Marie Ann Yoo’s photos provide glimpses of a war-torn but hopeful Korea | By Martha Vickery (Fall 2021 issue)
As a young adult visitor to Korea in the post-war era, Mary Ann Yoo documented the city of Seoul, as well as the countryside, during an 18-month stay in 1956 and ’57. It was a time of reconstruction and dire poverty for many people, but also of change and hope. Her exhibition, now online through the Korea Society website through December 16 is entitled The Feeling of Han: Portraits of Post-War Korea (1956-1957).
Yoo, a Korean American who grew up in Hawaii, viewed Korea as a curious outsider when she and her sister returned in 1956 with their mother, who was offered a job as the administrator of the Bando Hotel, the only western-style hotel in Seoul.
Yoo related in a videoed artist’s talk on the Korea Society’s site, facilitated by her daughter Katherine Yoo, that she and her sister both worked at U.S. Army base during their 18-month stay. She decided she would buy a camera with her first paycheck and document her experiences.
The color images in the collection were taken with Kodachrome slide film, newly available in the ‘50s, and known for retaining its color. The film was available from the PX on the base where she worked, she said in the artist’s talk.
Because her mother had a relatively high-level position, Yoo and her sister occasionally had a car and driver to bring them to sites outside the city, so she was able to document life in the countryside as well as in Seoul.
There was poverty everywhere, but also ambition and energy. Yoo was quoted in her explanation of the photo collection theme:
The thing that really struck me was the grit and resilience of the people — they were in the process of recovering from a devastating war that displaced so many people. But the markets were crowded, people went about their business — things had to get done! They had to survive and thrive! … When I see Korea now and think back to that time, Korea’s success should come as a surprise to no one.
Yoo explained in her artist’s talk that she kept her slides in a suitcase, which her daughter Christine took to Los Angeles a few years ago for safekeeping. Christine and Katherine eventually went through the slides, examined, cleaned and re-mounted them, and got in touch with the Korea Society about doing an exhibition.
After living in Korea in 1956 and 1957, Yoo transferred from the University of Hawaii to the University of Oregon, where she majored in East Asian Studies and political science. After relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area, she married Dr. Tai-June Yoo and the couple had three daughters, Stephanie, Christine, and Katherine. She visited Korea many times since her first trip in 1956, and lived there again in 1969 through 1970. After decades away from the islands, she now lives in Hawaii.