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Daegu, from the Capital of Photography to the Daegu Photo Biennale

In Korea, there is a unique biennial that focuses solely on photography, the Daegu Photo Biennale, which will hold its 9th edition from September 11 to November 12 of this year.

Partial exhibition view of the 2021 Daegu Photo Biennale: Missing Agenda (Even Below 37.5). Courtesy of the Daegu Photo Biennale Foundation.

When most people think of a biennale, they envision contemporary art exhibitions on an international scale that encompass a variety of genres, including paintings, sculptures, installations, and performances.

However, in Korea, there is a unique biennale that focuses solely on photography, the Daegu Photo Biennale, which will hold its 9th edition from September 11 to November 12 of this year.

Biennales are built within a regional framework, uncovering a city’s unique history, arts, and culture. The most representative biennales in Korea are the Gwangju Biennale, which has been held since 1995 and is based on the history of the democratization movement, and the Busan Biennale, which has been held since 2002 in South Korea’s largest port city, Busan.

Daegu, the fourth largest city in Korea, opened a biennale in 2006 with a unique identity different from other biennales. Then, why did Daegu decide to hold a biennale devoted to photography and not to other genres?

Overview of Daegu city with Dalseong Toseong. Courtesy of Daegu Metropolitan City.

Seoul is the capital city of South Korea, but Daegu was once known as the “capital of photography.” Nowadays, many photography artists are working in various regions at home and abroad, but until the 1970s, Daegu was the region that played a leading role in Korean photography.

Cameras were first introduced to Korea during the Japanese colonial period. Thus, the history of photography in Daegu and Gyeongsang-do, located in the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, began in the early 1910s when Japan opened commercial photo studios in the country. The true history of Korean photography led by Koreans began with the Daegu-born artist Choi Kyebok (1909–2002), .

Choi Kyebok. Courtesy of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

Choi, a first-generation photographer active in Daegu in the 1930s and 1940s,  made a significant contribution to the history of modern Korean photography. Choi returned to Korea after moving to Kyoto, Japan, at the age of 17 and learning how to handle the camera over the shoulder.

In 1934, Choi organized the “Daegu Amateur Sawoohoe (Daegu Amateur Student Association),” which only accepted Korean amateur members to establish a foothold for competing with the Japanese-led photography groups.

Image of Choi Kyebok's 여름 언덕(Summer hill) (1939). Courtesy of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.

Later, in 1947, Choi founded the Korea Photography Academy, the first professional photography educational institution in Korea. The institution fostered many younger, next-generation photographers, laying the groundwork for the expansion of photography in Daegu.

Until the 1930s, the Korean photography world was dominated by Japanese-influenced Pictorialism. But this trend in Korean photography changed dramatically after the liberation from Japanese colonial rule (1945) and the Korean war (1950 to 1953).

Pictorial photography in Korea gradually declined in popularity after the 1950s and 1960s, and a new style of photographic Modernism came into vogue, which adopted a new perception of social documentation. The chaotic conditions of the 1950s and 1960s prompted the Korean photography movement to rapidly change its trend toward “everyday-life realism (saenghwaljuui rieollijeum).” Instead of simply capturing reality, everyday-life realism photography was a documentation of humanity that reflected the artist’s intention and originality. Through endless debates with Pictorialism groups, photographers in the Daegu and Gyeongsang-do area progressed to a more advanced level.

Image of Yang Sung Chul's 불이(不異, Bul-i), Yang Sung Chul Solo Exhibition at the Daegu Art Center, Daegu. (July 28, 2022 - August 13, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and the center.

During this period, the photographer Koo Wang Sam (1905–1977) was one of the artists who led the discourse of the photography art world in Daegu through his critique of this new trend. Also, many photographers tried to introduce Korean photography on the global stage by participating in overseas photography competitions.

After the 1970s, Korea’s economy flourished as a result of rapid industrialization, and many people moved to other regions in search of work. It was also the period when the artists were also subject to many restrictions imposed by the new constitution. These social changes have altered Daegu’s reputation as the capital of photography. On the other hand, this change has brought more diverse artistic practices among photographers.

Cha Yong-Boo, American, 1976, Black and white photo, 50.8x61cm. Courtesy of the aritist and the Daegu Art Museum.

In the early 1990s, when the number of universities increased in the country, many photography departments were established at universities in the Daegu area, putting new energy into the city’s photography art scene.

Daegu’s status as the capital of photography has inevitably diminished as it has become easier to travel between regions, with lower barriers for students studying abroad and a more centralized arts and cultural infrastructure in the capital city. However, this change has acted as a driving force for the development of the art of photography in various ways, such as artists moving away from a specific region and breaking away from the existing concept or expression method of photography.

With this background, the Daegu Photo Biennale was established to reveal the unique identity and history of Daegu within the Korean art world and reflect on the relationship between Daegu and Korean photography.

Poster image of the 2021 Daegu Photo Biennale: Missing Agenda (Even Below 37.5).
Artwork image: Erwin Olaf, April Fool 2020, 11:30 am, 2020, Digital C-Print, 133x100cm.
Courtesy of the artist and the Daegu Photo Biennale Foundation.

The exhibition and fair Imaging Asia in Daegu, held in 2005, gathered around 30,000 people from ten Asian countries and was the inspiration for the Daegu Photo Biennale.

The following year, the Daegu Photo Biennale’s inaugural exhibition was held under the theme of Imaging Asia in Documents. The show aimed to reflect the artistic identity of Daegu and connect Asia through photography, focusing on documentary photography, the primary conceptual force in Daegu photography.

Since its first exhibition, the Daegu Photo Biennale has dealt with various agendas centering on the genre. The second Biennale in 2008 compared contemporary photography in Korea, China, and Japan to photography from 100 years ago. Its third edition in 2010 introduced photography with the theme of environmental issues and a group of works by Northern European photographers. Since then, the Biennale has been reflecting the expanded concepts of photography as art and the discourse surrounding the medium through various themes.

The Daegu Photo Biennale, which is celebrating its ninth anniversary this year, has announced that Park Sang-woo, an associate professor of aesthetics at Seoul National University, has been nominated as the artistic director of this year’s exhibition. Professor Park will be officially appointed as soon as the exhibition plan is finalized. Based on the history of photography in Daegu, he will explore the genre of photography as art from a different perspective.

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