The gorgeous coffee-table book "Unseen Siam" offers a fascinating journey through 19th century Siam
Anyone who missed the exhibition “Unseen Siam: Early Photography 1860-1910”, which ended last month, would do well to get a copy of its tie-in book of the same name by Joachim K Bautze published by River Books. Unlike the exhibition, the book offers a far more comprehensive look at Siam, especially the fourth and fifth reigns, through the lens of European photographers and one Thai lensman.
These daguerreotype photographs – many of which have never been publicly displayed – portray mostly Kings Rama IV and Rama V with their consorts and children as well as everyday life in Bangkok and other places. There are shots of temples, Buddhist monks, fruit markets, the people of Siam and their riverine life, traditional dancers and performers and the vibrant traffic on the Chao Phraya River
Siam was on the threshold of the future during the reign of Rama V, as it witnessed the full force of early globalisation. In order to look civilised in the eyes of Western colonial powers, Siam adopted a modern outlook, opened up to foreign trade, befriended foreigners and learned to speak English. Photography was introduced to Siam as a novelty, albeit one that was gaining popularity worldwide including in Asia and the Siamese royal court.
Photography was first introduced to Siam by Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix and L’Abbe Larnaudie, Bautze writes. Pallegoix, the vicar apostolic of Eastern Siam, was highly esteemed by King Mongkut (Rama IV) and the two became friends. The two Frenchmen brought cameras and other photographic equipment to Thailand in 1845 – only six years after Daguerre’s invention of the what became known as daguerreotype process of photography. Both King Rama IV and his son King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) were interested in photography and appointed European photographers as their official lensmen.
The book introduces 14 well-known and less-known foreign photographers. The only Thai in this book is Francis Chit, Thailand’s first career photographer. He was not however the first to take it up professionally: that honour fell to Phra Wisut Yotamad, also known as Mode Amatayakul.
The book is as much about these lensmen as their photographs. Each is given a detailed biography thanks to the author’s painstaking research that relied on documents in English, Germany, French and Thai in addition to the use of photographs from private sources and numerous institutions.
Author Bautze has taught art history at the universities of Heidelberg, Tokyo, and Berlin, and is a respected specialist in South and Southeast Asian art and photography.
Larnaudie was the first to take photographs in Bangkok. He arrived in Siam in July 1845 and after spending some time in Saraburi, moved to Ayutthaya where became the head of the parish of Saint Joseph in 1851. It was he who captured the two photographs of King Mongkut and his queen that made up part of Siam’s royal presents destined for the French Emperor, Napoleon III at Fontainebleau on June 27, 1861. The portraits were albumen prints from a wet-collodion plate.
In one photo, the royal couple sits surrounded by the presents that had been offered to them two years earlier by the same French emperor. The King is dressed is semi European attire and wears the cap of a retired Greenwich naval officer with short trousers, a waistcoat, a French-style frock coat and a white tie attached by a diamond or emerald. His right hand holds a walking stick with an ivory handle and a very large handkerchief. His richly adorned slippers rest on a small rug but he is sockless. He is English in the upper part of his body, French towards the middle and Indochinese in the lower part. However, his queen remains totally Siamese, wearing no stockings, nor slippers. Her hair is dressed without artifice.
A photographer little known in Siam, Fedor Jagor hailed from Berlin in what was then Prussia. His photos of Siam’s classical theatre – taken in January 1861 at the British consulate – have been published in this book for the first time. Jagor also took photos of King Mongkut and his queen, noting that the king invited him to shake hands with the queen before offering his hands to him.
Pierre Rossier, a Swiss national, took photos of Siam that were later published as engravings. Most of the latter were reproduced in the book “Le Tour de Monde”, a series of articles written by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot. His photos portrayed aspects of Siamese life from King Mongkut and his female guards to traditional Siamese actors and topless villagers. He’s also credited with taking shots of the grand crematorium for the late Queen Debsirindra and the funeral of Pallegoix, bishop of Siam.
Carl Heinrich Bismark, the photographer of Count Friedrich Albrecht zu Eulenburg of Prussia, captured some of King Mongkut’s several wives. One of these was Malay: Tengku Sapiah binti al-Marhum (known in the palace as Chao Chom Supiya) who married the king in 1861.
John Thomson captured the Royal Barge Procession for the Kathin Ceremony in Siam.
William Kennett Loftus, a Briton, offered the most panoramic views of Bangkok. For the first time, we see the Bangkok skyline obscured by nothing but the spires of the Grand Palace. John Thomson, one of the most famous lensmen then in Asia, gives us one of the best shots of Prince Chulalongkorn, the future king of Siam. This is a young prince who is eager to learn and easy to influence.
Joaquim Antonio, a Portuguese photographer, was said to be closest to the people of Siam. As an official photographer of the Siamese royal court, he was all over the place, capturing not just the royal family, but also several other aspects of everyday life – rice growing, elephant round-ups, villagers in the countryside, male and female figures and places of scenic interest. He was certainly in love of Bangkok’s waterways judging from the number of shots showing Siam’s dynamic riverine life.
In these photos, King Mongkut comes across as a kind, calm old man who never smiles but who was incredibly flexible and open to new ideas. His son, Prince Chulalongkorn, appears extremely polite and well-disciplined. He seems frozen in eternal youth yet this future king had a long reign that saw him take two grand tours of Europe and introduce multiple reforms. These shots are a strong contrast to those of King Rama V captured as a adult – a forward-looking, farsighted monarch who would become the nation’s saviour. Like his father, King Chulalongkorn was open to new ideas from the West as long as they benefited his own subjects and nation. Even with the presence of a monarch’s many consorts and royal children in these photos, we see the kind of paternalistic society that was very as much prevalent in the 19th century as it is now.
BEYOND THE PAGE
- “Unseen Siam: Early Photography 1860-1910” by Joachim K Bautze with a foreword by Anake Nawigamune is published by River Books and available at leading bookstores.