The delight and frustration of Joo Myung Duck’s first solo exhibition of thirty black and white gelatin silver prints at the Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery, New York, is the mysterious dark light that shrouds his work. Titled ‘Motherland’, in homage to his home country, Joo, one of South Korea’s most well known photographers, transcribes the seemingly dark surfaces to protean and lively landscapes.
Joo’s exploration of photography began in the 1960’s with his early documentation of mixed race children born and abandoned after the Korean War of 1953, for which he gained eventual recognition. Candid images of children in the famous Holt orphanage gave way to pictures of village life followed by the sheer expanse of nature, as he shifted his focus to the terrain around him in the 1980’s. The treatment of light becomes an important feature in ‘Motherland’ that distinguishes Joo’s early work in the gallery from his latter focus on scenery. Well-lit early images of the children at play, and a village scene of a farmer dwarfed by a massive hill behind him become pictures enshrouded in dark swathes of subtlety and enigma. The viewer is drawn to engage in a process of unraveling what appears to be inscrutable.
Yet on closer inspection, the series of works from ‘Lost Landscapes’ (1987-2000) replace the youth and energy of his prior images with a raw spirit that emerges from the photographs that fill most of the gallery. Hidden behind Joo’s signature black curtains, famously known as “Joo Myung Duck Black,” the viewer discovers a kind of untapped beauty almost too overwhelming to behold. In ‘Temple Bulyoung’ (2007), a large serene body of water shimmers with hundreds of lotus leaves that are symbolic of wisdom and divinity in Buddhist philosophy. Resembling pebbles from a distance in the diffused grey light, Joo’s image seems to create a pathway towards a place of worship and significance.
Mostly taken from a high altitude, Joo’s birds-eye-perspective provides a sense of magnitude to his presentation of nature. Mountains, and immense environments of forestland can be ascertained by the play of shadows and gradation of light that gives depth, dimension, and multiple meanings to the surfaces. In ‘Mt. Kamgang’, 2001, the darker interior areas that seem to be cavernous glacial troughs exacerbate the narrow hazardous looking edges. Similarly, ‘Mt. Odae’, 1989, piques one’s imagination for evoking a number of images. Appearing to resemble an arbor, a whirlpool, and a volcanic crater, this secluded but ominous space in the mountain is both entreating and beguiling. Unlike ‘Kyungju’ (1997), which is obscured by impenetrable veils of darkness, most of Joo’s work is poised in the realm of expressionistic painting.
For Joo a thorough kinship with his subject matter, whether it is elevating portraits of children in the orphanage or journeying to mountaintops, is paramount to his work. A pristine quality pervades his images and continues in his still life series, ‘Rose’ (2008), available for viewing in the back office of the gallery, which makes roses appear as both tactile velvet and exquisite three dimensional carvings.