“I believe the main purpose of photography is for it not to be art,” said Seo Jae Chul, well-known Jeju-born photographer, as he walked through the old elementary school that he has converted into the Love of Nature photo gallery. “The main purpose should be its documentary function of chronicling the history of Jeju. I tried to take as many photos as evidence of Jeju’s living history.”
Currently on display at Love of Nature is an exhibition by Seo entitled “7080” that adheres to this philosophy. The large collection is comprised of 53 black and white photographs taken during the 1970s and ’80s that portray Jeju and its inhabitants during this pivotal time of transition, “from the unique traditional Jeju image to the modern,” Seo said.
For the most part, the photographs are of commonplace scenarios - a child buying ice cream, women asleep at their fish stalls - but together they create an intimate portrait of a bygone Jeju. Seo, being a native of the island, has captured the images without the sentimentality or exoticism that a foreigner, even a Korean from the mainland, would be prone to evoke. In place of complexity, conflict and romanticism is a sense of earnestness that is refreshing, when compared to other photo exhibits of Jeju where love and admiration for the natural beauty of the island predominate in the pictures.
That is not to say Seo lacks affection for Jeju, quite the opposite actually, but the photo-graphs are not about him. “I wanted to document all of these Jeju lives,” he said. Originally a photojournalist, Seo endeavors to achieve an unbiased and naturalistic representation that allows the pictures to speak for themselves.
None of the images are titled and, “there are no explanations,” he said. “I did it on purpose. I wanted people to think about how this photo was taken, where this photo was taken, why this photo was taken. I wanted to allow people to think.” In accordance with this notion of naturalism, he said, “I have my principle with photography. I don’t want manipulation. I want to take things the way they are and to not change anything. To take a picture as it is. It is different than other art.”
During a tour of the gallery it quickly becomes obvious which image the 63-year-old photographer has the most affinity for. “This photo,” he said, pointing at the only image displayed behind glass and printed on Hanji, the delicate traditional Korean paper, “was taken in ’72 while I was climbing Halla Mountain and there was a snow storm and there was a lot of snow and you couldn’t see just one inch away and I saw this old man carrying firewood on his back.”
It is a powerful picture and talking about it seemed to strum a nostalgic chord in the photographer. “The loss of that way of life is inevitable. I admit that. Still I feel that there are so many things that Jeju lost that shouldn’t be gone. Change in life is inevitable, but there are some things that we need to retain and preserve - so I want to retain Jeju’s unique image and culture in these photos.”
Alongside the 7080 exhibit is the gallery’s permanent collection, which consists of ethereal landscape and aerial shots of the island, some of which were taken from the window of an airplane on a trip back from Seoul. “A helicopter cannot go as high so I took it from the window of a Korean Air plane,” Seo said.
The gallery is beautifully arranged, warranting a trip in itself, and acts as a collage of what Seo holds dear. Lining the walls to prevent visitors getting too close to the photos are jungnang, the wooden fences typical of Jeju. In the center of one of the rooms, several tree trunks stretch from floor to ceiling, creating, Seo said, the sense of looking at the photographs through a forest. Seo has also scattered a diverse collection of old cameras throughout the gallery that range in obscurity from miniscule spy cameras to very large antiques. These elements, combined with the effect of being within the confines of an old elementary school, create an interesting atmosphere of calm and transport the visitor to a simpler Jeju.
7080 Until March 31 Love of Nature gallery 1920-1 Gasi-ri, Pyoseon-Myeon, Seogwipo City Tel. 064-787-3110
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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