The History of Women in Korean Photography I exhibition, held at SeMA, Buk-Seoul Museum of Art, in Seoul, South Korea, from June 29 to September 26, 2021, sheds light on an overlooked history of Korean female photographers from the 1900s to the 1980s. The first section of the exhibition chronicles the emergence of female photographers at the dawn of the twentieth century through a timeline featuring women and a shelf with archival materials covering their works. The second section focuses on ten female photographers active during the 1980s. Although their activities were a part of a larger cultural “movement” of the era, the exhibited photographs suggest multiple readings of the term movement. The female photographers moved beyond the boundary of their nation by traveling abroad to expand their approaches to photography. Upon returning to Korea, they became part of a movement reconceptualizing postmodern photography. Lastly, the exhibition itself was a result of a curatorial movement, one which renders the categories of what can and cannot be reflected in histories of art malleable.
“Why have there been no great women artists?”1 This seminal question, posed by Linda Nochlin in 1971, takes on a unique valence when it comes to the history of Korean photography. Since the first known female Korean photographer, Hyangwŏndang, was featured in a newspaper advertisement in 1907, women have persistently left traces in the genealogy of Korean photography. This lineage has been underappreciated, however, due to several factors.
One is their relatively meager historical footprint—a recent major archival project identified only ten women among a list of 206 of the most active Korean photographers and groups spanning the nineteenth century to the 1980s.2 Furthermore, male-dominated photography groups spearheaded the early development of the field, leaving limited space for female involvement.3 Finally, and most important, there is the lack of critical and curatorial attention toward women's contributions.
The History of Women in Korean Photography I is a welcome effort by independent curator Lee Kyungmin and his team to fill this gap by spotlighting long-overlooked female photographers from the 1900s to the 1980s. The material and photographs for this show were scraped together from the old shelves of libraries, the dusty storage units of university photo clubs, and the cramped drawers in the studies of the surviving female photographers. To provide an overall picture of the missing landscape, the exhibition opens with a timeline of Korean photography, accompanied by a display shelf filled with archival material (figs. 1 and 2). The timeline features the names and extant works of female photographers, while the shelf houses archival materials, ranging from women's magazines of the 1950s to flyers from photo competitions and coteries of the 1960s to photobooks and leaflets from university photography clubs of the 1970s. Some voices are more prominent than others, which include Yi Hae-sook, the first woman to receive a master's degree in photography in 1961 and Kim Ae-ja, also known as Caddy Kim, who thrived as an advertising photographer for Vogue magazine and was one of the few women to have her own studio overseas, opened in New York in 1971. Many female photographers, however, exist only as a single name, leaving scholars to further unravel their forgotten stories.
In the entrance space where the timeline and the shelf occupy opposite walls, a dim photograph of Yi Hongkyung, the first known female owner of a photo studio in 1926, and Kim Yong-soon, a photographer for the women's magazine Hŭimang from 1958, face each other across the hallway (figs. 3 and 4). In these two photographs, both Yi and Kim adopt a similar pose, peering beyond their cameras while placing their fingers on either the shutter button or a tripod. The photographs were reproduced from a newspaper article and magazine interview. Despite the thirty-year gap between these publications, both articles mention similar challenges shared by the photographers, speaking at length on how challenging it was and continues to be, to survive in a traditionally male-dominated field.
While the first section of the exhibition provides a broad overview of this overlooked history, the second segment narrows its focus to ten female photographers active during the 1980s (fig. 5). One witnesses the exponential growth in the number of female photographers during this decade driven by expanded access to education, exhibitions, and publications enabled by economic prosperity, globalization, and the blossoming democratic movement in 1980s South Korea. Lee Kyungmin characterizes this burgeoning period for female photographers as a unitary “movement.”4 Upon close examination of the photographs in the section, however, one can catch a glimpse of the polyvocality of the term movement as it incorporates different layers of meaning in the gallery.
While the ten photographers may constitute a unified artistic movement, they themselves are products of a history of movement, marked by their traversals of national and gender boundaries in search of aesthetic and technical training. After acquiring some of the requisite skills and experience with photography during their early careers in Korea, the majority continued their training abroad, earning master's degrees overseas, largely from the United States and Japan. Here the term movement reads closer to the photographers' act of departure and their struggles for emancipation from women's marginalization within the field, if not within larger society.
The emergence of female photographers suggests yet another reading of the term movement based on their intervention in Korean contemporary photography. The 1980s marked an era of upheaval for the field of photographic practice in Korea. The influx of postmodern photography prompted debates over the potential of the medium as a means of subjective representation rather than an indexical portrayal of things or events as well as its unique role vis-à-vis other genres of contemporary art and the necessity for photographers to address trends by their international counterparts. The New Wave of the Photography exhibition held at Walkerhill Art Center in 1988, led by Koo Bohnchang, has long been considered the dawn of the era of postmodern photography in Korea by its having led the trend of “constructed photography,” which foregrounded staged photographs in contrast to the realist photography that dominated the field. The curator for the current SeMA exhibition, however, proposes the Exhibition of Female Photographers, which was held at Hanmadang Gallery in 1983 and predated the New Wave exhibition by five years, as a formative moment in this new wave. The six female photographers from the Hanmadang show are included in the second section of the current exhibit, along with four others who were also forerunners in the field during the 1980s.
The significance of revisiting these ten female photographers rests in observing how their works diversify readings of postmodern photography often spearheaded by their male counterparts. Kim Minsook, for example, scrutinized the outsider gaze as a foreigner, woman, and Asian during her studies abroad in Chicago, amid the increasing interconnectedness of the world through the television and internet and was inspired by Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave. Her Portrait of Future Woman reads as an imaginative portrait of a woman within a world decoupled from center/periphery boundaries, rooted between reality and a virtual world through a hollow but glowing gaze (fig. 6). Other photographers turned the camera toward unusual directions. Yim Hyangja's black-and-white series titled The Periphery of the Artist features portraits of her adviser, Katayama Setsuzō, in 1982, forcing the viewer to contemplate the meanings of the female gaze cultivated amid camaraderie with male photographers through her camera reflecting on the male figure (fig. 7). On the other hand, the figures in Park Yongsook's six portrait photographs of female professionals, which include poets, painters, and designers, stare at the viewers with a straightforward gaze and domineering posture, tracing the emergence of confident female professionals in Park's era (fig. 8). In reconsidering photography's materiality, Ryu Kissung adopts surrealistic expressions in her fashion magazines, traversing the boundary between commercial and art photography (fig. 9), while Jung Yeongja captures glowing color and abstract forms from her close-up framing of nature through the Cibachrome printing method, which intimated possibilities for pictorial expression between photography and painting (fig. 10). If the ten photographers constituted a unified artistic movement, it is perhaps because their intervention in the field was forged through their search for aesthetic and technical training.
Can an art exhibition be composed solely from archival material? Most of the photographs and sources in this show have never been collected or studied in any major art institution in Korea. When the established genealogy of art prevents diverse subjects to be seen and their voices to be heard, curators may turn to the archive to acknowledge their existence and recognize their craft, reminding the viewers that the boundaries of what can and cannot be reflected in histories of art are malleable. If the exhibition could highlight movements in history here, it is because the show itself was built upon intense and relentless curatorial effort, weaving scattered pieces of history together for a new life.
In preparation for the opening of Seoul Museum of Photography in 2023, the Research Institute of Photographic Archives (Sajin Akaibŭ Yŏnguso) compiled a list of 2,060 Korean photographers from the late nineteenth century onward as reference. The institution selected 206 key photographers and photography groups of curatorial interest based on the number of their solo and group exhibits, inclusion in key publications on the history of photography, and awards from major competitions. Among the 206 finalists, 10 have tentatively been identified as women, including Han Okran, Lee Jungjun, and Park Yongsook. Lee, “Studies on the Direction and Methodology of Collecting in a Public Photography Museum.”
Photography groups in Korea date back to 1926 when owners of photo studios in the Kyŏngsŏng area (now Seoul) gathered to create the Association of Kyŏngsŏng Photographers (Kyŏngsŏng Sajinsa Hyŏphoe) as a merchant guild to compete against the growing influence of Japanese photo studios in the same city. No women were included in the association, which numbered about thirty members. (“Kyŏngsŏng Sajinsa Hyŏphoe”; “Ponsa kyŏnhak”). The Photo Artists Society of Korea (Han'guk Sajinjakka Hyŏphoe), which still exists as the oldest photographers' group in Korea, was established in 1952 and began to accept female members, including Kim Yong-soon and Lee Hyesook, in 1957. Lee, Huh, and Ha, Han'guk Yŏsŏng Sajinsa I, 48.