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Hye-ri Oh will become a postdoctoral fellow at the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of the Arts and Sciences in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Commencement 2014 profile: Hye-ri Oh
May 12, 2014Tweet
Hye-ri Oh was teaching a course on the western history of photography at Gwangju University in South Korea when she decided that she needed a change.
She was determined to study at Binghamton University with John Tagg, professor of art history and comparative literature.
“Before coming to Binghamton, I knew of John Tagg in Korea,” Oh said. “He is a famous writer there on the history and theory of photography. When I taught my students, we read the articles of John Tagg. … We thought of John Tagg as the pioneer of photography theory.”
Oh arrived at Binghamton University in the fall of 2005. She will leave this month with a doctorate in art history for her dissertation, “The Concept of Photography in Korea: The Genealogy of the Korean Conception of Sajin from the Late Chosŏn Dynastic Period through Japanese Colonialism.”
In the fall, Oh will start an appointment as a postdoctoral fellow at the prestigious Kenneth P. Dietrich School of the Arts and Sciences in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of the History of Art and Architecture.
Oh’s journey to Binghamton began in 1992 when she graduated with a degree in political science from Ewha Womens University in her hometown of Seoul, South Korea.
“After graduating, I worked for a large Korean company,” she said. “I wasn’t satisfied with my life, so I began to study photography. It was a life-long interest. So I left my job and started taking pictures.”
Oh returned to Ewha Womans University and received a master’s degree in photographic practice and theory in 1999. Yet, she wanted to know more.
“As I studied more about the practice, I had a fundamental, critical question: What is photography?” she recalled.
The question took her to the University of Essex in Great Britain, where she earned another master’s degree – this one in art theory. But even after Oh took her position at Gwangju University, the question persisted.
Oh had recently married a student from Cornell University, so the time was right to make the move to the United States.
“I really wanted to study ‘what is photography?’ in detail with the guidance of John Tagg,” she said. “I wanted to challenge the meaning of photography and see it as a cultural technology.”
Oh’s project examined the emergence and transformation of the conception of photography in Korea until the early 20th century. Her research included trips to Korea and Japan to study historical materials and archives on photography.
“Whenever we talk about the history of photography, everybody thinks about the western history of photography,” she said. “Even at Korean institutions, students learn about the western history of photography. But photography works differently in different countries.”
Oh said she initially struggled with her project, as she tried to balance her research with being the mother of her 2-month-daughter, Herin.
“I cried a lot that first semester,” she said, adding that she thought her time at Binghamton could be ending. “But that kind of thinking made me attend more academic events. I really enjoyed the learning process. It helped me grow.”
Oh also was helped by the art history faculty.
“At Essex, I didn’t get a chance to talk much with faculty members,” she said. “At Binghamton, the coursework was of great benefit to me. I could get much feedback from the faculty members because there were many opportunities to engage them. They are intelligent and I got much inspiration from them.”
It has been “a delight and a privilege” to work with Oh, Tagg said.
“Hye-ri Oh was one of a steady stream of applicants from South Korea who have come to Binghamton to advance their studies in art history and visual culture since the mid-1990s,” Tagg said. “What she has accomplished at Binghamton is enormously impressive: Not only has she pursued her doctoral studies with tremendous determination and courage while bringing up her daughter, but she has also opened up new areas of teaching in East Asian cultural history for us, while pushing forward with research that has cleared the way to a striking new direction for global histories of photography. … She will be a great ambassador for our University and program and I very much look forward to following the progress of her assured academic career.”
As a postdoctoral fellow, Oh will teach a course based on her research, while turning her dissertation into a publishable manuscript. She hopes to someday teach at a U.S. university.
“This hasn’t just been an academic pursuit,” she said. “This has been a life journey, not only as a scholar, but as a human being. This has been a learning process about my life.”