Geometric South Korea – Traditional Korean ‘dancheong’ in B&W

Part of the fun of learning photography is accepting new challenges. It can be a new technique or skill, a new subject matter or project, photographing under an unusual set of circumstances and so on.

For me, black and white photography has been, and still is a challenge. As much as I enjoy looking at good black and white photography, I don’t “see” the world in black and white, when it comes to photographing it. Colour photography is really my thing. So, not surprisingly, my rare attempts at post-processing in black and white are often unsatisfactory.

In fact, after a few years posting on this website, these are going to be the very first black and white photos I post. Why?

Black and white photography is an exercise in abstraction. Colors don’t matter (but tones do, obviously) and light, lines and shapes take precedence.

Geometric dancheong motifs and patterns on eaves and columns, South Korea

Looking at the photos from my first trip to South Korea, it immediately struck me how much traditional South Korean art relies on geometry. So I made a note to work on those photos in the future with a black and white mindset.

Now that I finally found the time to do it (thanks, coronavirus quarantine, I suppose), I decided to put together a series to share with you.

* Click on an image of the tiled gallery to see the full-sized photo.

First, a word about these traditional Korean decorative patterns called ‘dancheong’. The Korean name means “red and green”, referring to the dominance of these two in the basic five-color palette of ‘dancheong’.

Wood ceiling decorated with dancheong motifs, South Korea

I saw these patterns and motifs on every single historic temple, palace or building I visited in South Korea. This may or may not reflect what one could see in the past, because a vast number (the majority?) of historic buildings were destroyed during the Japanese occupation of South Korea between 1910 and 1945. My understanding is this means all of this heritage had to be restored or reconstructed from scratch, giving it all a very homogenous aspect. I imagine it has been done following expert advice to reflect their original appearance.

* Click on an image of the tiled gallery to see the full-sized photo.

Although it may look a bit “samey” after a while, I still found it elegant and beautiful, and took tons of architectural and detail photos in all my destinations in the country. The craftsmanship of the woodwork and the detail and scale of the decorations are simply astonishing.

* Click on an image of the tiled gallery to see the full-sized photo.

Painting the wood had a practical purpose (weather-proofing) but also was supposed to protect the buildings and everyone inside them from the influence of bad spirits. The decorations also denoted power and status in Korean society.

Intricate dancheong decorations on ceiling, South Korea

There’s a couple of photos in this set where some of the motifs aren’t geometrical but represent faces instead. I chose to include them because I saw similar paintings on different historic buildings across the country.

Finally, a confession: I still like these better in color! No surprises for me there. You can see this example on my Instagram feed, as well as a couple more in my South Korea gallery.

What do you think? Better in color or black and white? Let me know what you think in the comments. Stay safe and make the most of your quarantine!

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