A family legacy in photography

By 이우영

Four generations of photographers are living records of Korean photography 

  • Published : Nov 24, 2015 - 17:33
  • Updated : Nov 24, 2015 - 17:33

Lim Seok-je, born in 1918, was one of the first professional photographers in Korea. He shot local life and landscapes with a candid, yet subjective perspective that earned him recognition as a first-generation fine art photographer. 

His nephew Lim In-sik, two years younger than him, documented war scenes as a military photographer during the Korean War (1950-1953) and worked as the country’s first aerial photographer. He opened a photo news agency in 1952 and Korea’s first photo gallery in Seoul in 1959. 
“Cow and Shepherd” by Lim In-sik, great-grandfather (Art Space J)

In the early and mid-20th century, photography was a rare profession in Korea. It wasn’t quite an ideal way to make a living, either.

When Lim In-sik’s son, Chung-eui, told him he wanted to become a photographer, following in the footsteps of his father and great uncle, the father told his son: “It’s hard to eat meals through photography.”

But now the Lim family has four consecutive generations of photographers with Lim Chung-eui’s son, June-young, joining the family legacy. 
“A Happy Time” by Lim Seok-je, grandfather (Art Space J)

Some 70 works by the four photographers -- two of them now dead -- are being exhibited at Art Space J in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, until Dec. 9.

The first- and second-generation photographers died in 1994 and 1998, respectively. But their faded black-and-white photos are on display alongside more recent photos by Lim Chung-eui, 71, and Lim June-young, 39. 

The early photos from 1940s and ’50s feature rustic images of Korean people and landscapes, such as young “haenyo” female divers and beautiful snow-covered Mount Hallasan on Jejudo Island, or a young shepherd watching cows eat grass.

Lim Chung-eui’s photos also capture scenic landscapes of Korea, taken early in the morning. Fourth-generation photographer Lim June-young takes a great turn from the landscape series of his predecessors with his contemporary abstract photographs. 
“Morning in Sangchungjeong” by Lim Chung-eui, father (Art Space J)

For the exhibition, the father and son pored through a trove of negative films and prints left by their predecessors. Lim Chung-eui keeps thousands of negatives of his father and great uncle’s photos at his studio in Seoul. 

“When I look at them, I see historical records of the country,” Lim Chung-eui told The Korea Herald in an interview last week at the gallery. 
“Like Water” by Lim June-young, son (Art Space J)

The negatives are also a valuable record of the history of Korean photography over the past 90 years. Lim Chung-eui released a compilation of his photos taken in the past 50 years titled “The Great Half Century,” which accompanies the exhibition. He also plans to publish an extensive book of photographs by his great uncle and father.

No one in their family was encouraged to become a photographer or pressured to continue the family legacy. But a family tradition led them to the world of photography one after another.

They grew up helping their fathers develop negatives from a young age. The sons were great assistants when their fathers had to develop hundreds of shots taken for their work.

Lim Chung-eui helped his father develop negatives as his son June-young had when he was young.

“My father gave me allowance for developing negatives, 1,000 won (87 cents) per A4-size photo,” June-young recalled. 
Father Lim Chung-eui (right) and son Lim June-young, third- and fourth-generation photographers, pose at Art Space J in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, which is exhibiting photos by four generations of Lim photographers. (Lee Woo-young/The Korea Herald)

The small family chore naturally led them to pursue a career in photography. Chung-eui worked as a photojournalist at The Korea Herald from 1973 to 1975, and a photo editor at the architecture office Space. Since then, he has specialized in architecture photography, documenting the transition of Korea’s cityscape and buildings. 

June-young, largely influenced by his father’s work with architecture, is an artist, capturing aesthetics of architectural forms. His works are included in the collections of the Jeju Museum of Art, galleries in the U.S. and Korea and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, as well as Lotte Hotel.

Will the family legacy carry on to the fifth generation?

“My 4-year-old son is showing an interest in cameras, too. He takes photographs. Who knows if he becomes a photographer?” said June-young.

By Lee Woo-young (wylee@heraldcorp.com)