Korean Photographer Han Youngsoo documents life in Seoul after the Korean War. Image: International Center of Photography
NEW YORK, NY– When people talk about the Korean War, the first point they make is that thousands of people were killed during the war. This is true. From estimations, more than 36,914 died during and as a consequence of the war. What is often not discussed is what happened after the war. When soldiers returned home, they were confronted by the implications of their actions. There was poverty and devastation.
The consequence of war is at the center of an on-going photography exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York. The exhibition features works by Korean photographer Han Youngsoo. Titled Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63, this exhibition is the first major U.S. showing of the work of the Korean photographer. Youngsoo’s photographs present a look at the transformation of Seoul in the years after the end of the Korean War.
Youngsoo started documenting the transformation of Korea after returning from the frontline fighting as a young South Korean soldier during the Korean War that lasted from 1950–53. When he returned to Seoul at the end of the conflict, Youngsoo found a devastated, impoverished city. Like many soldiers like returning from war, he knew he must look for a profession that would sustain him. He chose photography.
Starting from 1956, photography became Youngsoo’s third eye. It allowed him to document the changes happening in Seoul. Camera in hand, he became a witness to the profound transformation in Seoul that saw the rapid creation of a modern city and urban society.
That attitude of a changing society is reflected in one of the photographs. The image captures men and women dressed in winter coats, hats, and scarves walking through a street in a snowstorm. In the foreground are two men wearing long black winter coats and hats. One has a bag in his hands while the other has both hands in his pocket. In his mouth is a cigarette.
Movement is one of the fascinating elements of this photograph: All the characters captured in this image are on the move. Hands in pocket, they all seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere. Accentuating their movement are two buildings in the distance. The buildings, which are under construction serve as backdrops for the whole photograph. There are also trees lining the street.
The combination of aerial perspective, movement and contrast make this black and white photograph exceptional. The black coats draw attention to the people, accentuating their urgency to get to where they are going.
In another photograph, Youngsoo captures three children-two boys and a girl- playing in a secluded area of their home. Like many of the other photographs, Youngsoo becomes a storyteller, exposing us to life in Seoul after the way. In the foreground of the photograph is a boy with his back to the camera. Facing him is a girl with a beautiful charming smile. Although it is uncertain what they are talking about, this is a captivating image.
Not far from the boy and the girl is another boy walking up the stairs. From his body language, he appears to be in a hurry to join in the conversation. In the distance, the environment where the children live is exposed to the viewer. Clothes hang on lines in dilapidated buildings and derelict environment. In spite of their abject situation, the children appear happy.
Curated by ICP Adjunct Curator Christopher Phillips and Waterfall Mansion & Gallery (New York City) Adjunct Curator Doo Eun Choi, with the collaboration of the Han Youngsoo Foundation, Seoul, this is an important show that brings new insight to the changing everyday lives in Seoul during a historic moment.