For six years, from 2002 to 2008, I lived and worked in the Republic of Korea, mostly as an English teacher and very briefly as a bar owner. As exciting as that sounds, what follows is not a lurid tale of my time as an expat but an account of a fellow Australian who explored the country around 100 years previously.
In the summer of 2003, in a moment of serendipity whilst visiting Seoul, I wandered into a small gallery exhibiting photographs of Korea at the turn of the 20th century. The fascinating black and white images, taken with a large format camera, depicted the urban and rural environments of a small country undergoing immense change. The year was 1904 and the photographer was a gentleman from my hometown of Melbourne named George Rose.
Rose was born in 1861 in the small Victorian town of Clunes, the location of the first registered discovery of gold in the region that triggered the rush of 1851. Inquisitive from a young age, Rose soon developed interests in various scientific and technological fields, including the art of photography which he had begun experimenting with in 1880. His increasing passion and skill eventually led him to set up a commercial studio in Melbourne where he focused on the production and sale of stereoscopic images.
The stereoscope was developed during the 1830’s and enabled a pair of images to be viewed as a single, three-dimensional image. The initial devices used mirrors to create the 3D effect with later developments utilizing optical lenses. In 1861, the year of George Rose’s birth, American physician, poet, and polymath Oliver Wendell Holmes developed a simpler and more economical handheld stereoscope that remained in production for decades. The stereograph craze was at its peak around the turn of the century with thousands of images being produced and sold daily by studios throughout the world. Images depicting exotic foreign lands and the people who inhabited them were especially popular and George Rose enthusiastically capitalised on this demand. Personally travelling to over 35 different countries, Rose photographed countless scenes from Europe to the Far East. In 1904, he ventured to the mysterious nation of Korea, known in the west as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ due to its long, self-imposed isolation. Korea at this time was experiencing the industrial and imperial incursions of several competing nations, most notably Japan.
*image courtesy Wikipedia
A rapidly rising Asian power, Japan had recently defeated China in a war primarily over the domination of Korea (The First Sino-Japanese War, 1894-95), and was now in conflict with a Russian Empire expressing similar ambitions. At the time of Rose’s visit the Russo-Japanese War was in full swing, although much of the action would take place in Manchuria and at the China-Korea border in the far north. Evidence of Japan’s increasing influence in Korea, however, was obvious, especially in the larger cities of Seoul and Busan. Signage advertising Japanese businesses, kimono clad ladies strolling the streets, and increasing numbers of Japanese style structures are all captured in George Rose’s images. The images also depict an urban environment undergoing rapid modernisation, but amid the electric power poles and tram systems remains a Korea largely unchanged for hundreds of years. The old city gates and walls still encircle Seoul, surrounded by mud brick houses with thatched roofs. The men in the street wear traditional white long-sleeved tops and baggy trousers, topped with a bamboo hat, whilst some women are seen wearing a veil to shield their faces from the male gaze. In one image two men carry a palanquin inside which is a woman of some aristocratic standing, followed on foot by her young maid and porter.
This is what is so fascinating and significant about Rose’s photographs. They capture a time and place in Korea’s history essentially caught between two worlds, and which was rapidly being transformed by both Western and Eastern powers. Images had been taken of this time by others, usually snapshots by visiting diplomats and missionaries, but were by their nature of an amateur quality and not as comprehensive as Rose’s professionally composed work.
The images also depict a nation on the eve of a particularly dark period. A few years after Rose’s visit Japan officially annexed Korea, subjecting the country to over three decades of oppressive rule (1910-1945). The economic recovery that followed, subsequent to the devastating Korean War (1950-53), is often termed the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ (referring to the broad waterway on which Seoul was founded). Looking at Rose’s images, and having experienced firsthand the modern nation of South Korea, it is hard to disagree with that sentiment.
George Rose had tremendous success with his photographic business, at one point establishing sales offices in Sydney, Wellington and London. As the demand for stereographs waned throughout the 1920’s and 30’s the studio began producing increasingly popular picture postcards, a product line that continued into the 2000’s, by which time the Rose family had long ceased being part of their eponymous business.
George Rose passed away in 1942 at the age of 80.