The Korea Herald


30 years of Korean modern photography at a glance

MMCA explores Korea’s modern photography history

By 이우영

Published : July 17, 2016 - 18:28

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Photographs depicting the modern days of Korea have long served as lens for many to get a glimpse of the country’s turbulent modern history.

It has not been long since Korean modern photography began to function as more than documentation. Korean photographers started experimenting with various aspects of the media in the late 1980s.

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea highlights the nearly 30 years of Korean modern photography since then in the ongoing exhibition “Public to Private: Photography in Korean Art since 1989.”
“In the Beginning” by Koo Bohn-chang (MMCA) “In the Beginning” by Koo Bohn-chang (MMCA)

The exhibition brings together 76 artists as representative figures in Korean modern photography, and some 300 photographs taken by them. The photos are on display in four sections.

The first section showcases object photographs, which emerged and became popular around 1989, the year that marked the onset of globalization in Korea, following the Seoul Olympic Games and arrivals of Korean photographers who studied photography in Germany and France.

The section presents some well-known black-and-white photographs, including the “Pine Tree” series by Bae Bien-u and “In the Beginning” by Koo Bohn-chang.
"Pine Tree" by Bae Bien-u (MMCA)

In the 1980s, photographers started experimenting with conceptual art in photography, or conveying social and political messages. The second section shows works of pioneers of conceptual photography, including Sung Neung-kyung and Lee Seung-taek, who first documented his avant-garde art performance. 
“Artist Planting Moss” by Lee Seung-taek (MMCA) “Artist Planting Moss” by Lee Seung-taek (MMCA)

This period also saw bursts of photographs with political and social implications. This section shows satirical photo collages made by Korean Minjung artists to criticize the then authoritarian governments.

Artists went beyond fixed objects or settings that have long served subjects of photographs. In the 2000s, artists began to create surreal images including their own symbolic signs, or started using photos to capture their avant-garde art performances, showing them as individual works at exhibitions.

“This Western photography trend was introduced through a myriad of biennales and art fairs in Korea, which served as a channel for the Western art trend to arrive in Korea,” said Lee Ji-yoon, the curator of the exhibition.

A special section is dedicated to Korean fashion photography that grew fast in line with the rapid modernization of Korea since the 1970s and the large influx of international fashion magazines, including Vogue, Bazaar, W, Elle and Marie Claire in the early 1990s. 
A fashion photo for Vogue Korea by Kim Sang-gon (MMCA) A fashion photo for Vogue Korea by Kim Sang-gon (MMCA)

Some 80 pieces of fashion photographs by 22 photographers are on display under the title “Beyond Fashion.” This section features a variety of fashion shoots, including pieces that offer the contrasting aesthetics of modern and traditional Korean beauty by Koo Bohn-chang, experimental fashion photographs by Cho Sun-hee and magazine cover shoots embedded with social messages such as animal rights by Kim Hyeon-seong.

The exhibition runs until July 24. For more information, visit

By Lee Woo-young (

Untitled by Chung Hee-seung (MMCA) Untitled by Chung Hee-seung (MMCA)
“Plate No. 13. 18 Years Old” by Oh Hein-kuhn (MMCA) “Plate No. 13. 18 Years Old” by Oh Hein-kuhn (MMCA)

“Bojagi (wrapping cloths)” by Kim Soo-kang (MMCA) “Bojagi (wrapping cloths)” by Kim Soo-kang (MMCA)

Untitled by Bang Byung-sang (MMCA) Untitled by Bang Byung-sang (MMCA)