New Year, New Special Collection

Poster for Accidental Photographer exhibition

The flyer announcing the initial exhibition of the twenty photographs at the Institute for the Humanities.

Asia Library has had a wonderful year already: on January 3 we received a donation of some 200 Kodachrome slides from Margaret Condon Taylor (Ph.D. psychology, 1983).  

In 1969 Dr. Taylor was living and teaching in Seoul, South Korea, as a Peace Corps volunteer. Her photographs capture life as she experienced it, conveying images of her immediate surroundings when the country was on the cusp of modernization. She returned from her service carrying these slides in a metal file box. They remained in the dark, literally and figuratively, until Dr. Taylor took them to a local camera shop for digitization in early 2014.

The Nam Center for Korean Studies (NCKS) offered Dr. Taylor the opportunity to meet NCKS professors Youngju Ryu (modern Korean literature) and Y. David Chung (art and design). When  Dr. Taylor shared some of her digitized slides with them, they decided that the photographs merited a solo exhibition.

Working closely with Professors Ryu and Chung, the Nam Center arranged for 20 of the images to be printed and framed. Funding also came from the Friends of Korea, a nonprofit organization formed by returned Peace Corps volunteers who served in South Korea between 1966 and 1981. The 20 photographs were exhibited at LSA’s Institute for the Humanities in December 2017-January 2018 under the title “An Accidental Photographer: Seoul 1969.”

After the exhibition, the Nam Center decided that the best place to look after the printed and framed images was Asia Library, and so they kindly donated them to us. We were delighted with the small set of framed photographs, but our minds immediately went on alert thinking about how the entire set of slides could be preserved for the long-term to ensure that current and future students and researchers of South Korea could make use of them.

While we were discussing the future of the slides with Dr. Taylor, we were also busy responding to requests from other institutions to borrow the first set of framed photographs for exhibition purposes. Word of their existence had spread in the Korean studies community, and Stanford University was the first to request and exhibit the photographs in their East Asian library, from May through July 2018. On November 4, 2018, the photographs were exhibited at Detroit’s Freer House in conjunction with the opening of the Detroit Institute of Art’s newly expanded Asian art galleries.

Asia Library was not the only organization interested in the slides, but happily for us Dr. Taylor has a decades-long connection to Ann Arbor and in the final analysis felt most comfortable giving her extraordinary work a home here at the university, where President John F. Kennedy announced the founding of the Peace Corps. She is committed to the Peace Corps’ stated “third goal” of promoting a better understanding of the Peace Corps volunteers’ host country.  

South Korea changed dramatically during the 45 years that Dr. Taylor’s slides remained in a file box. The images of her host country had been taken just as the so-called “miracle on the Han” had begun to materialize. The South Korea seen in these images from 1969 belongs to a bygone era. Dr. Taylor’s photographs will help Koreans and non-Koreans alike gain a better understanding of the South Korea of that time, prior to its rapid transformation into a modern state. In addition to preserving them digitally, Asia Library is excitedly making plans for additional ways to expose them to the light.