Jung Sung-Gil: Korea’s heritage

Interview with Jung Sung-Gil: photo collector of 70.000 documentary pictures.

Jung Sung-Gil’s collection covers 100 years of Korean modern history from 1876, the last period of the Joseon Dynasty, to 1970s Korea.He has been collecting pictures from 1978 until now. He owns 3,500 picture negatives and around 70,000 original pictures. Most of them are documentary photography: historical moments, national ceremonies, and events, including pictures of the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty. Also portrait pictures of artists, pictures of paintings or heritage that were lost during the Japanese occupation and war. Those pictures had remained unseen for a long time before he brought them back to Korea.

 Documentary photography has more power than any written documents. If photography had been invented in ancient times or the middle ages, history might have to be re-written

In 1974 he went to Germany to study medical technology. He lived in a guesthouse run by the Catholic Church. He was introduced through German Catholic missionaries to historical pictures of old Korea. Those pictures opened his eyes to recognize the value of documentary photography. The lost historical moments, customs, culture, and even art were seen through those pictures. He wanted to bring them back to Korea. He traveled to many countries to find old pictures – Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, the Netherlands, and even countries where travelling to was banned. 

The Opening Ceremony of the Seoul-Busan Railway (1905) © Jung Sung-Gil_Gulmaru Korea In the photo: The Opening Ceremony of the Seoul-Busan Railway (1905) © Jung Sung-Gil_Gulmaru Korea.

Once he went to East Germany, before the unification, and the visa requirement was not possible at that time. Traveling into East Germany was not difficult, but coming back was a problem. “I was only thinking of the picture”, he said, “after I got the picture I didn’t know how to come back. I heard that trucks were controlled only by dogs and not by police. So I ate lots of raw garlic to hide my scent from dogs (laugh).”

  I sold everything that I had. My factory and buildings… even all my invention patents that I obtained

His collections include the most valuable historical pictures of Korea. For that reason he had to spend enormous amount of money. He ran a large glass factory in the city of Daegu and was a famous inventor who had obtained a total of 43 patents. He sold everything to collect the pictures. He visited the descendants of missionaries who owned pictures of old Korea. Sometimes it took years for him to find the person who supposedly had some valuable photos. However he felt rewarded whenever he found pictures of historical moments of Korea that had not been seen, and especially the photos of the time during the Japanese colonial period that could correct wrongly written history.

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His exhibitions, now 34 times in Korea, always draw attention including the exhibition commemorating the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Germany. He also donated prints of his collection to museums and historians. Because of the size of his collection even NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, made a documentary film about him.

Gwanghwamun, on the far in the background (1907) © Jung Sung-Gil_Gulmaru Korea In the photo: Gwanghwamun on the far in the background 1907. © Jung Sung-Gil_Gulmaru Korea.

A recent exhibition at Industrial Bank of Korea in Seoul showed valuable pictures of Korea’s late 19th and early 20th century: pictures of the time when the Treaty of Ganghwa was made between the Empire of Japan and the Joseon Dynasty in 1876, which was the beginning of the Japanese Invasion; scenes of a royal funeral in 1890; Royal Promenade of Gojong, the last king of the Joseon Dynasty in 1897; the opening ceremony of the Seoul-Busan Railway in 1905; the first Independence Movement in 1919; Prince Yeong and his wife Lee Bang-Ja in 1935; Tojo Hideki waiting for the International Military Tribunal before he was sentenced to death for Japanese war crimes in 1945 and many others.

 Photography is the most reliable method to prove and to preserve history

He is also a great supporter of Korean tradition and heritage. The restoration of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was damaged and destroyed during the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War, was one example of “how pictures can recall what we were, how we lived and what we did in the past”, said Jung Sung-Gil. He thinks pictures can remind us about the truth of history and give us chance to correct the past wrongdoings and to change the future.


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About the Author /

Youngyee Kim is an editorial board member of the magazine Gulmaru Korea, promoting Korean culture and heritage expressed in various forms in art, architecture, crafts, and performances. She is also a founding member of Art Smart Seoul and a member of the French Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, where her specialty is introducing young, talented Korean artists to the international community.

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