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A Tale of Three Cities

Posted by on September 4, 2012 | Student Photography

In summer 2011, Abby Robinson, photography faculty member at New York
City’s School of Visual Arts reported on the PDNedu blog about her international adventures teaching
a month-long digital photography study-abroad residency in Shanghai, China. 

This summer, Robinson was in Asia from May through August, where scoped out the photo scene in Korea, Vietnam and China. Upon her return she graciously agreed to recap her experiences once again for us. In the first post below, she recounts her adventures in Korea to present at the Jeonju photo
festival, connect with former students, immerse herself in the local photo scene and step behind-the-scenes at a popular Korean photography business.

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All photos and text © Abby Robinson

This summer I
traveled to Seoul, Saigon and Shanghai to give talks, check out the respective
photography scenes, visit friends and former students, as well as teach. My
experiences in each city were quite different although there was one constant:
visiting with former students (all from the School of Visual Arts, except one
from Pratt), some of whom I haven’t seen for years. Their generosity was
formidable. They took time off from their busy schedules to squire me around to
galleries and museums, introduce me to other photographers and gallery owners,
stuff me with great food, and ply me with local liquor. They absolutely made my
trip more fun, more informative, and much more meaningful. 

First stop: Seoul,

An invitation from
the Jeonju Photo Festival in Korea kicked off my travels. I was met at the
airport in Seoul on May 8 by two former students and whisked off to a fun
dinner reunion with yet more. I was scheduled to arrive at Jeonju on May 11 but
learned on arrival in Korea that talks at Kyungil and Keimyung Universities had
been added to my itinerary. Kyungil has one of the largest photo departments in
Korea; Keimyung’s Department of Photography and Related Media in Daegu is
headed up by one of my former SVA students, Jae Gil Lee, and also has another former
student, Joo Hyoung Lee, on its faculty. Fortunately, both venues wanted me to
present the same talk I gave at the photo festival, making it possible to
deliver despite jet lag.

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Jeonju is about two and a half hours south of Seoul if you take a direct route. The city is
known for its historic Hanok Village, which is reputedly made up of 700
traditional Korean houses. Granted I didn’t poke around a lot, but I wasn’t
sure where these homes were and lots of them were interspersed with souvenir
shops. Also of note was Jeonju’s bibimbap,
a traditional Korean dish that,
according to the town’s official Web site, is a “wellness food that contains
the wisdom and philosophy of ancient Korea, now loved throughout the
world.”  It was in fact delicious,
probably the best I’ve ever eaten.

The theme of the festival was Beyond the Wall, celebrating the 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Korea and
China. One of the organizers, Young Hyeouk Jung, was yet another former student.
The other featured speaker at the opening ceremony was the internationally
renowned Chinese photographer Wang Qingsong, who came accompanied by his wife
Zhang Feng. Qingsong’s large color prints made up the core exhibition of the

Other contemporary
Chinese photographers invited to show work were Xiong When Yun, Zeng Han + Yang
Chang Hong (who work together), Chen Guang Hu, Gabriel Leung, Kwong Yin Brian
Hung, Tsi Kwan Lau, Wong Wing Fung, Robert Tran and Woody Lee. Another section
was devoted to the Shanghai documentary work of Zhu Hao, Chang He, Ni Wei Hua,
Xu Hai Feng, Yan Yi Bo, Zheng Zhi Yuan, and Lu Yuan Ming. 

Also on display:
the Changing Landscape of Jeonju,
curated by Jongsung Paul Choe, highlighting Korean photographers Bosung Kim,
Schinster, Jaehoon Jeong, and Chaewon Lee, plus a New Media Art Exhibition put together by Jin Wan Park with pieces
by Changsun Koh, Young-eun Kim, Seung Seok Noh, Enjeong Park and Seonah Mok.

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After the
interminable welcome session and various speeches were over, there was a big
outdoor get-together where festival participants schmoozed with others in the
photo field. Among the guests was a woman who had once been a fashion designer.
She didn’t speak English but signaled to Zhang Feng and me to follow her to a
nearby building. There, she surprisingly bestowed us with some of her creations;
a lovely jacket that looked great on Feng and a sweater and shirt combo that
fit me perfectly. People’s generosity was truly flabbergasting.

The festival
continued through May 20. The next big photography event in Korea is the Daegu Photo
Biennale Photographic, which runs from September 20 to October 28.

Upon returning to
Seoul on May 13, I checked into the “design” hotel Cats (booked because the
price was right, the location convenient, and I thought the name was funny),
which turned out to be half tourist, half love hotel.  My room, on the Boutique floor was amusingly “designed” with
the bed right next to the bath and shower.

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Then I spent the
next nine days exploring.

The first day I went
to the Leeum, the Samsung Museum of Art, a building complex that’s a combination of the three distinctive styles of three
internationally renowned starchitects. Museum 1 by Mario Botta houses Korean traditional art (the
celadon pottery is truly awesome), Museum 2 by Jean Nouvel exhibits art works by Korean and international contemporary
artists, and the Samsung Child Education &
Culture Center is by Rem Koolhaas.

The galleries that
show photography, often small and hardly the steroidal size found in China, are
clustered in particular areas around town. In Insadong, an area reminiscent of
Soho before it became a total high-end mall, I visited Gallery On and Gallery
Lux. In Sagandong, Seoul’s Chelsea equivalent, I looked at work in galleries
Now, Cyart, Hakgojae, Artsagan, Kong and Artsonje Center; I also dropped into
the Kukje Gallery, where there was a banner outside with one of my photos of an
Eva Hesse sculpture (I photograph for the estate) although it turned out that
the show recently closed. Last but
not least I popped into the Cais Gallery, located in Chungdam, the city’s 57th

Jeonju Photo Festival P1120209_560px

The flavor of
Korean photography is distinctly different from that of the Vietnamese and the
Chinese that I saw later in my trip. Granted these are generalizations, but it
seems to me that Korean work tends toward the quiet rather than the
spectacular. And here, big is truly not necessarily better. Lots of the work that I saw was, like
the gallery spaces, small and intimate. Another thing worth noting is that
there is still a deep concern for the making of the print and the quality of
the final image. There remains a
real and abiding interest in the handmade tactility of the piece. Perhaps this grows out of the long, extensive and exquisite history
of Korean pottery and papermaking. 

A couple of Korean photographers
serve as exemplars: Soo Kang Kim and Hyounsun Ha (full disclosure: Hyoungsun
was my student very early on in his career). Soo Kang does very beautiful,
delicate gum bichromates of bojagi, traditional Korean wrapping cloth, as well
as very simple and familiar objects like stamps, buttons, and rocks. Hyoungsun has done a series called Windows where he throws rice on the photo paper so it’s
photogrammed onto the final print. The rice throwing hails from a technique
used by Korean clairvoyants to predict the future. In another of his series,
called Remnants, he makes platinum/palladium prints.

One other special place was Datz Books—a small printing and
binding company that makes truly gorgeous books. Started by Sangyon
Joo who received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, the
space is handsomely designed (check out the big table) and the mood is
serene. You can lose yourself in
looking at the current exhibition, sitting quietly and browsing through the
library of handmade books. Or you could take a workshop in bookmaking,
printing, a darkroom class, or talk to one of the knowledgeable people who work
there about making your own book.

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Last but not least, Young Heouk took me to see a
wedding photography studio. Wedding photography is a very big business in Korea (as well as in
Vietnam and China) and it works differently from the custom of the United
States, where the principal bridal photos are taken in various venues before
the wedding. In Korea the photos used to be taken outdoors but they are now
taken mostly in studios, with the bridal couple moving quickly and efficiently
from set to set. The color palette is tastefully muted (the Chinese and
Vietnamese go for more saturated color); there is an ever-so-slight narrative
quality to the albums (not so in Vietnam and China) and a romantic/sentimental
ambiance (again not so in Shanghai and Saigon). The dresses and suits rented
for the occasion are, increasingly, Western white gowns and tuxes; a few shots
of the couple in traditional marriage costumes only appear at the album’s end. I
watched a number of couples submit to all this and while the brides—who were
constantly being fussed over by stylists—seemed fully engaged in the fantasy
scenarios, all the grooms seemed to find it a big yawn. 

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Stay tuned for a recap of Robinson's next stop … Saigon!