Unjo-ru in Gurye, Jeonnam / Courtesy of Art Sonje Center
By Joon Soh
Kim Dae-byuk spent 50 years of his life photographing Korea's traditional structures and cultural properties. The late photographer's images, however, go beyond just being beautiful pictures; they serve as records of Korean life and mindset prior to the modern era. As new buildings and houses rose up around him, Kim remained steadfast in his quest to preserve the nation's quickly disappearing past as it was lived and felt.
``When Kim took photographs, he did not just focus on the house, but would photograph everything nearby that showed traces of the human hand, from the villages' fishing areas to neighboring hills where the village guardian was located,'' wrote Shin Young-hoon, director of Hanok Culture Center, in a tribute essay to the photographer. ``This way, Kim captured the spirit of the Korean house and living culture in its entirety.''
A commemorative photography exhibition for Kim, titled ``A Scent of Hanok,'' is being held at Art Sonje Center in downtown Seoul. Although the prolific photographer, who died in 2006 at the age of 77, shot a range of traditional subjects, the Art Sonje exhibit spotlights Kim's photographs of "salimjip," or residential houses.
Kim spent a great part of his life traveling the countryside, examining hanok (traditional architecture) houses and temples and striving to capture their essence. The photographs in the exhibition, taken in various provinces and cities, give evidence of his journey. The subjects of the photographs are family residences, particularly places of study and meditation where the upper class went to perhaps find serenity.
In contrast to the ornate architecture of traditional palaces, the structures in Kim's photographs are modest, and rely on organic qualities for their strength and beauty. What Kim seems to have aimed for in the photographs is a careful balance between architecture and nature, and in many of the works, he found that balances with exquisite results.
Rather than show the structure as a whole, Kim often distilled it to a particular architectural element or characteristic, leaving it up to the viewer's imagination to fill out the rest. Thus, instead of seeing the entire study room, we're shown the beautiful twisting tree trunk that serves as its pillar. Another photograph focuses on the interplay among wooden screen windows of different sizes and shapes that grace the side of a house.
Kim's manipulation of space is masterful as he guides viewers down alleyways and corridors. Some of the photographs play with a simple vanishing point, putting us at the foot of an entranceway to a house and letting us look into the architecture.
Other photographs place us squarely inside the houses and allow us to look out onto the natural world as framed by traditional architecture. We are given stunning views of lakes and bamboo forests, as well as simple, intimate glimpses out from the house gate. In these photographs, we are again left to imagine the residences that house such incredible views of the world.
Kim's deep appreciation of hanok's organic beauty is vivid in the photographs, and his relationship to that beauty feels exciting and alive. At the same time, one can sense a certain wistfulness and melancholy from the works, perhaps an awareness of the continuing disappearance of such a traditional worldview.
Snippets of modern life show up in several of the photographs, though Kim seems to have done his best to keep them out. They show up in a cardboard box sitting at the very edge of one photograph, while a television antenna sticks out from a rooftop of a hanok house in another. In still another photograph, a pair of shoes is seen lying discreetly in front of a closed door to a room, hinting at the life within.
``A Scent of Hanok'' is up until March 5. Art Sonje Center is closed on Mondays. For more information, go to the Korean section of the Web site www.artsonje.org or call (02) 733-8945.