Seongyojang and Point of Departure

I’ve been listening to a number of interviews with Ralph Gibson and several times he has talked about showing his photos to Dorothea Lange when he was her darkroom assistant. She looked at them and said, “You have no point of departure.” “This is true,” he replied. “What is a point of departure?” Basically, she explained, it’s having a purpose to your photography. This purpose will allow you to see things you might not otherwise if you are just wandering about.

Sometimes getting the perfect ‘shot’ is as difficult as tossing these sticks into the wooden jar.

My point of departure for a project I am working on is making black and white 1:1 photos of traditional Korean objects and scenes. And to do it in a minimalist or abstract way with, ideally, the frame split in two and each section filled with nothing unnecessary included. The photo above is something like I’m looking for, with a large section of grass in one section and a sliver of wall and the game in the other.

Two kinds of stone wall

This is closer to what I have in mind when I think about the project.

Various totem poles

This doesn’t exactly match the idea I have in my head, but it’s not a bad photo and the composition is quite simple. Even if it doesn’t make it into the final project, it’s still a picture I will print and enjoy.

Gate

This is close to the ideal again. Most of the photo is filled with the gatehouse wall and then a small amount of the frame is filled with the gate door. But, the two parts of the frame are perhaps too similar to be interesting to the project.

It’s good to have a point of departure and I think I can manage the technical side of it. The problem is the thematic point of departure. What is it I want to say with my photos? At the moment I’m making well-composed records of things I’ve seen, but I’m not sure that I’m making any sort of statement about the things I’ve seen. And this is what separates good photography from great photography. Maybe I’ll never get there. That’s okay, because I enjoy what I’m doing, but I want to take it just that little step further . . . .

Seongyojang

I cut my camera collection down to one digital camera and a zoom lens, but a few weeks ago I had the urge to use some film. I had a number of rolls sitting in the fridge just soaking up cosmic and background radiation but nothing to put them in. I didn’t want to buy anything expensive because I had just sold all my expensive film gear and I wanted something small. Which lead me to the Minolta X-700 and a 50mm F1.4 lens.
Or, I should say, a Samsung Minolta X-700 with a Samsung F1.4 lens. From the late seventies onwards, luxury items were not allowed to be imported into Korea. This included cameras, unless one of the big Korean companies like Samsung or Hyundai stuck their name on it. Then it was fine. My camera has the old Samsung symbol of three stars on the front (Samsung means ‘three stars’) and on the back where most Minolta cameras say “Japan” this camera has “Samsung Aerospace Industries Corporation” written in Chinese characters. I’m not sure if that means the camera was assembled in Korea or not. The lens has Korea written on the front, so possibly it was assembled here.

I put in a roll of Kodak Ultramax 400 and went to Seongyojang. Where I discovered that citizens of Gangneung can get free admission instead of paying the usual price of 5,000 Won. That was a nice surprise. I thought about bringing my digital camera to ensure proper exposure, but decided I wanted to see how good the Minolta’s light meter is. Very good, as it turns out. Later testing showed it to give the same results or near enough as damn it as my digital.

Manhole and Rice Straw, Seongyojang.
Roof thatching season at Seongyojang. The estate had piles of rice straw everywhere. I was worried that the rather loud mirror slap would give me blurred photos, but they were as sharp as you could expect from this film.
View of houses across pavement, Seongyojang.
I’ve made photos of this scene before, but never included the stones in the foreground. It’s amazing how you can visit a place dozens of times and see something new each time.
Man climbing ladder to thatch house, Seongyojang.
Roof thatching
Man thatching roof watches passing woman, Seongyojang.
Please pay attention to your work . . . .

I was pleased with the results I got from the camera, and I’m sure I will get better results with the Portra 400 and Ektar colour films I still have in the fridge. Soon I’ll post some black and white photos I made with the camera on the same day I made these.

Seongyojang

It’s about a fifteen minute drive to Seongyojang from my apartment if you have your own vehicle, but takes almost two hours by bus. There are few buses to that part of town, even though it’s a tourist area. Tourists have their own cars, I guess.

It’s probably best it’s inconvenient to get to Seongyojang because the entrance fee is expensive. Lots of public historical sites are free or cheap, but this private residence has to make money with much aid from the government.

I’m sad to say this photo is heavily cropped because I didn’t think of a vertical composition until I got home and saw the photo on my computer. The structure in the middle is a chimney. Korean chimneys come up from ground level because the smoke and hot air goes from the kitchen at one of the house to a chimney at the other end of the house, warming the rooms as it passes under them. Much like a Roman hypocaust.

Here is the other end of the hypocaust system. The fire under this pot is what heats the building. Great in winter, but not so good in summer. Some rooms in a traditional Korean house didn’t have underfloor heating so that you could avoid being boiled at the same time as the supper.

A more modern addition to one of the buildings on this housing estate. The owners of this estate were (are?) extremely rich and connected, so they were probably one of the first in Korea to have electricity. Compare to the owner of the convenience store near my house. He is the same age as me and didn’t have electricity until after he entered primary school.

The lack of straight lines in a traditional Korea home seems to be a point of pride for people who tell me about historical architecture. As a photographer who likes rather formal photos, it sometimes drives me batty.

This window has no glass in it, possibly to let out the heat of cooking in the hot Korean summer. I’m not sure what happens during the cold Korean winter.

The scene is slightly spoiled by the Ladies/Gents sign over the left building.

Self-portrait in well. There’s no bucket or anything to draw water, and I think it’s just being used as a nursery for mosquitoes.

These stairs are the beginning of a path that brings you around the circumference of the estate and offers some nice views. Also, a lot of people seem to miss seeing the stairs so the path is quiet and uncrowded.

I was satisfied with some of the photos I made that day at Seongyojang, so I think I’ll go back again when the weather is suitable. There’s also a nice coffee shop that sells tea and cool drinks. It’s done in a traditional Korean style and was empty when I went in. One of the benefits of going to tourist places on weekday mornings.

Seongyojang

Some years ago I made photos of Seongyojang using the Hipstamatic application on an iPhone 4. The iPhone/Hipstamatic combination was very limiting – there was only one focal length, the rendering of the scene by the application was a bit random, and the iPhone 4 didn’t produce raw files I could adjust later. What I got when I pressed the shutter button was what I got, but it was challenging and fun. I sometimes thought about doing the same kind of photography again with a ‘proper’ camera, keeping the square format but using different focal lengths and possibly doing the whole project in black and white. On the way to Seongyojang the other day I thought it was a good time to start.

Blurred Calligraphy Sign.

If you go right after entering the grounds, you come to a pavilion called Hwallaejong. It’s a nice place to sit and look at the lotus pond and you can pay to have tea there on certain occasions. It’s been photographed from the front by thousands of people in more or less the same way, including myself. This time I decided to do something a bit different by purposely blurring the calligraphy sign and papered windows around the back of the pavilion.

Lawn and Buildings.

There is a large lawn on the estate that doesn’t seem to be used for anything. I’ve never seen picnickers on it or even children running around on it. Maybe it’s for special events? Although I’ve been to Seongyojang dozens of times, I don’t think I noticed this perspective before. One of the joys of photography is continually seeing things in new ways.

Stepping Stones.

I used my Fujifilm X-T3 because it has in-camera square format and because it’s light. No need for awkward tripods. This is especially important at historical sites and festivals where many people can be moving around. This requires a fairly high ISO setting at times , but, interestingly, the X-T3’s Acros simulation looks better at higher ISOs than it does at lower ISOs. I generally set the camera to auto ISO and aperture priority mode to make life simple.

In traditional Korean houses, especially those in the south, there is no real distinction between doors and windows, since the whole wall is basically removable and a can enter anywhere.
These stairs lead up to an empty plot of land. Possibly they are for the gardener.
Stairs and wall made of stone blocks.

Because I photographed Seongyojang in square format for the iPhone exhibition, I was worried about this new project being more or less the same except in black and white. But I have (I hope) learned more about photography in the past five years and I think that using different focal lengths will give me some new perspectives.

A moderate telephoto lens compressed this chimney nicely against the clay tile roof.
These 18th and later century buildings have been fitted with electricity for interior and exterior lights.
This photo was made in winter, so I’m not sure if the trees in the background are dead or have just lost their leaves for the season.

I’m going to make the rounds of the historical sites in Gangneung and keep an eye out for traditional festivals, but I also want to get out of Gangneung and look for some traditional buildings, etc in other towns and locations. Maybe it’s time to just off my driving license and rent a car.

From the Archive: Seongyojang

Judging by the dates on these photographs, it appears I went to Seongyojang one day with a digital camera and then went back the next day with a film camera. Of course, film takes time to develop and scan, so it’s very likely I was at the residence with the film camera some days before.

Seongyojang, 2009

I suspect this photo of the gate and stepping stones is not very original. It’s not even that good, really. I think I made a better version of this photo later and maybe I’ll come across it as I go through my archives.

Photographer, Seongyojang, 2009

The top of the first photo is the bottom of the second photo. I like the red jacket contrasting with the neutral colours of the wood, sand, and clay tiles.