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 . . . .

Obong Seowon

On the left is a traditional building that might be a part of the Obong Confucian school (seowon is a kind of Confucian academy from long ago) even though it is outside the walls. On the right is a farmer’s house. Or was a farmer’s house. When I first started visiting the seowon there were greenhouses, a garden, and a shed with a cow inside. Last year (two years ago?) the cow disappeared and a while later the shed disappeared. And on my last trip there last month everything was gone. Including the farmer and his missus. I hope they’ve just retired and nothing bad has happened.
Most street lamps these days are the ‘hanging head’ type, but this one is just a globe on top of a pole.
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In 2005 a very old Buddhist temple burned to the ground up around Yangyang and there was then a mad rush to get firefighting equipment installed at any and all historical sites.
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The courtyard inside the walls of the seowon.

New Traditional Buildings

Gangneung built a new city hall on top of a hill and tore down the old one which was situated in the downtown area. Some years later they got rid of the big Central Post Office which was right next door to the old city hall and built new traditional-style buildings on the vacant lots. These buildings are used for festivals and events pretty much all through the year. There is even a very small library in one of the buildings. I think it’s great that the city turned a piece of prime business real estate into something that everyone in the city can enjoy. And, even better, they built traditional Korean buildings instead of the usual concrete, steel, and glass rectangles that pop up all around the city.

Traditional Gatehouse, Gangneung.
The latest addition to the grounds was this gatehouse.
Traditional Building, Gangneung
This building gets opened up during festivals to display exhibitions and hold traditional events. When nothing is going on, it’s nice to sit on the veranda (called a maru in Korean) and relax.

Heo Estate

I’ve written quite a few times about this place, so I’ll just share the photos.

Day After Rain
Stone Bench
Trees Outside the Walls
Cellar
Neglected Light

Fujifilm X-T3 with 18mm and 35mm prime lenses. Acros Film Simulation.

A Few From Obong

I caught a taxi to the Confucian School on Obong Mountain to make a few photos but came back with very little. And even less survived my editing process. And that’s a good thing because organising a lot of photos on the computer is a royal pain in the arse.

School Wall and Tree, Obong Seowon

I only thought one photo of the school was worth publishing here. I’ve made similar photos of this tree and wall before, but I think this one is a slight improvement. Better micro-composition, etc. This is from the camera with no adjustments made on the computer. Just how I like it. It was an overcast morning, so I think I may have adjusted the highlight setting on the X-T3 to +1 for a little extra contrast.

No Burials, Obong Mountain

The sign on the left says it is illegal to do burials and set up graves within 500 metres because the water off the hill feeds into the water supply for the town. The sign on the right says you can’t dump garbage there. These signs are next to the Confucian school and I made the photo as I was leaving.

House Gate and Shadow, Obong.

Like the other photos above, this photo is straight from the camera. I think I spot-metred off the pavement underneath the gate and compensated by +1 or +1.3. I keep forgetting to change settings, so although the sun was out, the highlight setting on the camera was still probably at +1. This gate is just down the road from the Confucian school.

Although I dislike making adjustments to photos in Lightroom, I wonder if it might not be a good idea to darken the lower righthand section of the first photo for a bit of balance. Any suggestions?

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.

Pavilion Roof

Tired of visiting the same places all the time and having no car to find more distant and interesting places, I spent a bit of time on Naver Map looking over Gangneung to see if I had missed any photogenic locations in the area. I came across Namsan (South Mountain) Park which has a pavilion at the top of the hill. I’d been there one spring to see the cherry blossoms, but it’s a bad time to go for photography because there are hundreds of people there also making photographs. Some are middle-aged men with Serious Equipment looking the place over with Serious Expressions trying to get the perfect shot. Most were couples or families taking selfies with mobile phones.

After looking at the map and remembering the pavilion’s existence, I put my camera and tripod in a bag and rode my bicycle there. The park is only about three kilometres from my apartment so I arrived after ten minutes or so. It was November when I visited this time, so instead of pink blossoms on the trees, there were red, yellow, and orange leaves all over the ground. Very nice, but I was interested in making some photos of the pavilion there called Oseong Pavilion. ‘Oseong’ means ‘Five Star’, but I don’t know what the significance of that might be. The pavilion was built in 1927 by a group of men to commemorate their 60th birthdays. I couldn’t find any information about who did the calligraphy hung up around the ceiling. Maybe the fellows who had the pavilion built?

Interestingly, traditional Korean buildings don’t have nails in them. Everything fits together using grooves and joints. The weight of all that timber probably guarantees the roof won’t blow away. I like the red and green colours of Korean buildings called dancheong. You’ll find this colour scheme in pavilions, Confucian buildings, and Buddhist temples. The painting in Oseong Pavilion is quite basic, but the painting at some Buddhist temples can be very elaborate.

I thought I might be alone at the pavilion on a cool November day, but there was an older man there with a camera and a young woman looking for nice leaves on the ground. There are exercise paths on the hill and people in sports clothes were coming and going. I got a bit of exercise myself because I came up the 190 stairs on the north side of the hill. Hats off to the builders who carried all that timber up the hill in 1927.

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.

Two Photos From a Morning Bicycle Ride

Seongsan Intersection

I’ve possibly mentioned in the past that when I ride to Seongsan, I stop at the 7-11 at the far end of town. Sometimes I make photos of my camera bag and flower pots while drinking a tin of coffee, and sometimes I make a photo of this jumble of utility poles, wires, and cars. I did a decent job of the framing and composition on this day.

Geumsan

A traditional Korean home dwarfed by the huge overpass that carries an expressway over the valley. I never hear noise from it when I’m around there, so I think the soundproofing must be good. Still, I think I might feel nervous if I lived underneath such a large structure.

Thoughts on Carrying on with the Blog

I haven’t written or posted anything in over a month now. It’s another case of “No one is reading, so why bother?” That’s the question I want to mull over in this post. Should I write a blog for an audience of one?
While I consider some reasons to continue or not continue writing on this website, I will share some photos from the month of June. It’s just a random collection as I haven’t been out with the camera much because of the hot weather.

An old building in downtown Gangneung. A rare instance of a building with a colour exterior that isn’t advertising. 
This building is across the street from the colour tile building. It was once part of Gangneung City’s government complex and is called “The Pavilion of Seven Works”.  The seven works carried out were citizen registration, agriculture, military , education, taxation, legal court, and public morals/customs. It’s not a large building, so I imagine there were just a few civil servants in there run right off their feet. These days the grounds are open to the public and the building is used for the Dano Festival.
A model of a government building guard. The building behind him is a recent reconstruction.

I am not good at promoting myself. I even regularly forget or don’t bother to add tags to each post. I’m not sure how easily search engines can find this website without them. I rarely advertise new posts on Facebook because some co-workers and students are on my friends list. I don’t think I post anything offensive here, but I work at a Catholic university and who knows what might prompt a complaint against me.

Farm Buildings. There is a normally a cow living in the building on the right, but I didn’t see it on the day I was in the neighbourhood. Maybe it was sleeping.

If I can’t be arsed to advertise myself to the world then it’s my own fault if I have very few readers. So, if I’m not writing for an audience, why should I carry on writing?

Sandy’s Sandwich. The windscreen has stickers advertising steamed dumplings, and I suspect someone imported a food truck from the States and had a go at selling Korean food in it. The truck now sits in the countryside falling apart, so I guess that didn’t go so well.

One reason to write here is to improve my writing. Not just words and sentences, but coherent essays. I’ve been living in Korea for a long time and I haven’t needed to use much more English than what I use in the EFL classroom with low and intermediate level students. The truck in the photo above is a pretty good metaphor for the advanced English part of my brain. I would like to write short articles on things I photograph, but the gears grind badly in my mind.

Another metaphor for my brain? Old televisions up against a dyke. I can’t explain this.

Another reason to write without concern for an audience is to motivate myself to make more photos and to photograph a subject in more detail with a blog story in mind. Maybe no one will see the photo essay , but it focuses my mind and helps me see a subject from more than one perspective.

Sometimes I want to live like this lucky bastard

The third reason to continue writing here has to do with photo editing. Photos that look fine to me on my computer can suddenly reveal their faults when I consider showing them to the world. So posting photos on a blog is helpful in weeding out weak photos.

I made this photo two weeks ago. Yesterday the scooter was in the same spot. Abandoned? The man riding bicycle in the background was a nice bit of luck.
Another scooter on the same day.

Writing about whether or not to continue posting on Blogspot has helped to clear my mind a bit. I think I will continue to write here, but probably I should be more focused. Many of my posts are a bit random and general. “A walk downtown”, “Geumsan Village”, and so on. Perhaps future posts should be something like “Downtown Gangneung’s Pedestrian Bridges” or “Rice Farms in Geumsan Village”. Would it be helpful to think of each blog post as a mini-exhibition with explanations?
In conclusion, I think I will start writing here again, even if it’s just for myself. If I focus on specific subjects and refrain from posting random collections of photos then I’ll be helping my photography and my writing. And maybe even attract a few readers.

Having said that, here are a few more or less random photos of Geumsan Village, the last photos I made in June of 2019. 🙂

Delivery truck parked underneath an expressway overpass.
Hot weather means I am riding my electric bicycle these days.
First in a possible series? The Rice Fields of Geumsan Village.

Thank you for reading.