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‘The Village Across the Sea’Jeju City government-sponsored photography book sets new standard for documentary on the island
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승인 2011.01.02  18:37:48
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▲ 1) Miller's portraits are of many Jeju residents including local artist and poet, Chung Gong. 2) The photographer was thrilled to record a genuine gut (shamanistic ritual). 3) This haenyeo is captured in a moment of hard work.4) Miller's subjects are not limited to the most well-known. Here, staff at local restaurant Bagdad Cafe show their less serious side.5) With this photograph of Jul Mul Oreum, Miller proves his ability to take nice landscapes, not just the ones Jeju residents are used to seeing.All photos by Brian Miller

Local photographer Brian Miller has just released his first book, “The Village Across the Sea.” Long awaited by many a Jeju resident, Miller's maiden voyage is, in this reviewer's opinion, the most honest and encompassing photography book yet released about Jeju. All but completely avoiding the familiar, cliché photographs of the island, this book walks the line between documentary and fine art and provides readers with a closer look at the island's people and the lives they lead. In a deeper sense, “Village Across the Sea” is a meditation on impermanence. It is a snapshot of an island even now already gone but still recognizable to those of us who live here.

It is as no surprise that photographers who come to Jeju tend to focus on the island's abundant natural beauty.

Ideally such tendencies would create a nearly infinite supply of unique landscape photography. After all, one could go to a different oreum every day for a year and still not have climbed each one. The reality of photography on Jeju, however, is that of “tripod holes.” In other words, photographers know where to place their tripods because the holes of their predecessors are already there. One need only look at the winners and runners-up of the Jeju World Heritage Photo Competition to come face to face with this sad fact. In cases like these, photography becomes a game of chance where the winner is lucky enough to be in a spot when the clouds are perfect and the light is just warm or cold enough.

Miller does provide one or two “tripod-hole photographs,” but the difference is that he relates the places photographed to the people of Jeju. Pictures of Yongduam are accompanied by the legend of Yongduam. The typical Seongsan shot, taken from the shoreline due west of the crater, features a local resident. Even many of his Mt. Halla photographs have either people or the direct evidence of their passing, tracks in the snow. There are no captions musing on the “beauty and harmony of perfect nature” or inherent mystery in grass and mounds of earth.

Roughly half of Miller's book deals with landscapes and inanimate objects, but he isn't trying to fool anyone with them. The other half of “Village Across the Sea” is about Jeju residents, both native and foreign.

▲ photo by Yang Ho Geun

More notable photographs of Jeju residents include the well-known haenyeo, the subject of whom dominates Miller's preface. It's easy to tire of hearing the same information about haenyeo again and again, but Miller sheds a poignant light on their prominence in local mythology. The first words in his book, apart from the title, are these:

“One day, probably not too long from now, someone will be the last person to ever photograph a haenyeo.” His portrayal of them is honest and pointed. Also of note are photographs of the less-publicised baekho gi, the island-wide spring high school soccer tournament which turns out huge, spirited crowds in multicolor. These photographs make recent turnouts — even for the K-League Final — in the Jeju World Cup Stadium in Seogwipo look drab in comparison. Miller's fellow expats are also featured. Two are awarded a space for their own writing aside his portraits.

While it is nice to see such a multiplicity of stories, one wonders why Miller didn’t expand the portrait sections to include more individuals or perhaps organize them more consistently. The book seems to stop and start abruptly in some instances. Miller has definitely learned to capture people and places in decisive moments, but it is unclear whether he has yet found his own style. The work shown here doesn't necessarily form a cohesive whole. Whether that should be the case is up to the reader.

It is important to note that “Village Across the Sea” was released in conjunction with Jeju City Hall. Miller provided the photographs, the writing, and the layout. City Hall took care of the publishing. It is evident that Miller was not allowed complete control over the book. For instance his name does not even appear on the cover. That is quite an injustice considering the quality of the work. This reviewer, for one, looks forward to more from Miller, whose first book sets a new standard for documentary on Jeju.

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