In collaboration with the Nam Center for Korean Studies and the Friends of Korea, the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities has displayed an exhibit of selected images from over 300 photographs taken by Margaret Condon Taylor. As a Peace Corps member, Taylor resided in an area near the Ewha Women’s University, and used her camera as a lens of articulating her experiences as a “blue-eyed resident of an old Korean community undergoing rapid transformation” in 1969.
At the time, South Korea (Seoul, in particular) was on the cusp of undergoing rapid urbanization, eventually transforming into the sleek and modern jungle of the present, in its heavily electronic and fluorescent glory. Taylor’s images, however, “pay tribute to a time when community life in Seoul was still organized around alleyways.” The subjects of Taylor’s photographs are caught in the midst of their daily activities; some look directly at the camera, but most are unaware, concentrating on dancing, taking care of children, or socializing with friends. Her subjects are young and old alike; somber and joyful; serious and lighthearted. In the selected pieces, the subjects looking into the camera appear largely amused– whether it is because of the experience of having their portraits taken, or the novelty of encountering an “accidental photographer” with an interest in their everyday lives.
The photographs are all uncaptioned, and while at first I wished for some context to the situation and locations of the subjects, I soon realized that it is not really necessary to understand the broader context of the exhibit. The images work together to form a picture of South Korea’s 1969 society as a whole. As a Korean American who has also visited Korea last summer, I recognize certain elements and situations that are strikingly familiar, such as the old man sitting outside in a white hanbok (Korean traditional garment) and the woman carrying a child on her back in a sling that my own grandmother used to carry me as a baby.
Taylor’s images display a society that is both historical and familiar, and portrays the different aspects of everyday Seoul life for a 1969 citizen. The exhibit will be on display until January 12th in the Institute for Humanities Osterman Common Room.
(Image credits: Margaret Condon Taylor)