History always plays an important role in photography, often giving images greater significance as the decades roll by. As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” Many of the great photographers of the past have been defined by their ability to capture a changing world: Eugene Atget documenting the last vestiges of a preindustrial Paris, August Sander capturing the faces of everyday Germans between the World Wars, Walker Evans illustrating the struggle of rural families during the Great Depression. This critical role is strongly at play in the life and work of Han Youngsoo.
Best known for documenting life in Seoul in the wake of the Korean War, Youngsoo is the subject of an exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP) gallery at Mana Contemporary. Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63 is a tidy show curated to capture the full scope of the artist’s images taken over a seven-year period. Returning from the front line on the 38th parallel in the early 1950s, the horrors of war still fresh in his mind, Youngsoo documented the unlikely rebirth he found within civic upheaval. The singular body of work on view is a far cry from what rapidly became a commercial career focused on advertising and fashion; the stark difference suggests that the great humanism found in Youngsoo’s images today is at least in part the product of historical serendipity.
Wandering through the spacious exhibition full of rich, black-and-white, modestly scaled images, it is the lack of devastation that draws you in. Youngsoo captures neither ruin nor revival, but rather Seoul caught amid midcentury changes, as carts and bicycles share streets with modern cars and trollies. With a sense of detached wonder, Youngsoo methodically follows everyday activities. Often shooting from above, he looks down on women carrying goods and children, men in suits walking with purpose down freshly paved sidewalks. Blending in as only an insider could, Youngsoo catches people unaware of the camera following them; only the children seem to see him. Intense sunlight, snow, wind, and rain lend an evocative texture and obscurity to his subjects, whose faces are constantly hidden behind umbrellas and parasols, hoods and fedoras.
Youngsoo appears careful to show many sides of Korean society. There’s a distinct tension in the images between public and private spaces, and figures hidden in shadows behind cracked doorways hint at lives we never quite see. Women in elegant dresses and decadent furs are shown lingering near boutiques, movie theaters, and Hollywood-esque billboards downtown, all evidence of their changing status. By contrast, a sense of labor and toil permeates many of the images of the unemployed and working class, taken on the outskirts of the city. Children play games in the dusty streets, and women wash laundry in the river. Digging deeper into the emerging hierarchy of Korean society, Youngsoo also documents those who are without activity, standing still in a sea of urban noise as reminders of the people left adrift in times of upheaval. In one particularly captivating image, a woman accompanied by four puppies stares vacantly into the distance, waiting for possible buyers.
Despite all that is inferred or revealed in these photographs, there’s a past that cannot be accessed simply by looking at the city itself. More profound, though inaccessible, meaning lies behind the faces caught looking at the camera, as they pause for a moment to observe the photographer himself. As viewers we see surprise, suspicion, and curiosity in their glances. Youngsoo wrote about this period in his book Korean Lives After the War, 1956–1960, saying:
After the war, still covered with the soot of tragedy, I found myself in the middle of civic confusion. I was startled to find, however, the great determination of the human spirit to carry on with life—in a sense something simple and natural, but also in a sense very profound.
His photographs arouse our voyeuristic instincts, and we want to follow Youngsoo deeper into the lives of those caught in a definitive moment in history. Too often, however, he observes only the obvious, inadvertently leaving us to stand at a distance on the sidewalk. Without a sense of historical significance altering how we view these photographs today, they would simply reflect daily rituals captured by a curious eye. In his pictures, we can see just so far, but not beyond.
Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63 continues at ICP at Mana (888 Newark Avenue, 6th Floor, Jersey City, NJ) through June 9.