This is an interview with a leading Korean photographer Joo Myung Duck (born in 1940), conducted as a part of the Korean Artist Digital Archive. Joo has had a long photographic career as a photojournalist and documentary photographer and is credited as the most eminent figure in Korean contemporary photography since the 1960s. Joo's photography encompasses documentary, landscape, and portraiture with a focus on views of the nature and cultural legacies of Korea, which epitomized his historic consciousness and aesthetic inspirations. This interview situates Joo Myung Duck within the context of contemporary Korean photography and provides an opportunity to comprehend Korean documentary photography.

Joo Myung Duck (born in 1940) is an acclaimed influential photographer who has developed the field of documentary photography in Korea from the 1960s to the present. Deviating from pictorialist photography that was widely disseminated in the first half of the twentieth century, Korean photography of the 1950s was characterized by the proliferation of photographic realism, known as saenghwaljuui sajin (life-ism photography).1 Following liberation from Japanese domination and the end of the Korea War, South Korean photographers working with an increased social awareness turned to the camera's capacity to record. However, at the same time, some Korean realist photographers criticized the constraints of the mechanical record of actuality and its failure to add aesthetic fulfillment in photography due to its excessive mannerist approach. In an attempt to depart from the Korean realist photography of the 1950s, a group of photographers began to explore the potential of photography as both a tool of social communication and as an aesthetic medium.

In the 1960s, while still a college student majoring in history at Kyunghee University in Seoul, Joo began his photographic career as an amateur photographer. This was a period distinguished by departure from the constraints of Korean realist photography and exploration of a new vision in realist photography. Joo was an active member of the Salon Ars, founded in 1959, and the Research Group of Modern Photography (Hyeondae sajin yeonguhoe), founded in 1961, both of which were established as representative amateur coteries by a leading realist photographer and pioneer of the new movement, Yi Hyeong-rok.2 The members of the Research Group of Modern Photography were young—in their twenties and thirties—and experimented with the new aesthetic vision in photography while maintaining the significance of realist photography. They studied the history, theory, and the techniques of photography and held the group exhibitions, lectures, and roundtables with regard to the mission and vision of Korean photography, the results of which were presented in the journal titled Saan (斜眼). Published irregularly and not for sale, this journal was launched in August 1964 and featured the outputs of group's studies and activities, along with detailed discussions of contemporary issues in international photography. Due to the dearth of photography institutions and magazines at the time, the group activities influenced Joo and other young photographers significantly and helped them find direction for their photographic practices. Together with Hwang Gyutae and Park Youngsook, Joo was one of the movement's critical members. All three have become influential figures in Korean contemporary photography.

Joo's photography encompasses documentary, landscape, and portraiture. He is best known for his solo exhibition Harry Holt Memorial Orphanage in 1966 (figs. 1–3), which dealt with the contemporary social issue of war orphans after the Korean War (1950–53) in a series of fifty-one photographs. War orphans had begun to receive attention as subjects in 1950s realist photography but had never been the focus of an entire photo-essay. Addressing a single theme in an essayistic series, Joo's exhibition was an unprecedented photographic event in Korea. Joo's empathetic approach to the subject substantiated the still-persistent trauma of the war in Korean society and sparked heated debates on this critical, unresolved issue. It drew a large amount of media attention, and stories on the topic ran in several daily newspapers. In 1969 the exhibition formed the basis for a book, Mixed Names, which featured ninety-five of Joo's photos.3

Joo continued his photographic career as a photojournalist in a newsmagazine, Monthly Joongang (Wolgan Joongang), from 1968 until 1973, for which he developed several documentary photography projects: the series Korean Family (Hangugui gajok, 1971–72) (figs. 4 and 5), Motherland of Poems (Myeongsiui gohyang, 1968–69), and Others' Land in Korea (Hangugui ibang, 1968–69), which included the subjects of China Town in Incheon, the camp towns of the US military bases, and the villages of shamans (figs. 6 and 7).4

After resigning from Wolgan Joongang, Joo remained active as a documentary photographer. He published several photography collections that show epitomic views of the history and cultural legacies of Korea (figs. 8 and 9). Those include Korean Totem Pole (Hangugui jangseung, 1976), Korean House 1: Gangneung (Hangugui minga gangneung seongyojang, 1980), Korean House 2: Jeongeup (Hangugui minga 2: Jeongeup gimssijip, 1980), Fort Suwon (Suwonseong, 1981), Buddhist Monk Seongcheol (Seongcheol keun seunim, 1993), and Korean Pagoda (Hangugui tap, 2005) among others.

Korean totem poles functioned as the demarcation of the villages or as the object of worship associated with traditional Korean beliefs. Located in the province of Gyeonggi-do twenty miles away from Seoul, Fort Suwon, also called Suwon Hwaseong, was constructed in the late eighteenth century (fig. 10). The fortress consists of the architectural structures of gates, walls, palaces, and towers, and the beauty of the traditional architecture stands out in Joo's photographs. He also insistently captured the historic traces of the Seon (Zen) Buddhist tradition that imbued the Korean pagodas, Buddhist wall paintings, and the most eminent Zen master Seongcheol (1912–93) in his everyday life.

In addition Joo produced a substantial number of documentary works with a focus on nature and landscape, including such series as Lost Landscape (Ireobeorin punggyeong, 1986–92) (fig. 11), Lotus Padma (Yeon padma, 2009–16), and The Abstract in Photography (2011). In 1999 he exhibited the series titled An die Photographie. Its German title was a reference to Franz Schubert's 1817 “An die Musik” (To Music), a song well-known for its harmonious melody and lyrics. As Joo remarks in the following interview, music is his lifelong fascination and has provided a lot of inspiration in his photographic practices. In An die Photographie he turned his camera to the harmony of landscape and familiar views and tried to surface his emotions (fig. 12).

Joo's photographs have been exhibited and published nationally and internationally in such countries as Japan, Sweden, Spain, and the United States. On July 22, 2021, I conducted an interview with Joo in Korean, which was filmed as part of the Korean Artist Digital Archive, supported by the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS) and affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Korea. As a nonprofit foundation, KAMS was established in 2006 to support Korean visual and performing arts. Its mission is to invigorate Korean modern and contemporary arts and art institutions and to increase global networks and competitiveness of Korean arts. As a Visual Arts Support Project, the Korean Artist Digital Archive aims at building a digital database of artworks and other documents by Korean artists. In 2021 Joo was chosen for inclusion in the archive, and the Myongji University Industry and Academia Cooperation Foundation was in charge of archiving Joo's works, under the research directorship of Park Ju Seok. I edited and translated the interview into English to be presented for the readers of Trans Asia Photography. This interview helps situate Joo Myung Duck as a leader in contemporary Korean photography and provides an opportunity to expose readers to Korean documentary photography.

How did you become interested in photography?

I dreamed of becoming an alpinist since I was a high school student. I chose Kyunghee University, which was known for its mountaineering team. Studying history back in the college, I joined a club for mountaineering. A well-known photographer who taught students in the University Photographers' Association joined the club with a purpose of learning photography and taking mountain pictures. Following him, I attended the photography club in order to expand my companionship and connection. That was my first encounter with photography. It was in 1962.

When was your debut as a photographer?

I was fortunate enough to mount the photo exhibition with two other friends, Gam Gwan and Kim Seungwon, at the gallery of the Press Hall (Sinmun hoegwan), September 20–27, 1963. It was less than one year after I began my photographic practice. In fact, it was rare for amateur photographers to hold an exhibition in the 1960s, and other colleagues didn't think about holding a photographic exhibition in public at museums or galleries.

Your first solo exhibition, Harry Holt Memorial Orphanage, was exceptionally successful when it was publicized in 1966. What motivated you to embark on the documentary project, and how was it received by the public at that time of the show?

My sister volunteered at the Harry Holt Memorial Orphanage. The facility was intended for multiracial orphans who were abandoned as a consequence of the Korean War. I went there to meet my sister. When I first saw the children, I was so struck by the reality they were faced with. With the permission of Mrs. Holt, who ran the facility on behalf of the late Harry Holt, her husband and the founder of the orphanage, I was able to take pictures of the children for three years. Following the Korean War, the issue of orphans became one of the crucial social concerns. When my exhibition of the theme was mounted at the gallery of the Central Public Information Office (Jungang gongbogwan) in 1966, leading daily newspapers, including Dong-A Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo, featured coverage of the show and opinion columns, which led to the attention of the general population and sparked heated debates on the social issue of war orphans. It was a great success, and photography has been my lifelong passion since then.

The exhibition took the form of a photo-essay, which was unprecedented in Korean photography at that time. Had you already planned on that structure when you were taking the pictures?

When I shot the pictures at the orphanage, I didn't have any preplanned structure. I didn't think much about what my final pictures would look like. Instead, since I had to arrange and organize the photographs in preparation for the exhibition, I reflected a lot on the characteristics of the medium and the communication capacity of photography. I thought about how I could present my works to the viewers. I studied the examples of Western books on photography. Finally, I was able to structure the works in a way that the pictures tell a story with a single theme—a photo-essay. It was also published as the book Mixed Names in 1969.

What/who influenced you to keep up with documentary photography?

My knowledge of photography was indebted to the influence of my friend who served as editor-in-chief of a photography magazine. We read a lot of theses on photography, including the articles of Bruce Downes, who was an editor of the American magazine Popular Photography. I remember that we spent a lot of time discussing the social significance of photography.

You served as a photojournalist and produced several series of photo-essays. How did you begin the career as a photojournalist? Did you have any aspiration to fulfill with journalistic photography?

I mingled with many figures such as poets, writers, and historians. One of them was appointed as editor-in-chief for a newsmagazine, Monthly Joongang, and offered me the position of photojournalist. I worked for the magazine for five years, from 1968 to 1973. The press had an exclusive contract with an American magazine, Look, that espoused photojournalism. So Look sent the whole manuscripts for each issue, including pictures and films to our office once each issue of Look was published. Many globally renowned documentary photographers participated in Look. I could take advantage of my position, and I was allowed to look at both the prints and negatives and study their works. The opportunity enabled me to learn more about the documentary photography.

You produced several series of photo-essays, including Korean Family (1971–72), for the newsmagazine. How did you carry out Korean Family?

At that time Look and Life showed a lot of interest in the subject of family in conjunction with the widespread hippie culture in America. Especially I was motivated by the book Family (1965), a collaboration of a photographer, Ken Heyman, and a cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, of images and texts about families in the world.

Similarly Korean society faced a transitional phase from the conventional large family to the nuclear family. I presented the idea for the series Korean Family. Even though I was inspired by the model from the West, I thought I wanted to deal with the social issue of family in Korea from my own perspective. I tried to contact families all over Korea for the project. A Korean sociologist, Lee Hyojae, was in charge of writing the essays. But, contrary to my initial intentions, Lee approached society and family issues from the binarism of privileged/underprivileged. Her perspective was explicitly apparent in her essays. At the time Korean society was under an authoritarian political regime, which was very reactionary against socialist thinking and the progressive mindset. Most cultural activities were subject to the surveillance of the authorities. Lee's writings caused a conflict with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, an establishment to prevent potential revolts. I think the project on the shifts of Korean family structure was historically significant at the time of social transformation, and the project is also meaningful to me.

From your series Korean Family, Korean House, and Korean Totem Pole, it seems that you are particularly attracted to the themes of Korea and Koreans. Do you have any particular reason for that?

My interest continued to be extended into my country, including Korean mountains, waters, and houses. European musicians such as Jean Sibelius and Bedřich Smetana embodied their own countries through their music. I have hoped that I could tell of my country through my photographs.

Is there any other interest that influenced your photography?

Music. I possess more than fifteen thousand LP analog phonograph records. I enjoy listening to classical music even when I work in the darkroom. I wish my photographs could be conveyed to people the same way as the music of Franz Schubert's songs and piano sonatas can. The pieces of Schubert sound pleasing, harmonious, and easygoing, albeit sometimes lacking in dramatic and strong power. Likewise I think that my photos do not produce such a strong impact individually. But if they are united and displayed together, they can create an impactful and harmonious feel for the viewers, rather than each piece of my work carrying a strong image.

The landscape photographs in such projects as Lost Landscape and An die Photographie look abstract, which look quite different from your previous documentary pictures.

The first travel for the project Lost Landscape was to Mount Seorak in 1980. I took the pictures of the snowy mountain through a Rolleiflex camera. When I developed and printed them, I found that the outcome was something unpredictable. The camera takes subject matter in a real situation, and yet the photograph as the output was sometimes unintentional and accidental. I liked the way it looked. I then continued to travel to scenic sites and take photographs of the places.

What do you usually keep in your mind when you take a picture?

I value my intuition about the subject matter instead of trying to explain the space and the object in detail. Through that approach, the impressive images I took could appeal to the viewers.

What gear have you used?

I have used a variety of cameras, including large-format and medium-format. These days I often use analog and digital Nikon cameras. The lenses for analog cameras can be compatible for digital ones.

Do you have any plans or wishes?

I have continued my photographic career for almost sixty years. I am not sure I can, but I wish I could continue my work for another ten years or even longer. I hope my photographs can be cherished in the memories of people.



For the details of the Hyeondae sajin yeonguhoe, see Park, “1960nyeondae Joo Myungduckgwa hyeondaesajinyeonguhoe gwangye yeongu.” 


The detailed information of the list of Joo's photography series and publications derived from the archives of this digital archive project. I especially express my gratitude to Lee Hyerin, a researcher in the project team for arranging and conveying the collected materials for this manuscript.

Works Cited

Oh, Hye-ri. “
Photography, Technology, and Realism in 1950s Korea
.” In
Future Yet to Come: Sociotechnical Imaginaries in Modern Korea
, edited by Sonja M. Kim and Robert Ji-Song Ku,
University of Hawaiʻi Press
Park, Ju Seok.
Hanguk sajinsa
Paju, Gyeonggi-do
Munhak dongnae
Park, Ju Seok. “
1960nyeondae Joo Myungduckgwa hyeondaesajinyeonguhoe gwangye yeongu
This is an open access article distributed under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).