The royal touch with film

Art December 05, 2013 00:00

By Phatarawadee Phataranawik

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Wonderful photos by His Majesty the King are on exhibit with black and white images by other master lensmen

HIs Majesty  the King has never been far from his camera. His mother gave him one when he was eight, a Coronet Midget, green with a black frame. It stayed glued to his hands for years, and he became fascinated with its mechanics in those days before digital photography.

The processing of film he found charming – he had his own darkroom at Chitralada Palace. You had to be much more conversant with the principles of photography back in those days. The Prince who would soon be King loved to experiment, taking pictures with all sizes and sorts of film and different kinds of cameras, including movie cameras.

Nine photos he took that have rarely been shown before are currently on display at Bangkok’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Her Majesty the Queen and their children are the subjects of choice in the exhibition “The Legend of Black & White”, on view alongside shots by 26 other celebrated Thai masters of the camera.

Clearly the members of the royal family are among the King’s favourite subjects. He’s captured them in a variety of poses, often candidly – snapshots of precious moments that stir the viewer’s emotions just like the emotions snapped on film. Their portraits hang near his landscapes and even some abstracts.

You see cute photos of the young Crown Prince and his sisters, and beautiful lively shots of the Queen in elegant costumes. One of the most interesting images depicts Her Majesty in a grassy field, silhouetted against the sun. His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn appears in a short-sleeved white shirt and tie. Their Royal Highnesses the Princesses Chulabhorn and Maha Chakri Sirindhorn meet over a piano keyboard. Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya is surprised while reading a book, turning abruptly to smile at the camera.

The Culture Ministry long ago honoured the King as Thailand’s “Supreme Artist”, a title reflecting his talents for painting, literature and music as well as photography.

With a camera forever suspended from his neck, the King honed his skills at home and on every trip around the country and beyond its borders. His patronage of the Thai Photographic Society helped it win international recognition. In his youth, he was a contributing photographer for the Standard, a Bangkok English-language weekly, and being paid the equivalent of Bt100 a month.

But the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain made the young shutterbug an Honorary Fellow and France’s Federation International de L’Art Photographique awarded him a certificate of Honorary Excellence.

As King, his frequent treks around Thailand to determine what his people needed afforded His Majesty numerous chances to take pictures – both to record the memorable places and occasions and to serve as “notes” for projects he had in mind, the images appended to maps and memoranda.

These photographs for the most part fall into the “snapshot” category – he never had much time to get just the right angle – but they were never out of focus and always well composed just the same. And, just as surely as his studiously executed portraits, they demonstrate his natural facility with film.

The images in the exhibition along with those of the King – by some of the country’s finest photographers – range from portraits and landscapes to scenes of everyday of life and magnificent royal ceremonies. Architecture seems particularly well suited to black-and-white film, which invariably adds a dramatic tone.

It’s quite thrilling to see “Subhanahongsa Royal Barge with Tassel” by Phoon Ketcharat, “Companions (Khlong Toei)” by Chitt Chongmankhong and an untitled photo of a woman passing food to a monk in a boat by Surat Osathanaugrah – all three of them National Artists, now dead.

“Bangkok 1960” by Sumitra Khantayalongkoch is there, as is Sukphol Suriya’s great shots of Thai superstars of the 1980s like Mitr Chaibancha, Petchara Chaowarat, Aranya Namwong and Naiyana Chanajit. And Saiyart Semagern, another National Artist, perhaps pays tribute to them all with his recent sculpture “Friendship”, which is made entirely of dozens of broken cameras.

Another highlight is the vintage shot “The Day of Miss Universe, Apasara Hongsakula” by Vivat Pitayaviriyakul, aka SH Lim.

Other photographers represented include Yangong Olarachin, Phaiboon Musikpodok, Decho Buranabanpot, Rabail Boonnag, Jane Nimmannit, Rattana Pestonji, Cha-Um Prasertkuo, Praphat Chitheeraphap and Phaiboon Sil-Ngamlert.


“The Legend of Black and White Photo” is at the Museum of Contemporary Art until January 31.

A photo contest, “One Shot Knock Out”, concludes on January 19.

The gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm. Learn more at and