innovations on photographic techniques such as photograms, which he dubbed “rayographs,” and solarization, where he exposed prints and negatives to a flash of light during the development process, have been inspirations for decades of photographers who followed him. In one well-known nude photograph titled “Natasha,” (1931), an image of the upper torso of a woman with one hand over her head, similar to the pose shown in Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave,” has been put through the solarization technique, giving the figure a silvery sleekness and a starkly modern quality.
Also, in photographs such as “Lee Miller’s Nude,” featured in the exhibition, the artist cropped the prints to focus on certain body parts.
The artist was also fascinated by the nude female form and used it often in his photographs. His fashion photography, in particular, was noted for an aloof yet composed eroticism. “He is often referred to as ‘the master of poses.’ His inspiration was found in the nude paintings of the 15th and 17th century and almost all of the poses in his photographs resemble the poses in these paintings,” said Ms. Choi.
Many major and expensive works such as “Kiki in odalisque,” “Portrait of Valentine Hugo,” “Facile 1935 Solarized Photograph,” worth more than 10 billion won ($ 1.06 million) in total, are on display. Many of the original vintage prints by Man Ray in this exhibition are priced at over 200 million won each.

The “World History Photo Exhibition” starts by introducing Nadar (a pseudonym of Faspard-Felix Tournachon), a French photographer, caricaturist, and writer who was the first person to take aerial photographs and who published the first photo-interview, of chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul.
Portraits of poet Charles Baudelaire and musician Richard Wagner, by French photographers Etienne Carjat and Pierre Petit, are both more than 140 years old and valued at up to 100 million won each. They are displayed alongside Brassai’s photographs of cemeteries and Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s “Simone.”
The exhibition will provide a chance to compare the artists and trace the influence they had on each other.
There are more recent works as well, including Larry Clark’s “Tulsa,” (1970), Lee Friedlander’s TV photographs and Eugene Smith’s “The Walk to Paradise Garden.”
“In particular, I am especially honored to present to the Korean public the works of Brassai and Garry Winogrand, as their works have never been exhibited on this scale before here,” said Ms. Choi.

“Many people have asked us why this part of the exhibition is called ‘World History Photo’ instead of ‘History of Western Photography.’ This is because photography, as an art form, started and developed mostly in Europe and the United States. For the past four years in our gallery, 70 percent of the works have been from the West, while 30 percent were from Asia. After this exhibition, the gallery will start a new chapter and focus on modern Asian photography. In a few years time, we intend to have another large-scale exhibition which will be a look back to this,” said Ms. Choi.
“Man Ray and World History Photo Exhibition” will be held from tomorrow until Dec. 16 at the Seoul Arts Center. The nearest subway station is Nambu Bus Terminal, line No. 3, exit 5. Admission is 10,000 won for adults, 8,000 won for adolescents and 6,000 won for children. For more information, call (02) 733-6332 or visit

by Cho Jae-eun
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