By Robert Neff
It seems ironic, considering how photogenic Koreans are and their eagerness to photograph one another that cameras in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a source of friction between Koreans and their foreign visitors.
In the summer of 1919, American missionary-photographer, Sumner R. Vinton, traveled to Korea and Japan in order to secure photographs for the Missionary Centenary of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Japanese officials, suspicious of his professed “disinterested desire to procure new pictures for lantern slides and cinema, showing the life and customs of the people, with special emphasis upon the work now being done by Protestant missionaries” treated him like a spy and kept him under constant surveillance.
Japanese officials weren’t his only difficulties. Seoul was experiencing a severe drought and obtaining water to develop his photographs was no easy matter.
“During the drought I had to employ a Korean water carrier to bring water for developing purposes from a well. The standard water bucket throughout the East is the Standard Oil tin — which makes one feel quite at home in a strange land. The great difficulty of getting water from the well was that the well, nearly dry, gave me water so full of sediment that it had to be drawn a long time in advance and allowed to settle so it would not ruin my pictures.
Even with an adequate water supply, Vinton experienced problems getting the photographs he wanted. “Korea,” he explained, “is a land of propriety where the sacred customs of the past must not be outraged.” His failed effort to get a picture of an ancestral shrine — “the holy of holies of the Korean household” — was greeted with “obvious relief” by his Korean host who feared Vinton’s efforts might “bring down the wrath of the departed fathers upon his family.” Vinton was lucky in that he only met with failure; in the late 19th century, photographers in Korea were occasionally met with violence.
In 1883, The North China Herald, an English-language newspaper, reported that “there is one photograph shop owned by Coreans and directed by two Japanese” in Seoul. Apparently it was referring to Kim Yong-won, the first known Korean photographer who opened a studio in Seoul with the assistance of a Japanese photographer named Honda Shunosuke.
This photo studio was soon joined by two others — one owned by Chi Un-young and the other by Hwang Chol. Kim and Chi imported their cameras and equipment from Japan and Hwang imported his from Shanghai, China.
These early studios faced a lot of opposition from the superstitious. Some people believed that if a group was photographed, the person in the center would die first. This didn’t stop King Gojong from being photographed on March 16, 1884, by Chi.
Hwang, who appears to have been interested in photographing Seoul’s scenic spots, was harassed by rumors that trees he photographed soon withered and died. There were also allegations — which led to his arrest — of him providing foreigners with national secrets. Subsequently, his studio was attacked and stoned.
During the Gapsin Revolt in December 1884, these photograph studios fell victim to anti-foreign mobs. Fortunately for the Korean photographers, they were able to make their way to the city but their Japanese partners weren’t as fortunate and appear to have been murdered by the rioters.
In the summer of 1888, allegations that foreigners were using the eyes from Korean children in order to develop their pictures helped lead to the short-lived Baby Riots. The true cause of the Baby Riots seems to have been xenophobic rumor mongering by conservative Koreans and the Chinese who sought to remove Western and Japanese influence in Korea.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer.