Photography often finds itself in a position where it has to defend its position among the arts. First, the photographs were deemed too documentary to be called art, then the photographers were seen as relying too much on technology to be called artists and in our smartphone age in which image taking and making has become accessible to most of us the art of photography faces another challenge - how to create something that has never been seen before. This case is especially so in a country like Korea, a home to electronics giants like Samsung and LG, where establishing a reputation of a creator of compelling visuals is not without difficulties.
Below are 10 Korean photographers who try to push the boundaries of this art to put on your watchlist.
If photos are traditionally seen as portraits of light Jo Jun-Yong conceptualises them as portraits of movement. The speed of light and the speed of life overlap against the background of Seoul at night to reveal the drifting nature of existence. His artworks act as love letters to Seoul, or any city for that matter, as an arena of interplay between past and present.
Park Kwi-Seob (BAKI) started out as a ballet dancer and turned to photography in 2010 after quitting dancing. Nothing in his works betray his lack of formal education in the medium but the fluidity of the movements, the framing, the freedom that overflows from them leave the viewer fully aware of the fact that the artist comes from a different world. His art is not about the tricks of the camera (although he is quite obviously a master of it) or the philosophical debates surrounding photography, it often shows nothing more than two people in the vast world but it still conveys feelings so strong you cannot stop speculating about the background story.
If Pop art is characterised by abundance of playful and neon colours Kim Jong-Eon infuses the term with her own meaning. In her works she keeps the natural, sort of neutral palette but adds sparkle for a change. And for fun. Her works show the coexistence of natural landscapes with otherworldly creatures and spirits in a surprisingly believable way.
Photographers like Bae Chan-Hyo are rarity, the bright side of which is that you cannot miss them once you come across them. Each of his photographs is an entire world of its own. At first they overwhelm you with the staging, the costume design and the setting and the trick is that all of it is so picturesque you might miss the point. Which is not to splash some Victorian beauty on the walls of a 20-th century commercial gallery space but to probe contemporary social and cultural issues. The closer you look at his photographs the more you begin to feel that there is something a bit off in them, something a little out of place, a little too much or too less, something strange. And that is when the dialogue begins.
By contrast, Kim So-Kang Is as uncompromisingly decided on avoiding serious issues as she is unapologetically decided on exploring the mundane. Turning the trivial into compelling is a challenge she welcomes. She looks at the physical characteristics of her objects and the cognitive associations they suggest as pieces of a complex puzzle she likes to re-arrange. And while her objects might be ordinary her choice of printing technology is not. She uses Gum Print, a time-consuming and complicated method which requires the colouring to be applied 10 to 15 times for the final photo to resemble engraving and a painting.
Historically speaking photography has often been criticised for being a medium which is too documentary and too obvious to be called art. The practice of Jong Tae-Seob (who has a background in both Radiology and art criticism) challenges this perception on a philosophical as well as visual level. He combines X-ray photos with colour images to create photographs where the visible and the hidden collide.
Shin Byong-Gun explores urban architecture as an interplay between lines and colours. The more clean-cut and visually satisfactory this interplay is the more staged it looks pointing to the existence of destiny and unexplainable side to reality.
Han Song Pil
Han Song-Pil explores the vast area between objective realities and subjective perceptions. His facades and landscapes imply the difference between the mental images in our heads and what stands behind them. What is covered and concealed is juxtaposed opposite the associations we make. Ultimately he explores the multidimensionality of the universe.
Won Song Won
Won Song-Won’s photographs are a meeting point of many trajectories. His environments are records of history where traces of human lives overlap and overlay. They are also a reflection of what was, is and could be. His practice utilises real events and juxtaposes them with the concepts of myth and reality. The final result is confusing snaps of mental realities provoking doubts about the world around us.
Song Nam Hun
Song Nam-Hun is a documentary photographer who has won several international awards. His most famous series explores the daily lives and spiritual practices of Buddhists nuns in China and Tibet. His practice opens the doors to a world removed from secular life and employs the camera as a secret weapon to penetrate the material world.