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I first visited Seoul in 2004, when I was living in Tokyo. It was my first foray elsewhere in Asia outside of Japan. To be honest, I didn’t like it that much. It was August, and the city was hot and oppressive. I was traveling alone, and felt lonely and alienated as I wandered the streets aimlessly. My overwhelming impression was that this was a dusty, austere place—a slightly unkempt, dirty and dated version of Tokyo. But I visited again in 2010, and enjoyed the city much, much more. I was there for the Korean International Art Fair, the Media City Seoul biennial, and the Gwangju Biennial, which gave me a greater sense of purpose. I knew many more people, and it seemed that parts of the city, such as the art gallery district in Jongno-gu, had livened up a lot since my last trip. And yet, looking back, the photos I took on my first visit remain stronger and more evocative images.
A view from the observation deck of the N Seoul Tower, located on Namsan Mountain in the city center. I have a fixation with visiting the tallest building in every city I go to.
Changgyeonggung Palace. Korean palaces contain some very forlorn spaces, set off only by the beautifully colored detailing in the rafters. In this room, I was struck by how the incline of rock outside filled the view from the window, as well as the oblong of light shining on the floor.
Traditional Hanok houses in the Bukchon historic district. In Seoul, I got by speaking to people in English, and sometimes in Japanese. Young Koreans often spend few years studying in Japan and come back more or less fluent; old people may know Japanese as they were forced to learn it during the occupation (1910–1945). An old woman stepped out of one of these house and said something to me in Korean. I asked her if she spoke English, but she shook her head. I didn’t dare address her in Japanese, for fear of what memories it might bring back.
A backyard on Namsan Mountain. You have to walk up some steep slopes to reach the cable car that takes you up to the N Seoul Tower, and they afford you some great views down into people’s gardens.
Jongno-gu historic district. Six hundred year-old courtyard-house neighborhoods such as this one are increasingly rare, as some Hanoks elsewhere in Seoul are being demolished and replaced by modern buildings.
Lee Seung-taek is an avant-garde artist who has staged outdoor performances and made works of Land Art since the late 1950s, pre-dating similar, more famous movements in the United States. Entitled Tile Works (1968–88), this piece was commissioned for the Olympic Sculpture Park when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 1988. I was one of the first people to interview him and write about his work in English.
Sanchon restaurant, in the Insa-dong neighborhood, serves Buddhist vegetarian food. They place dozens of small bowls on your table, each filled with greens that look almost identical but taste completely different, and all of them are delicious. Every evening, dancers perform. This swinging, swaying dance was the most unearthly of them all.
A perfume stall in Myeong-dong shopping district.
A vendor in Namdaemun Market. I was still figuring out how to photograph people—whether to take direct portraits or attempt to capture them without them knowing. I often concealed the fact I was taking a photo by shooting from the hip, and this sometimes resulted in unusual close-up compositions.
The Seun Arcade, a discount electronics market. I was struck by this stretch of roofing, a kind of artificial riverbed winding its way through the buildings.
A metalworker in Euljiro san-ga manufacturing arcade. Parts of Seoul still have a kind of chaos, a rawness that is left open for all to see, that you don’t find so much in Tokyo.
A scrapyard in the Sinchon-dong neighborhood. I used to take a lot of photographs of people almost consumed by their environment.
A view from the observation deck of 63 Building, formerly the tallest skyscraper in South Korea. Built in 1985, it was the tallest building outside North America until 2003.
The Han River, seen from Yeouido Island. The colors of her umbrella lit up the unforgiving blue-gray expanse of the city in front of her.