Images drawn from a collection of glass-plate negatives captured between 1855 and 1935 goes on show at Bangkok’s National Gallery
IN WHAT for many will come as a welcome escape from the fast-paced digital age where images are captured and enhanced in a matter of seconds, the National Gallery travels back in time to the era when glass-plate negatives first found their way to Siam. Introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, they quickly became popular with royal family members and noblemen.
The exhibition, which is spread across eight rooms, offers a unique opportunity to admire 150 reprinted images from 1855 to 1935. Their subjects include rare portraits of Thai Kings and members of the royal court, royal ceremonies, goods transported by raft and barge along the country’s waterways, elephant parades, buildings that no longer exist and life lived at a slow pace. The images were documented through laborious, light-sensitive photographic emulsion on glass plates before the invention of cellulose film in the early 20th century and the digital memory cards that are so much part of our present and future.
This collection of century-old negatives is not only a national treasure. Last October, it was designated as a “Memory of the World” by Unesco thanks to its significant role in documenting many cultural and social perspectives of Siam as the nation moved through the West’s colonisation of Asia to the dawn of a constitutional monarchy.
The show, titled “Celebrating the National Glass Plate Negatives Registered as a Unesco Memory of the World”, continues until July 28 and is being supported by Thai Beverage. The plates captured during the reigns of King Mongkut (Rama IV) to King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) have been reprinted and blown up, with some images as tall as 1.5 metres.
A group of carts and barges along the bank of Nan River at Muang Phichai where is currently the Phichai district in Utradit province.
“From the 35,427 glass-plate negatives and 50,000 prints in the Unesco-recognised collection, we carefully selected 150 images that represent the country’s diverse perspectives. We have chosen to arrange them in eight main themes, among them prominent personalities in Thai history, the grace and splendour of royal ceremonies, Thai arts and culture, and international relations,” says Anandha Chuchoti, the director of Fine Arts Department.
Chao Chom Erb captures a portrait of her father, Chao Phraya Surabandh Bisudhi (Thet Bunnag).
Glass plate negatives were most popular during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) but faded in the early years of the 20th century. Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, a younger half-brother of King Chulalongkorn, who was in charge of the Hor Phra Samut Vajirayan (Royal Vajirayana Library) in the compound of the Grand Palace at that time, set up a chronicle division whose one task was to accumulate these historical glass plate negatives and their original prints.
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony at Thung Phaya Thai field, south of Phya Thai Palace, now home to Phra Mongkut Hospital.
The Hor Phra Samut Vajirayan collection features several private assemblages of negatives that belonged to King Chulalongkorn and King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), Prince Damrong himself and other members of the royal court. Some pieces emanated from Chaya Norasingha, the studio that was appointed to photograph the royal events in the reign of King Vajiravudh.
In 1977, the collection was given over to the care of the National Archives. To date, more than 10,000 plates have been copied to contact print format and also scanned for digital use. Many of these have already been uploaded to the institute’s database and made accessible to the public through its website Nat.go.th.
One of the wooden boxes used to store the century-old glass plate negatives that are carefully preserved by the National Archives.
“The original plates, which range in size from 1 x 2 inches up to 11 x 15 inches are carefully stored vertically in their original teak boxes. Each box has a slot for each glass plate in order to prevent two plates touching each other over extended periods of time. They are kept at a constant temperature of 18 degrees Celsius and a relative humidity level of 40 per cent,” Nanthaka Pollachai, director of the National Archives, explains.
A portrait of Chao Uparat Bunthawong taken by Francis Chit in 1863
One of the oldest images in the collection on show, Nanthaka says, is a portrait of Chao Uparat Bunthawong, a nephew of Phraya Khamfan, the third ruler of Chiang Mai. The portrait was captured in 1863 by Siam’s first commercial photographer Chit Chitrakani, who later became known as Francis Chit and was appointed as a court photographer at the end of King Mongkut’s reign. Many images of King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn that are widely seen today and presented as gifts to foreign monarchs and diplomats came from his camera.
This 1906 picture depicts Italian artist Cesare Ferro painting the portrait of King Chulalongkorn in front of the Aphisekdusit Throne Hall while Thai court painter Phra Soralaklikhit records the pair at work.
One impressive picture depicted Cesare Ferro, an Italian artist who was hired by King Chulalongkorn to decorate the Ambara Villa and the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, painting the portrait of the King sitting in front of the Aphisekdusit Throne Hall in 1906. The photo also illustrated a court Thai painter Phra Soralaklikhit (Mui Chanthralak) painting a portrait of the King and Ferro at work while some young royal members and courtiers observed from the steps.
King Chulalongkorn is seen kneeling on the ground while taking a picture of young Kanang.
King Chulalongkorn was very interested in photography and took a lot of pictures. In one picture, visitor can see the King kneeling on the floor while trying to capture the young boy Kanang riding a four-wheeled bike. Kanang was a child of Mani ethnicity, better known in Thailand as Sakai, who was adopted by the King and appointed a royal page. He was also inspired the King to pen the play “Ngo Pa”.
King Vajiravudh and Queen Suvadhana in Selangor, in 1924
“Siam’s international relationships were part of the criteria for application as a Unesco Memory of the World,” Anandha explains. Pictures in the collection also depicted King Chulalongkorn’s state visits to Europe in 1897 and 1907 to strengthen Siam’s ties to European countries during the Western colonisation of Asia, as well as the visit to the Malay Peninsula in 1924 made by King Vajiravudh and King Prajadhipok’s visit to Saigon in 1930.
A picture depicted Mr Rousseau, a French governor of Trat during the occupation, presents written evidence of returning the province to Siam’s representative Phraya Sisahathep in 1907.
“Another significant historical event was when Trat province was returned to Siam after being under French occupation for nearly three years. One pictured depicted Mr Rousseau, a French governor of Trat during the occupation, presenting written evidence of returning the province to Siam’s representative Phraya Sisahathep in 1907,” adds Nanthaka.
When colonisation threatened Indochina in 1893, French troops landed and occupied the western part of Chanthaburi province. In 1904, in order to wrest back control of Chantaburi, Siam was forced to give Trat and Koh Kong to the French. The province was returned to Siam three years later, in exchange for larger areas along the east of the Mekong, including Battambang, Siem Reap and Sisophon, today part of Cambodia.
The front of the Royal Private Library Building of King Vajiravudh inside the Chitralada Villa
The collection also shows several old buildings that no longer exist today. The front view of the Royal Private Library Building of King Vajiravudh inside the Chitralada Villa is among the subjects. A bookworm and a talented writer, the King collected thousands of books and after his death, his successor King Prajadhipok ordered that his book collection be relocated to the Royal Library of Phra Nakhon. Later named Vajiravudh Library, it is today located in front of Wat Mahatat, adjacent to Sanam Luang.
This building in the Sam Sen Park complex was demolished and the land is now occupied by the Vajira Hospital.
The grandeur of a Colonial-style building in the Sam Sen Park complex is also reflected through the lens. Built by Phra Sapphakan Hiranyakit –a manager of Siam Kammajon Bank (the previous name of Siam Commercial Bank), the complex was completed in 1908 and comprised a cluster of buildings and a park designed to become a recreation venue for the public.
King Vajiravudh later used his private funds to purchase the premises for the Department of Sanitation of the Metropolitan Ministry for use as a sanatorium. Today, the land is occupied by the Vajira Hospital, though the building in the picture has long gone.
Members of the Phranakorn Photo Club demonstrate how to take pictures with the wet plate collodion method.
Various programmes will be held throughout the exhibition period. Every Saturday, the Chayanitikorn Photo Studio will organise a photo shoot for visitors in Thai traditional costumes – limited to 200 persons a day – while a workshop on how the glass plate negatives functioned will be conducted by the Phranakorn Photo Club every Sunday for a maximum of 30 individuals.
Capturing an image on glass is done using either a wet or dry collodion method. The Phranakorn Photo Club will use the wet plate collodion method in its demonstration and show how to prepare the glass plate and coat it with collodion before immersing the plate in a silver nitrate bath in a dark room. After draining, it is placed in a plate holder with a dark slide to protect it from the light.
“The plate holder will later be loaded into a camera that can be a large-format camera or a box camera depending on the size wanted. The dark slide is then withdrawn to allow exposure to light. The wet plate collodion has a film speed (ISO) of approximately 1 or 2, so it takes quite a bit of light to affect the plate. The photographs must thus be taken outdoors or with several lights if indoors. The subjects must also sit or stand still to get a sharp picture,” says club member Chaianun Boonsungnoen.
Developing the picture, fixing the image and drying the plate will also be explained.
“In Thailand, I think there are less than 50 people who are still passionate about this method and take pictures with glass plates,” Chaianun adds. “One factor is the high cost of the chemical agents. The silver nitrate alone can cost Bt5,000 for 100 grams.”
The Hor Phra Samut Vajirayan glass plate negative collection is the fifth heritage archive from Thailand recognised by Unesco. The earlier historical documents are King Ramkhamhaeng’s inscription stone, King Chulalongkorn’s archival documents on the transformation of Siam, epigraphic archives of Wat Pho, and the Minute Books of the Council of the Siam Society.
PORTRAITS ON GLASS
The “Celebrating the National Glass Plate Negatives Registered as Unesco Memory of the World” exhibition continues until July 28 at the National Gallery.
The gallery on Chao Fah Road in Bangkok is open Wednesday to Sunday, from 9am to 7pm.
Call (02) 281 1599 extension 222 or keep updated at www.ThaiGlassNegative.com.