• Malaysian Eiffel Chong
  • A shot from the

Sharpening the focus

Art January 16, 2017 01:00

By Tan Lee Kuen
The Star
Asia New Network

17,547 Viewed

A Singaporean student of Southeast Asian photography produces a scholarly survey

Thailand's Prateep Suthathongthai has found an honoured place in “Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey”, a new book out of Singapore that perhaps rightfully gives prime focus to a former king of Malaysia who advanced the craft there.

Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah of Terengganu, the fourth Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia, in 1958 became the first Malay photographer to be inducted as an associate of Britain’s Royal Photographic Society.

The late sultan is regarded as a “salon photographer” – a sub-genre devoted to images of beauty and atmosphere – but the book’s author, Zhuang Wubin, argues that this is an unfair limitation.

He cites Sultan Ismail’s shots of the eerily empty streets of Kuala Lumpur two days after the sectarian riots of the “May 13 Incident” in 1969 as an example of stirring “street photography”.

“A lot of the terms we use today almost by default were not available in earlier times,” says Zhuang, 38. If we “keep thinking of him as just a salon photographer, we will not be able to re-imagine him. I think this is a great disservice to him and why younger practitioners of street or documentary photography do not reference him.”


Malaysian Eiffel Chong’s “A Promise that Couldn’t be Fulfilled”


The shifting of labels and patchy documentation were among the challenges Zhuang encountered while researching his book, which documents the art form’s history and practitioners across the region since the colonial era.

“When I started I had this naive idea that there was this big black hole in the literature regarding Southeast Asian photography,” he says. “There is a kind of hole, but there are parts of it that are already well researched. It’s not true that there’s no documentation, but it’s spotty – sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. The challenge is to take all this material and piece it together. 

“Personally, I think it’s fun!”

Zhuang, a former art reviewer, discovered the shortage of information on Southeast Asian photography in 2006. The more he mined for knowledge – through interviews and in libraries and catalogues – the more engrossed he became. 

By focusing on the medium’s development, Zhuang provides the necessary framework for learning about and appreciating local photographic traditions and talents.

A shot from the “Walk of Life” series by Che’ Mat Azhar of Malaysia

In Malaysia, for example, we learn that “pictorialism”, otherwise known as salon photography, has been a major influence.

Loke Wan Tho, son of business magnate Loke Yew, once has the world’s biggest collection of salon photography, including prints by Ansel Adams and Yousuf Karsh. It was ultimately donated to the National Visual Arts Gallery.

Fine-arts purists often denigrate photography, but Yee I-Lann and Wong Hoy Cheong actively utilised it in their artistic practices. This led to a practice of manipulating images in conceptual art, Zhuang writes. 

“The contemporary-art community and salon photographers in Malaysia share an implicit fear of the snapshot.” And yet Minstrel Kuik produced “Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily”, making bold use of casual photography, and Eiffel Chong’s deadpan aesthetic conveys abstract notions of life and death in everyday scenarios.

 In Singapore, salon photography also dominated the scene early on, succeeded in turn by photojournalism and conceptual photography. Performance artists Amanda Heng and Lee Wen famously utilised photography in their work. In “Another Woman” Heng deployed pictures of herself with her mother to bridge intergenerational and language differences.

“Light Trails” by Singapore’s Chow Chee Yong

State support and robust grassroots efforts at promoting photography have helped boost its profile in Singapore. Tay Kay Chin and Darren Soh pursue documentary work while Chua Chye Teck, Sean Lee and Genevieve Chua use the medium in their art. Robert Zhou has photographic images in his depictions of the fictitious Institute of Critical Zoologists, through which he examines human relations with nature.

Zhuang acknowledges that his book doesn’t represent a definitive survey. In Indonesia he covers only Java – “a glaring weakness”, he admits. “There is a lot of material scattered about. At this stage I think I’m only just getting started.”

“Kyaiktiyo Pagoda” by Htein Win of Myanmar

His sole funding comprised a year’s grant from the Netherlands-based Prince Claus Fund. Singapore’s NUS Press published the book. “I sustained myself mainly through teaching, writing and curating,” Zhuang says.

He’s preparing for several shows in the coming year, beginning this month with a retrospective of Pramuan Burusphat, one of Thailand’s pioneering contemporary photographers. That’s in Bangkok, followed by a showing at the Chiang Mai Photo Festival in February. In April an exhibition on Malaysia’s Minstrel Kuik opens in Hong Kong.


- “Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey” by Zhuang Wubin is available at Asia Books and Book Smith in Chiang Mai. 

- Find out more at www.AsianPaperCamera.com.