Ceramics, bronzes, screens, and scrolls —- these are the sorts of objects that probably come to mind when picturing the galleries of the Asian Art Museum. However, there are many more artistic mediums out there for our curators to explore. One such medium is photography, represented in our latest rotation by portraits of the lost palaces of Korea’s Joseon dynasty.
As mentioned in a previous post, we routinely remove light-sensitive works from our galleries and replace them with new works from storage. In this case, the contemporary fiber arts that have livened up our Korean gallery for the past year have been replaced by a selection of photographs from the vast archives of the National Museum of Korea.
These photographs document five palace complexes in the Joseon capital city of Hanyang (modern Seoul) and were taken between 1909 and 1949 as part of a survey of the customs, architecture, and landscape of Korea. During the early twentieth century many of these palaces were destroyed or dismantled, leaving us only with these evocative images.
The anonymous photographers who composed these images were using the technology of the time, dry plate photography. Developed at the end of the 19th century, the dry plate process relies on a glass plate coated with a photosensitive gelatin layer. Unlike the earlier wet plate process—in which dripping plates had to be rapidly transported between preparation, camera, and an on-site developing lab—dry plates could be prepared in advance and developed at another location. Because of their large size, these plates could also record incredible amounts of detail.
The National Museum of Korea houses some 38,000 of these glass plate negatives. Although the plates show signs of use, no known vintage photographic prints from them existed. As a gift to the Asian Art Museum, the National Museum prepared thirty new contact prints (prints made by laying the glass plate directly against the photographic paper) using these 70 – 100 year old glass plate negatives. Ten of the prints will be displayed in the current gallery rotation, with another group of ten scheduled to go on view in March 2010.
If this display intrigues you, be sure to continue into the Tateuchi gallery (directly adjacent to the Korean galleries) to view the ongoing exhibition Photographic Memories, featuring vintage photographs from South Asia, China, and Japan. We will be rotating this exhibition as well at the end of the Summer, introducing fresh images and themes for our visitors. If that’s not enough, enjoy browsing through our on-line collection of photographs from colonial India, available through our collections browser.
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