Joo Myung Duck (b. 1940) is regarded as the father of South Korean documentary photography. Joo (his last name) has used photography to depict social issues and the plight of South Koreans for more than fifty years. While his focus shifted from humans to landscapes in the 1980s, his main goal has always been to raise awareness of the essence of his native country, meaning South Korea’s land and people. Joo’s career as a photojournalist and editor took off when he became a founding member of the periodical, Monthly Joong Ang in 1968. Two years earlier, in April 1966, Joo exhibited a groundbreaking documentary work, Mr. Holt’s Orphanage. His subjects were mixed-race orphans living at the Harry Holt Memorial Orphanage in Ilsan, South Korea.
The Miyako Yoshinaga gallery in Chelsea is currently exhibiting Joo’s work from this series. The show’s debut in Seoul in 1966 elicited an overwhelming emotional response amongst South Koreans. Many local newspapers featured his exhibition and discussed the tangent social issues. Since 1963, South Korea endured a dictatorship that lasted for sixteen years. During this regime, traditional values were abandoned and freedom of speech and democratization were suppressed in the name of industrialization. Under such circumstances, Joo’s exhibition of socially charged photographs was courageous and thought provoking to say the least.
Why did photos of mixed-race orphans create such a stir in South Korea? First of all, interracial marriages in Korea were then very rare. The existence of the mixed-race orphans were directly linked to the presence of American soldiers who were in South Korea during and after the Korean War (June 25, 150-July 27, 1953). Most of the mixed-race orphans were born out of foreign servicemen and Korean women. Due to societal prejudices against mixed-race children, it was difficult for them to enjoy a normal life when they grew up and left the orphan house.
In the early 1960s, Joo frequented the Harry Holt Memorial Orphanage and photographed faces of children, their daily activities and personal moments. Whether he photographed children laughing or crying, alone or together, a certain sadness permeates the photos. One cannot simply appreciate the beauty of Joo’s photographs because of the complex and dark situations the orphans faced and would forever face for the rest of their lives. Time Inc. published Joo’s orphanage photos in its LIFE section website last year. When I first met Joo January of this year, he proudly showed me the Life link with joy. While he exhibited and published (more than 30 books) extensively in Korea, his photographs are not well known outside of Korea. Miyako Yoshinaga’s exhibition serves as the first introduction of Joo’s works in the US.
The Exhibition begins with orphan photographs and continues with pictures of an extended family. Pictures of life both in the city and the countryside then progress into Joo’s trademark dark landscapes. In Korea, this personal style is called “Joo Myung Duck’s Black Landscape.” Joo’s photographs have a stark black tone covering the entire picture, but fine details in shades of grey co-exist and interspersed. They are scenes of mountains, flowers, trees, and indigenous wild vegetables. Why did Joo depict black landscapes? Is it reflection of Korea’s tumultuous modern history? Is Joo trying to make us observe these things more carefully, beckoning our attention so that we don’t summarily dismiss?
Pictures of white roses, mostly withered ones can be found towards the end of the exhibition. Joo used to buy white cut roses every week at a local floral market in Seoul. His close-up pictures of roses challenge the conventional portray of roses as beautiful. The veins and withered layers of rose petals personify them. Joo’s photographs require that the viewer learn ‘how to look at things’ again.
Joo is distinguished from his fellow Korean photographers by his curiosity for life. In his atelier, a renovation of a former elementary school in the countryside of An Dong (located a few hours south of Seoul), his den encompasses Eastern and Western art, fashion, and photography. Joo has an extensive collection of LPs, which provides him solace or fuel to carryout his darkroom. Joo, at one time, owned a publishing house called Shi Gak (Korean for ‘point of view’) where he published amazingly high quality black and white photo books. Joo proves that a great artist can transcend the limits of a particular discipline or genre, greatness for Joo is broadly encompassing.
“Joo Myung Duck: Motherland” at Miyako Yoshinaga runs from March 12 to April 18, 2015. The gallery is located at 547 West 27th Street #204, New York NY 10001. Gallery opens Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11am to 6pm. (All Images courtesy of Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery.)