Monday, June 4, 2012

Korea: Caught In Time by Terry Bennett

Korea: Caught In Time
by Terry Bennett, Martin Uden (Introduction)

Once known as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, Korea was first pried open by Japan in 1876; it opened to the West in 1883, and even today it remains a little-known country. Yet its distinct culture and history could not be more colorful or fascinating. Photographs from key private collections and museum archives in Europe, America and Russia are collected in this volume, forming a unique anthology and giving insight into the cultural heritage of Korea.
The book includes the very first photographs ever taken on Korean soil, by the famous war photographer Felice Beato. He accompanied the American squadron of five ships that landed in 1871 to attempt to open Korea to trade. His photographs show the subsequent fighting and the Korean people the Americans encountered. Other early photographs include royal portraits taken in the 1890s. Queen Min, the last queen of Korea, was assassinated by the Japanese in 1895 and the striking image presented here is the only known photograph of her.

Photography in Japan 1853-1912
By Terry Bennett

Published Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2006. 322x244mm, 320pp.

As well as providing the most complete history of Japanese photography so far published, this fascinating book provides a unique visual insight into Japan's rapid transformation from a feudal society to a modern, industrial state. The photographs, taken between 1853 and 1912 by both commercial and amateur Japanese and Western photographers operating in the country, document a nation on the brink of abandoning its traditional ways and entering the modern age.

Important features:

comprehensive history of Japanese photography
over 350 photographs and 50 plates in colour, black & white, and sepia
around 50% of the photographs are published here
for the first time
photographs gathered from major private and institutional collections around the world, including Japan, United States, Europe, Canada and Australia
results of major new research findings
an index of commercial and amateur photographers
in Japan
a chronology of photography in Japan
a glossary of photographic terms

A new book from Terry Bennett of Old Japan.
How to order your copy

Old Japanese Photographs: Collectors’ Data Guide
Terry Bennett Published November 30th, 2006

Published by Bernard Quaritch Ltd., London, 2006. 255x180mm, 308pp, hard-back in blue cloth, pictorial dust-jacket, approx. 110 monochrome photographs and 120 other illustrations.

If you are interested in the field of old Japanese photographs as a collector, researcher, dealer, curator or auction house then this book is, quite simply, indispensable. The author has written on and researched the subject for many years and has brought together in one volume the results of exciting new research and also data which has been gathered from long-forgotten and largely inaccessible nineteenth-century sources. Souvenir photographs of Japan, mostly hand-coloured, are extremely collectible today. However, it is usually very difficult to identify the photographer or studio from where they originated. Provided here is a list of more than 4000 such photographs which greatly assists the identification process. Finally, a unique index of over 350 photographers and publishers of Japan-related stereoviews is also included.

Important features:

collection of old and new articles on vintage Japanese photography
new discoveries presented here for the first time
important lists and data guides for novice and expert alike
over 4000 photographs identified by studio
an index of more than 350 photographers and publishers of Japan-related stereoviews
fascinating section illustrating numerous old studio advertisements
and much, much more...

I have been collecting the photography of East Asia for more than 25 years, and the comparative scarcity of early Korean images has always been apparent to me. When writing Korea Caught In Time in 1997, I estimated that for every 500 Japanese photographs from the 1880s, one would expect to come across just one Korean print. On reflection, I think I was being too generous and should have more realistically assigned a ratio of 1000: 1. My previous estimate would more aptly apply to the 1890s. As for the 1860s and 1870s, Korean photography is reduced to no more than a handful of extant images. Why is Korean photography so rare? The answer lies in the country’s history.

Known as The Hermit Kingdom, Korea was one of the last countries on the planet to open its borders. The Japanese were the first to force a commercial treaty through in 1876, and the United States became the first Western nation to do so in 1882. Prior to these events, Korea’s over-riding national policy had been to prohibit all but essential contact with the outside world. Western ships that approached her shores were refused supplies and told to leave. Force was used if necessary.

In an attempt to open commercial relations and also investigate the earlier sinking of an American ship, an United States expeditionary naval force was sent to Korea in 1871. When the negotiations broke down, the fighting commenced. Fortunately for us, Felix Beato had managed to join the expedition as photographer and he put together a portfolio of approximately 40 images of the conflict. These are of the utmost rarity and until recently were considered to be the first photographs taken on Korean soil. Two albums of the conflict are contained in the collection; so far I have only managed to locate one other and this is with the Library of Congress.

The collection also has a stereoview of Koreans taken in 1874, and although this appears to be the first photograph to include Korean females, the image is actually of a Korean expatriate community in Vladivostok. The next key event was the 1876 treaty with Japan and the collection includes four wonderful hand-coloured portraits of the Korean ambassadors taken in Tokyo.

After 1882, foreign envoys began to arrive and legations were set up in the capital, Seoul. Merchants also arrived and lived in the treaty ports. Some, but not many, photographs have survived from the 1880s. It has to be remembered that, unlike Japan, Korea was not thought to be a particularly attractive location for trade – and certainly not tourism. In contrast, by the mid-1880s, numerous foreign tourists to Japan were taking well-trodden paths inside the country and bringing back photographs that were freely available from the many commercial studios then in operation.

From the 1880s, through until the 1950s, Korea has been ravaged by wars and rebellions – events that are not conducive to the preservation of photography. By the 1890s the country’s independence was increasingly in doubt. Growing Japanese influence was beginning to dictate Court politics. The 1894/95 Sino-Japanese War was fought, largely, on Korean soil. Queen Min was assassinated by Japanese in 1895. Much of the 1904/05 Russo-Japanese War was also fought on Korean soil and this only served to demonstrate the country’s impotence. The Japanese, who were the overwhelming victors in both conflicts, forced the abdication of the Korean King in 1907. When the Japanese Resident-General, Ito Hirobumi was assassinated by a Korean patriot in 1908 the Japanese needed no further excuse. She annexed Korea in 1910 and the country would lose its independence until the end of World War II in 1945. During this colonial period, Korean culture was suppressed. Independence, enjoyed by Korea after the surrender of the Japanese, was at the cost of partition. What followed was the utter devastation of the Korean War. Given these events, it is hardly surprising that so little early photography of Korea remains. Indeed, it is hard to believe that South Korea is today the world’s 11th largest economy. That in itself is a testament to the resilience, the work-ethic and national patriotism of the Korean people.

What other collections of Korean photography exist? In England there is the privately held Hillier collection which was put together by the British Ambassador and amateur photographer Walter Hillier during his term of office in Seoul, 1889-96. Kawasaki City Museum, Japan, has an album of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, that contains scenes inside Korea. But any other holdings of Korean photographs in Japan are few, small and scattered. Neither do American and European institutions seem to have very much. Disappointingly, there is also very little in Korea. The National Museum in Seoul has a large collection of glass plates from the 1920s – 1950s and Yonsei University has a small collection of earlier prints, and a larger collection of copy photographs. The National Folk Museum has a number of vintage photographs, but most of these appear to be taken after 1910.

In Korea the first photography museum (Han-mi Photo Museum) opened in 2004. The collection, study and preservation of photographic material are at an early stage. Korean history, particularly from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, is full of colour and incident. It has been said that the most important form of documentation for any country lies in the richness of its photographic heritage. Judging by the content of world-wide photographic auction catalogues, all nineteenth-century photography seems to be rapidly disappearing. With that in mind, a collection which documents the pictorial history of a country needs to be appreciated, preserved and studied – and made available to scholars and researchers and anyone else with an interest in the history and culture of Korea.

Terry Bennett
May 2010

This portrait appears in an album compiled by a German naval officer around the year 1896. The contemporary handwritten German caption reads: 'Die ermodete Konigin' which translated means 'The Murdered Queen.' Whether this is or is not a portrait of Queen Min, what we can say is that the compiler of the album certainly believed so.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 95 x 135mm
Year: c.1896

Queen Min's photographic likeness has yet to be positively confirmed.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 136 x 98mm
Year: c.1890

The photograph shows the Seoul home of the American missionary Dr. W.B. Scranton together with his wife, Mary Scranton, who founded the Ehwa Women’s University

A-7: Album of 86 photographs assembled by an American engineer working on the Seoul-Chemulpo Railway, 1897-99

A-4: Album of 99 Photographs compiled by the Reverend M.N. Trollope

The album has the ownership inscription “Miss Trollope” who was undoubtedly the Constance Trollope who worked as the Organising Secretary of the Korean Mission. She was the sister of the compiler of the album, Mark Napier Trollope (1862-1930), who in 1911 became the 3rd Bishop of Korea until his death in 1930. Trollope first travelled to Korea in 1891 as a missionary and spent a number of years there before returning to England. After consecration, he returned as Bishop. This album was put together during his first visit. Today, in the centre of the floor of the Seoul Anglican Cathedral, there is a brass plate in commemoration of Mark Trollope. He died on board ship in Kobe harbour, Japan, on 6 November 1930.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print
Year: 1890s

A-16-44: The 1911 Graduates of the Severance Hospital Medical College, Seoul

The graduates are shown with members of the faculty: Dr. Kim, Dr. Hirst, Dr. Avison, Dr. Weir, Dr. Pak, Dr. Hong.The College was founded by the American philanthropist, Louis Henry Severance (1838-1913).
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Silver print

Dimensions: 80 x 140mm

France-Korea Conflict 1866, (byeong-in yang-yo 丙寅洋擾) 'Habitants de la Cote Sud de Coree’ [Habitants of the south coast of
This is one of a series of three carte de visite photographs which currently are the earliest known photographs of Koreans taken in Korea.[See same portrait G-22-2 and KCIT page 3, fig.5]
Medium: Albumen print carte de visite
Ref: A-25-7
Dimensions: 89 x 59mm
Year: 1866

France-Korea Conflict 1866 (byeong-in yang-yo 丙寅洋擾) - Korean Pilot
This is one of three known carte de visite photographs which currently represents the earliest known photographs of Koreans in Korea.[Korean Pilot or Navigator – same subject as in A-25-3 but a variant view][See same portrait G-22-3 and KCIT page 3, fig.6]
Medium: Albumen print carte de visite
Ref: A-25-5
Dimensions: 86 x 57mm
Year: 1866

France-Korea Conflict 1866 (byeong-in yang-yo 丙寅洋擾) - Korean Pilot
'Pilote Coreen’ [Korean Pilot or Navigator – presumably hired by the French to carry them safely through Korean waters][See variant view G-22-3 and KCIT page 3, fig.6] This is one of three known carte de visite photographs which currently represents the earliest known photographs of Koreans in Korea.
Medium: Albumen print carte de visite
Ref: A-25-3
Dimensions: 89 x 58mm
Year: 1866

Emperor Kojong's Funeral March 1919
750,000 Koreans gathered to watch Emperor Kojong's funeral processin. Later that day the 1919 uprising began and the rebellion was crushed by the Japanese colonial forces.
Medium: Silver print
Ref: G-34-16
Dimensions: 86 x 141mm
Year: 1919

Group of Ehwa(?) Schoolchildren with Mary Scranton (?) seated top-right
Mary Scranton(1832-1909) arrived in Korea with her son (Dr. Scranton) and wife on June 6, 1885. She founded Ehwa school for girls which later became the famous Ehwa Women’s University. She began the school at a time of great prejudice against female education and she was a great pioneer in the creation for opportunities and rights for Korean women.
Medium: Albumen print
Ref: G-44-3
Dimensions: 209 x 272mm
Year: c.1890

France-Korea 1866 Conflict ‘La Guerriere au mouillage de Nangasaki’ [The French Flagship La Guerriere anchored in Nagasaki Harbour]
The flagship of the French Admiral Roze which was involved in the French military campaign against Korea and the temporary occupation of Ganghwa Island byeong-in yang-yo 丙寅洋擾
Medium: Albumen print carte de visite
Ref: A-25-43
Dimensions: 52 x 85mm
Year: 1866

Thomas Child - Servant to a Korean Envoy in Peking
Portraits by Thomas Child are rare. The printed caption reads: ‘No. 164a. Corean Servant. Peking. This man is dressed the same as his master, in fact they are the same clothes for to my surprise, the gentleman took off his outer garments and the servant put them on; but still the face shows the difference, proving the proverb that “fine clothes do not make the gentleman”’.
Medium: Albumen print
Ref: M-1-190
Dimensions: 205 x 158mm
Year: ca.1880

Street in Chemulpo (Inchon) showing the Daibutsu Hotel
Unusual, hand-coloured view of an early Korean hotel.
Medium: Albumen print, tinted
Ref: M-1-199
Dimensions: 98 x 132mm
Year: c.1900

Felix Beato - US Officials discussing the war
Felix Beato's photographs of the 1871 US-Korea War are exceptionally rare. This print is in excellent condition.
Medium: Albumen print
Ref: K1871#13
Dimensions: 191 x 255mm
Year: 1871

Thomas Child - Korean Envoy in Peking (Beijing), China
Extremely rare vintage photograph signed by the photographer in the negative. The print is in excellent condition although slightly pale; the only other copy we have seen of this print also exhibited the same lack of contrast. Thomas Child (1841-98) was an engineer employed by the Chinese Maritime Customs in Beijing. He was also an exceptionally gifted photographer better known for his fine landscape of Beijing (1870-89) and the vicinity. However, he also produced a few portraits, including the one shown.
Medium: Albumen print
Ref: AD694X50
Dimensions: 208 x 151mm
Year: 1911

G-49-17: Group of Kisaeng Dancers
Photographer: N/A

M-1-6: Portrait of Prince Min Young-Hwan

Min would later commit suicide in despair at the growing Japanese influence in his home country.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Silver print

Dimensions: 187 x 120mm
Year: c.1885

Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 135 x 212mm
Year: c.1890

A-7-8: Group of Westerners and Japanese posed round a locomotive of the SCRR draped with Japanese and American nation flags

This image is from an album detailing the construction of the first railway in Korea.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 208 x 267mm
Year: c.1897-99

M-1-294: Early 1860s Portrait of 6 Korean Workers

This is an important and early photograph which can be tentatively dated ca.1865 since it came as part of a group of similar Japanese images, some of which carried an 1865 inscription.It is not clear where the photograph was taken, or by which photographer. As the photograph was found in the old USSR, it is quite possible that a Russian photographer is responsible.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 59 x 69mm
Year: c.1865

M-1-7: Group of Korean and Chinese labourers employed on the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 265 x 380
Year: c.1885

K1871#3: Felix Beato - United States Officers during 1871 US-Korea War

Felix Beato's photographs of the 1871 US-Korea War are exceptionally rare. This print is in excellent condition.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 204 x 274mm
Year: 1871

K1871#12: Felix Beato - A Corean Camp near Marine Redoubt

Felix Beato's photographs of the 1871 US-Korea War are exceptionally rare. This print is in excellent condition apart from a small loss of emulsion to the extreme bottom-left corner.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 223 x 288mm
Year: 1871

K1871#5: Felix Beato - Corean officials on board the USS Colorado to negotiate with the Americans

Felix Beato's photographs of the 1871 US-Korea War are exceptionally rare. This print is in good condition.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 225 x 188mm
Year: 1871

K1871#4: Felix Beato - The USS Monocacy towing the boats on their return to the fleet with trophies of victory.

Felix Beato's photographs of the 1871 US-Korea War are exceptionally rare. This print is in very good condition with some discolouration to the sky area, as shown.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 171 x 262mm
Year: 1871

K1871#6: Felix Beato - The Palos towing the boats with the storming party on 18th June 1871

Felix Beato's photographs of the 1871 US-Korea War are exceptionally rare. This print is foxed as shown, otherwise in good condition.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 198 x 283mm
Year: 1871

K1871#7: Felix Beato - The Flag of the Commander-in-Chief of the Corean forces captured in Fort McKee by two marines under Captain Tilton.

Felix Beato's photographs of the 1871 US-Korea War are exceptionally rare. This print is in excellent condition. In this photograph, taken on board the USS Colorado, Corporal Brown (left) and Private Purvis (middle), US Marine Corp, pose with their commanding officer, Captain Tilton, and the Korean flag they captured. Brown and Purvis were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. An iconic image.
Photographer: N/A
Medium: Albumen print

Dimensions: 254 x 230mm
Year: 1871

The following article was written by Terry Bennett and appeared under the title ‘Korea’ in John Hannavy’s Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, New York: Routledge, 2008.


The history of nineteenth-century Korean photography is dominated by foreign photographers and studios. Recognizable, traceable Korean studios did not appear until well into the twentieth century. In order to understand why, we need to consider briefly the political, social and economic background to which the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ was exposed for much of that time.

By the mid-nineteenth century the Yi Dynasty had ruled Korea since 1392 and experienced a number of invasions from China and Japan. A policy of ‘no contact’ with foreigners was adopted. Ships were turned away - forcibly if necessary. Korean society was regimented and an individual’s status was immutably fixed at birth. Confucianism was the dominant philosophy and a consequent culture of respect for elders and superiors was observed and enforced. Government and tax collection was centralized and corruption of officials was endemic. Peasants had no incentive to produce more than subsistence levels as any excess would be taxed heavily. The aristocracy was forbidden to engage in commerce, and innovation and free-thinking were frowned upon. The economy was weak, and interest in the outside world was negligible.

A few foreign missionaries managed to disguise themselves and penetrate into some regions and, as a result, some information concerning internal events did seep through to the outside world. By the early 1860s, however, it was becoming less likely that the Western powers would continue to tolerate the ‘anomaly’ of Korea’s closed shores. China and Japan had been opened, why not Korea? Countries such as Britain, France and Russia were of course interested in extending their trading options, but they also wanted to secure ‘safe harbors’ for their ships should weather conditions or food and water provisions dictate. Another consideration was the strategic importance of the Korean Peninsular. None of the Powers wished to see any of their rivals dominate the area by seizing and occupying one or more ports.

A Russian fleet visited the port of Wonsan in 1856 and tried in vain to open a dialogue with the local officials. In 1866 the still deeply conservative regime became concerned over the increasing number of Christian converts and instituted a wholesale massacre. A number of French priests were also killed, although a few of them escaped and reported the events to the French admiral in China. As a result, seven French warships sailed to Kanghwa Island, close to Seoul. When negotiations broke down, the French looted Kanghwa city but were driven off after suffering significant casualties. The same year an American ship, the USS General Sherman, tried to open commercial relations. Misunderstandings arose, and when the ship became grounded in the shallow Taedong River, all on board were massacred and the ship was burnt.

Taking stock: Did any of these events give rise to photographic opportunities? It was now 1866, and a photographic image of Korea or its people had yet to be published. That was very late indeed for photography – even for the Far East.

In fact the writer has seen one carte de visite portrait, from a Shanghai Chinese studio, of what appears to be a French priest together with other Koreans – presumably escapees from the 1866 persecution. And Korean sources have said that during a tribute mission to China in 1863, two Korean envoys were photographed. However, these photographs have not materialized. The writer also has in his collection several cartes de visite of French origin, which show portraits of unkempt-looking Koreans probably photographed on board a ship. The 1866 French-Korean conflict strongly suggests itself.

We now come to the earliest-dated photographs of Korea and Koreans taken, appropriately enough, by two of the greatest nineteenth-century photographers to have worked in the Far East – Felix Beato and John Thomson.

In May, 1871 Admiral Rodgers led a fleet of five ships to Kanghwa with the dual purpose of enquiring about the attack on the General Sherman and of opening trade relations. Felix Beato had managed to get himself taken on as the expedition’s photographer. He embarked with the fleet at Nagasaki, taking with him his assistant, H. Woollett and two Japanese servants. When the American diplomacy failed, Beato was able to photograph the conflict of the 10th and 11th of June – including the carnage inside the captured forts. The Koreans lost 350 soldiers, the Americans three. Admiral Rodgers sailed away empty-handed a few weeks later; both sides felt victorious. Beato had gone across to Shanghai by 28th June. On the 30th June, with the American fleet still in Korea, Beato advertised in the Shanghai News Letter the sale of his photograph albums of the conflict! Beato was a businessman and did not believe in wasting time. Albums of the conflict are exceptionally rare, but one example is held by the Library of Congress, another is in the writer’s collection. Altogether, approximately forty photographs of the hostilities were secured.

In September of the same year, John Thomson was on a photographic tour of China and had reached Peking. There he encountered a few Koreans who were part of a mission to China and were on the point of leaving. Thomson was just in time to secure one portrait of two of the officials which is reproduced in his monumental 1873-74 work, Illustrations of China and its Peoples.

The next dateable image of Koreans occurred in 1874. That year, several American scientific expeditions headed for the Far East to record the Transit of Venus. The team that would be based at Vladivostok had a D.R. Clark as senior photographer. The outward journey took the team from San Francisco to Yokohama, thence to Nagasaki before reaching Vladivostok. When the expedition was over, Clark separated from the team at Nagasaki and made his own way home through Europe. Clark copyrighted and published a stereoview series in 1875, from an address in Indianapolis, Indiana, which he called Asiatic and Tropical Views. Included in this series were views of Japan, China, Vladivostok, Ceylon and Singapore. The list appears on the back of each view. Intriguingly, however, there are also five views of Korean interest listed: Natives of Corea, Corean Dwelling, Corean School House and Coreans in the Market (2 views).

At first sight it looked as though Clark had achieved a real photographic scoop in securing views in Korea. Recently, however, the writer had the opportunity of seeing two of these rare views and it seems certain that they are of a Korean emigrant community living in Vladivostok. The first view, Natives of Corea, which is now in the writer’s collection, is particularly interesting. It shows a group of some fifty Korean men, women and children standing or sitting for the photograph. This would appear to be the earliest-known photograph to include Korean women.

In 1876 the country was forcibly opened, but only to the Japanese. The Treaty of Kanghwa was signed and trade relations between the two countries began. Photographs of the Korean embassy which travelled to Japan that year are contained in the writer’s collection. The photographer is unknown. This is also the case with a fine group of photographs of an 1880 mission to Japan, which are held by the Russian Geographical Society, St. Petersburg. The first treaty with a Western power was effected with the United States in 1882, and the ratification ceremony took place in Washington the following year; a photograph of the Korean envoys, by an unidentified photographer, is in the Peabody Essex Museum. Treaties with other major powers quickly followed, and Korean politics became even more confused as internal power struggles coincided with attempts by Japan, China and Russia to exert greater influence over the Korean court.

It is around this time that Korean scholars suggest that some photographic activity amongst Koreans themselves started to emerge. It is believed that the first professional Korean photographer was Kim Yong-Won who was a member of both the 1876 and 1880 embassies to Japan. He developed an interest in photography and sought the help of a Japanese photographer known as Honda Shunosuke. It is said that Honda helped Kim to set up a studio in Korea in 1883. The following year, Ji Un-Young, who had studied photography in Japan, also opened a studio. Hwang Chul, who set up his business with equipment imported from Shanghai also opened a studio in 1884. It must be said, however, that no photographs appear to have survived, and research to date has unearthed precious little documentary evidence concerning the activities of these three pioneers.

In any case, all three had to contend with widespread ignorance and suspicion of photography. Koreans popularly believed, for example, that if a tree were photographed it would wither and die. Being photographed was also thought to be injurious to one’s health. More seriously, rumors persisted that photographic chemicals were the residue from cooked children. Not surprisingly, feelings would occasionally run high and Hwang Chul’s studio suffered regular stoning. The new technology was also associated with the unpopular Japanese, and the general hostility resulted in all three studios being closed down and destroyed in 1884. Kim, Ji and Hwang apparently travelled abroad in order to re-establish their businesses.

Not surprisingly, these early photographers had confined themselves to portraiture, which they could practise in relative safety. Ji Un-Young must have hoped that recognition was imminent when he secured a photographic sitting with King Kojong. Although this did not alter the fate of these early studios, it did seem to create some Court interest in photography. But it took another ten years before Kim Kyu-Jin, an artist who went to Japan to study photography around 1895, was appointed the first official photographer at the Korean Court. Yet again, however, no photographs of his have to date been positively identified, and there seems to be little, if any, information about his life. At some stage Hwang Chul is said to have taken photographs of Korean scenery and famous landmarks, but his efforts did not seem to have been appreciated by his contemporaries and he was subject to constant harassment and arrested as a spy and thrown into prison.

In the final few years of the nineteenth century, photography was given a real boost when the King issued an ordinance banning the wearing of the traditional male topknot. Many Koreans wished to preserve an image of what they looked like before complying and photo studios suddenly experienced unprecedented demand. This greater familiarity with the process engendered greater acceptance, and the idea of photography as a profession became firmly established. But Korean sources have yet to uncover any other native Korean studios until the 1920s. And it remains the case, as far as the writer is aware, that no nineteenth-century photograph, taken by a Korean, has so far been positively identified.

By the late-1880s, however, a succession of amateur Western photographers had photographed the country. Whether diplomats, missionaries or travellers, we are indebted to them all for adding to the relatively meager number of early Korean photographs. The American naval attaché and diplomat, George Clayton Foulk (1856-93), was a talented amateur and has left a number of photographs of Korea which are spread amongst several American institutions. In 1883, the American, Percival Lowell, was attached to a returning Korean Embassy and spent some time in Seoul. In a book which he published in 1885, he included some twenty-five of his own photographs. In April 1885, the British, without previous warning or permission, unceremoniously occupied a group of islands off the south coast of Korea known as Komundo – or, to the British, Port Hamilton. The rationale of the occupation was to forestall the Russians from doing the same and thereby procuring an ice-free port south of Vladivostok. The British stayed until 1887 and several photographs taken during the occupation have survived. Commander Edward Davis (1846-1929) of HMS Daring and Commander Harry Grenfell (1845-1916) of HMS Pegasus are known to have taken portraits of the local inhabitants between May and August of 1885.

The first professional Japanese photographers in Korea seem to have been Honda Shunosuke, who was mentioned earlier, and Kameya Teijiro who died in Korea in 1885 following the setting up of his studio at around this time. Nothing much about Kameya is known. His family name was Yoshii and he began to study under the female Nagasaki photographer, Kameya Toyo, who had adopted Teijiro as her son in around 1871. Both of them were to die in 1885.

A large part of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894/95 was fought on Korean soil. Photographs of the conflict were taken by a number of Western photographers. Examples were the French artist and cartoonist, Georges Bigot (1860-1927), many of whose photographs can be seen at Kawasaki City Museum, Japan and John Alfred Vaughan, an engineer on HMS Undaunted. Examples of his work are in the writer’s collection. The Japanese, Suzuki Keikun also photographed the conflict.

There were a number of other photographers, amateur and professional, who took their cameras into 1880s and 1890s Korea, too many to mention here. Because Korean photography was so late in getting started, virtually all surviving work is represented in albumen or silver print. Photographic formats include stereoviews, cabinet, cartes de visite, and lantern slides. All nineteenth-century photography of Korea is rare, and what there is exists mainly outside Korea. At the time of writing (January 2006), there was only one small, private photography museum in the country. Plans to build a national museum have yet to be formalised.

Selected Bibliography

Bennett, Terry, Korea Caught In Time, Reading: Garnet Publishing, 1997.

Choi Injin, Park Juseok and Lee Kyungmin, History of Korean Photography, Seoul: The Research Institute The History of Photography, 1998. Exhibition Catalogue. Korean text.

Cho P’ang-Haeng, Yi-Dynasty through Pictures, Volumes 1 and 2, Seoul: Somuntang, 1994. Korean text.

Chung Sung-Kil, Korea One Hundred Years Ago: Photographs (1871-1910), Seoul: Korea Information Cultural Center, Seoul, 1989. Korean text.

Kwon Jong-Wook , A Study on the activity of Japanese photographers in the early history of Korean photography, in Bulletin of The Japan Society for Arts and History of Photography, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2005 (text in Japanese).

Oh Ki-Kwon (ed.), 100 Years of Korean History in photographs 1876-1976, Seoul: Dong-A Ilbo, 1978. Korean text.

Underwood, Peter A., Moffett, Samuel H., and Sibley, Norman R., First Encounters: Korea 1880-1910, Seoul: Dragon’s Eye Graphics, 1982.

Yi Hon, Independence Movement through Pictures, Volume 1, Seoul: Somuntang, 1987. Korean Text.

Felice Beato and the U.S. Expedition to Korea of 1871.

The text on this page is taken from Korea: Caught in Time, by Terry Bennett,
published by Garnet Publishing Ltd., 1997.

Beato 'as he ought to have appeared on his return from Korea',
caricatured by his friend, Charles Wirgman, in the Japan Punch for September 1871.

Terry Bennett


In the summer of 1866 an American merchantman, the General Sherman, sailed into the waters of the present-day North Korean capital P’yongyang. Requests for trade were denied, violence flared, and all the Americans were killed and their ship burned. Five years passed before the Americans were ready to mount a ‘diplomatic’ mission to enquire after their citizens and open up Korea to Western trade. The five American ships were commanded by the Civil War veteran Admiral Rodgers, who had previous Far Eastern experience. The US Minister to China, Frederick Low, was on board with a crew totalling some 1,000 sailors and marines, many of whom were Civil War veterans like Rodgers, and were quite ready to take non-diplomatic measures, should the need arise.

In the interests of Korean photographic history, it is most fortunate that the Americans decided to engage Felice Beato as official photographer to the expedition. Beato, who was then living in Yokohama, was already one of the most famous photographers in the world and, together with his assistant, a Mr. H. Woollett, he took some stunning pictures of the fighting that erupted after the failure of the American diplomatic efforts.

Unless and until subsequent research proves otherwise, the honour of being the first photographer of Korea must be given to Felice Beato. A number of writers, including myself, have written about the life of this restless but brilliant photographer. A short sketch follows, but readers who are interested in learning more should consult the biography.

Secretary Drew, Minister Low and Chinese interpreters on board the flagshipUSS Colorado, May 1871.

A Korean fishing junk with sails, May 1871.

This photograph was taken before the Americans reached, and anchored at, the mouth of the Han river. As such, it is probably the first time that Koreans, albeit from a distance, were captured on camera.

There is a great deal of uncertainty over the nationality, place of birth and dates of birth and death of Felice Beato. He has described himself as Venetian and as a British citizen, and his name is distinctly Italian. Although exhaustive research has failed to uncover his actual place of birth, it is likely that he was born in Venice, Constantinople or perhaps the Greek island of Corfu. Corfu has changed hands many times throughout its history and was, for a time, Venetian. It became British territory in 1815 before reverting to Greek control in 1864. A Felice Beato is recorded as having been born in Corfu around 1834, and this would explain Beato’s British citizenship. In 1858 he was described in an Indian publication as being from the Ionian Islands, and although it is not in itself conclusive, Beato was appointed Greek consul-general for Japan in 1873. It may well be, of course, that Beato spent his childhood in Venice before moving to either Constantinople or Corfu.

American marines being towed ashore for action, June 1871.

Beato’s fame came from photographing the Crimean War in 1855, the Indian Mutiny of 1858 and the 1860 Anglo-French military expedition to China. In 1863 he moved to Japan, where he took some stunningly beautiful landscapes and portraits of the country and people, and it is perhaps for his work in Japan that he is most famous. He stayed there for 21 years, until 1884, subsequently basing himself in India and in Burma. He is thought to have died in Burma around 1907.

Beato was the first war photographer; he had travelled extensively and his work was held in very high regard. He would, therefore, have been a strong and natural candidate for the choice of official photographer for the American expedition to Korea in 1871, but his motives for going with the Americans are not known. It seems that he used photography as a source of ‘steady income’ but that his main interest was in accumulating enough capital to invest in various commercial and property-related schemes in the hope of making his fortune. It is known that he lost heavily, and the Korean trip may have been a means of re-establishing himself financially. It is also likely that he saw a real commercial advantage in bringing back the first views of Korea, and certainly he lost no time in marketing them on his return.

Interior of the main Fort du Coude, showing some of the 350 Korean dead after the decisive battle, 11 June 1871.

Marine and naval officers outside a Korean temple,
May-June 1871.

Embarking at Nagasaki with his assistant H. Woollett, Beato left with Admiral Rodgers’ squadron of five ships for the island of Kanghwa - in the mouth of the Han River leading to Seoul - on 16 May 1871. After the failure of the diplomatic efforts, Beato was able to photograph the conflicts of 10 and 11 June and the carnage inside the captured forts. There is no doubt that the Americans felt themselves victorious; they had lost three men, the Koreans 350. The Americans’ superior firepower and military experience and their determined and disciplined force had been overpowering, but contemporary reports speak of the ferocious fighting and the willingness of many of the Koreans to fight to the death.

When the American ships left Korea on 3 July little, in truth, had been accomplished, and the Koreans were able to regard it as a great victory because the Americans had sailed away without gaining any particular advantage, just as the French had done in 1866.

Beato was back in Shanghai by 28 June, having probably taken passage on the German frigate Hertha which had come to offer any assistance following false rumours that had been circulating in Shanghai of an American defeat. On 30 June, with the American fleet still in Korea, an advertisement appeared in the Shanghai News Letter announcing the sale of photographs from the Korean expedition! (It is remarkable how quickly Beato managed to produce and market his Korean portfolio. We tend to think of the nineteenth century as having a rather more sedate and measured business environment than the frenetic pace of the late twentieth century. But is this really the case?) The New York Times of 22 July 1871 described and listed 47 views in bound volumes. The Far East magazine of 1 August 1871 described Korean photographs taken by ‘Mr. Beato and Mr. Woolett’ (there seems to be no consistency in the spelling of Beato’s assistant’s name).

Korean villager on board one of the American ships, holding empty beer bottles and a copy of the American periodical Every Saturday, May-June 1871.

On 5 July, Beato and Woollett left Shanghai and returned to Yokohama. Beato would never return to Korea.

Copyright © 1997 Terry Bennett.

Korean prisoners on board an American ship, June 1871.


Bennett, Terry: Early Japanese Images, Tokyo (Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co.), 1997.
Clark, John, John Fraser & Colin Osman: A Chronology of Felix (Felice) Beato, privately printed by the authors, 1989.
Schley, Winfield Scott: Forty-five Years under the Flag, New York (Appleton & Co.), 1904.
White, Stephen: 'Felix Beato and the First Korean War, 1871',The Photographic Collector, vol. 3, no. 1, 1982.

No comments:

Post a Comment