Serious photography in Singapore remains relatively nascent in the public consciousness and still suffers from a lack of mainstream recognition as art. This isn’t surprising given that the average Singaporean either associates it with high-brow culture consumption, or doesn’t deem photography to hold enough intrinsic value to be recognised as art. Anyone with a camera can take a photo – so why should it be art?
Such obtuse views are repudiated with X EDITION, Asia’s largest hotel photography art fair, through its specially curated exhibition: Marang: The 1950s in Colour and Monochrome. Co-presented in collaboration with Canvas Gallery, the exhibition showcases a stunning collection of photography by Almarhum Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, late king and pioneer photographer of Malaysia.
It’s not every day that you get to feel like you’ve stumbled onto the set of a Crazy Rich Asians movie, but that’s exactly the sort of atmosphere that Canvas Gallery exudes even from its exterior. Prior to our chat with YM Raja Ihsan Shah and Billy Mork, we had been speculating about how our little adventure would pan out since neither of us had met a literal prince in the flesh. What would he be like? Would there be bodyguards? Were we to curtsy in front of him? In reality, the figures that welcomed us into the gallery were anything but pompous.
Before we even meet the man himself, we were told to just refer to him as “Raja”. And when we did lay eyes on him, YM Raja Ihsan Shah turned out to be a spirited man casually clothed in a floral print shirt, with an exuberantly youthful gleam in his eyes throughout the chat. Billy, the president and curator of X EDITION, on the other hand, is dressed in the standard business black, and has a cool demeanour about him. The affable duo comes across as old friends with an avid passion for photography which they are more than happy to share with others.
Raja’s love for his grandfather and his work is obvious from the tenderness and thought with which he talks about Sultan Ismail. Starting his photography journey at the tender age of 16, the Sultan was a photographer long before he was a king, and continued to be a photographer at heart even after he took on the mantle of being a monarch. Although he is known to be a photographer of the 1950s and 1960s, Raja clarifies that the late monarch’s photographic reign actually spanned various decades, having only been forced to stop during the World War II period. Sultan Ismail’s photography was centred on everyday life, shooting prolifically in his home state of Terengganu.
Beyond the shores of Malaysia, Sultan Ismail was also fond of shooting in Singapore, regularly visiting the city-state and was never without at least two or three cameras by his side. Raja recalls finding his grandfather’s works featured regularly in the defunct English-language daily broadcast newspaper, Singapore Free Press, with a mischievous chuckle at the irony – expressing pity as well that some of his films remain untraceable. The Sultan was recognised in his time for his photographic endeavours, being a part of various photography societies and clubs in the region and was well-regarded for his skill.
Some of Raja’s fondest memories of his time spent with the late king include the state visits where he was brought along on as a child, after the Sultan became the fourth Agong of Malaysia. More poignantly, the Sultan also recalled following his grandfather into his darkroom during the Sultan’s later years – by then, he had stopped taking photographs and focused on printing. It is clear that in these moments, Raja saw his grandfather in his element as not just the king, but the photographer.
And it is that impressive photographer with masterful skill that was displayed throughout the exhibition. Categorised into monochrome and coloured photography, the fishing village of Marang is brought to life by the late Sultan, evoking a distinctive sense of nostalgia through tonal contrasts and vibrant technicolour. Billy’s take on the Sultan’s work is that the coloured photography, in particular, is exceedingly rare in terms of its cohesiveness – the colour tones of each photograph complement and match each other perfectly such that it would be pointless to view them in isolation.
As we find out from Raja, the Sultan was fluent in Japanese and incorporated Japanese ideals of aesthetics into his photography. The result of that is a graceful symmetry that runs throughout the compositions of his photography. More strikingly, his works are also imbued with an anthropological slant – rarely did he take a photo without the presence of humanity within it.
Evolution of Photography
But why weren’t these photographs showcased earlier? The Sultan’s archives have lain dormant thus far; why wait till now? The answer lies in the disjoint between the film and printing technology. Raja divulges that it was only in recent years that printing technology had progressed enough for the Sultan’s photography works to be properly processed and printed in order to ensure a quality that would do them justice.
The intricacies of the photographic process are also touched upon by Billy who explained to us that before the advent of digital photography, film was the only form of photography that was available. Due to the analogue nature of film photography, there is a great delay between the moment the image is captured and the development of the photo. This means that the photographer cannot see the final image until perhaps months later when the photo has been developed.
This, coupled with the fact that film is limited by physical supply – especially defective films that produce special effects – forces the photographer to literally make every shot count. But Billy also makes it a point not to champion film photography over digital photography; they are simply better suited for different purposes in today’s photography world. Digital photography would be much better for commercial pursuits with deadlines to be met; artistic endeavours, however, would benefit much more from using film photography.
When Billy and Raja were asked to choose their favourite works amongst the collection, Billy chose a monochrome photograph of a beach, with a group of locals enjoying a casual day out.
Explaining his choice, Billy shared with us that he prefers black and white photography for the simple fact that it’s a lot easier to capture an image realistically and accurately with a monochrome palette. There are, after all, only two colours to consider and the issue boils down to achieving the right contrasts of tones. On the contrary, colour photography is much more difficult to achieve a satisfactory result with regards to colour since a lot more factors come into play. Skin tones and colours are often hard to capture accurately. Comparing it to the Nepalese culture of happiness, he found the photo to be representative of a slower and relaxed way of life that has gone largely extinct in modern societies like Singapore.
On the other hand, Raja finds it hard to single out a favourite, but is especially fond of the colour photographs that spotlight Marang’s scenic coastline. Rich in warmth and vibrant in colour, the photographs evoke a sense of tranquil nostalgia that almost makes one yearn to have been able to see the Marang way of life back in the 1950s in the flesh.
It is clear throughout our afternoon together, that for Raja, the exhibition of his grandfather’s works are not just a way for him to honour Sultan Ismail’s legacy but also for others to see the poetic realism that Sultan Ismail’s photography embodied so richly and deeply in its storytelling. On the other hand, Billy is of the sentiment that photography is a primal language with which we craft the stories of our past, our lives and our societies – the power of photography lies in its urgency in inciting human agency for storytelling. Sultan Ismail’s photography exemplifies this urgency as it transcends fine art photography. Considered by Billy to be a prime example of historical and archival photography, the Sultan’s works convey the life experience of an era and zeitgeist lost to time.
As we take our leave and drive out in the gentle glow of the setting sun, I cannot help but feel as if it shone with the same warmth the Sultan felt on the beaches of Marang all those years ago. The Sultan’s photographic reign is far from waning – it’s a grand sun all on its own.
For more information on X Edition’s lineup of programmes, visit http://xedition.info/.
Photos by Brandon Neo of the DANAMIC Team.