Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Tale of Two Albums

Two Japanese themed albums were recently put on sale at the bi-annual Swann Galleries auction of photographs on 15 May.

The album (oblong folio, worn leather with a von Stillfried lable on first leaf) by Baron Raimund von Stillfried contains 100 hand-coloured albumen photographs depicting "views and costumes of Japan," with a wonderful assortment of gay geishas, corpulent sumos, colourful costume studies, and picturesque topographic views, many with a caption in the negative, and a few with an inventory number. c. 1879

The estimate was between US$4,000 to US$6,000. It attracted 42 bids and went for US$38,000 + US$8550 (b.p). This works out to be US$465 per photograph!

The other album (oblong folio, red lacquer with gold sketched landscapes and ivory inlaid birds) by Kusakabe Kimbei (1841-1934) containing 50 hand-coloured albumen photographs of Japan with views of landscapes and geishas and other occupationals. The estimate was between US$4,000 to US$6,000.

It attracted 3 bids and went for US$4,000 + US$900 (b.p).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

CUT 2: New Photography from Southeast Asia

May 15 - June 8 2008

CUT 2 is an exhibition of new photography from Southeast Asia that brings 16 artists from Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand in an exploration of the (photographic) medium both as a pure discipline, and as a base or key component in broader contemporary art practices. At turns raw, irreverant, poised, dark, humorous and romantic, working with space, portraiture, landscape, narrative and performance, they give an insight into the tremendous possibilities of an important medium so far overlooked in the local mainstream.


HT Contemporary Space, 39 Keppel Road
Tanjong Pagar Distripark #02-04, Singapore 089065

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Collecting Contemporary Asian Photography by John Batten

Though this is about contemporary photography, the author talks about the importance of understanding the historical context of photography.

Everyone likes a bargain and in the art world findinggood art at a reasonable price can be daunting -however, when you really put yourself to the task, there is reasonably priced art available. Possibly not withinthe ‘high art’ area, but at the design and popular cultureends of the art spectrum there is art that, once collected,makes an impressive statement. Just think of toys, ChineseCultural Revolution posters, film posters, decorativeceramics etc - the individual beauty of these objects isenhanced by being seen as a considered group: ‘a collection’.

Collecting photography, I believe, is open to all - no matter your budget. Photography is also understandable to most people: we have all looked into a view finder, clicked the shutter and taken photographs. The technical vagaries of photography need not be a barrier to appreciating photography, but - like most pursuits - understanding what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ takes time and requires the building of knowledge.

I believe it is essential for photography collectors to understand the history of photography - to appreciate the episodes of technical advancethat influenced the final image that the viewer sees and to gain agreater understanding of the intentof individual photographers: the documentation of Egypt done in the1850s by Francis Frith; the locomotion experiments and formidable panorama photographs of Eadward Muybridge; the difficulties of photographers on-the-move (carting cumbersome glass plates, chemicals and portable darkrooms) such as John Thompson in China in the1860s; the obsessive need to record a cityundergoing massive changes such as the Parisian Eugene Atget undertook over aforty year period around the turn of the 20th century; the German August Sander’s monumental series of portraitphotographs; the photographing of seemingly banal objects (advertisingand road signage) done by WalkerEvans in the USA; photography taken in extreme conditions, such as Frank Hurley’s photographs of the Antarctictaken on Shackelton’s ill-fatedexploration of 1914-17; and, the advances in photojournalism that the work of Weegee achieved. If these names are meaningless to you; I can assure you that you have seen their photographs: each have produced indelible, iconic images that have shaped and visually articulated our viewof the world. They are also amongst photography’s pantheon of standard-bearers from which all photographers are judged.

A knowledge of the history of photography is essential to focus andarticulate your likes and dislikes aboutparticular individual photographersand their work - a knowledge of photographic history means you canjudge how and why a particular photograph falls within the photographic canon. With knowledge and time, these judgements become second nature and your viewing becomes confident and the photographs you buy will reflect your knowledge.

I love browsing for old photographs in second-hand shops -lots of family and travel photographs; often simple snapshots, occasional old stereo-cards, film publicity shots - most are mundane and of no interest, but small (and cheap) great photographs can be found; there is no intrinsic value in these photographs: the photographers are usually all unknown amateurs ornameless studio photographers, but this does not detractfrom the fact that the actual photographs can often be excellent. An interesting collection can be built from thishumble scavenging - indeed, in the USA there are collectors of ‘found’ photography and exhibitions have been held at leading public galleries based around unknown and amateur photographers.

But most photography collectors purchase their photographs from galleries or direct from photographers who are not represented by dealers. Hong Kong’s leading photographer is probably So Hing Keung - his work deals with a variety of subjects, but all is pure documentary: he records a changing and psychologically taut Hong Kong with his Hong Kong series using a polaroid camera - each photograph is unique: embellished by distressing and scratching the negative and then putting a sepia tone through the final image. He has also photographed extensively in China and his Southern China series specifically documents over a ten-year period the Chiu Chow village of Chaoyang in Northern Guangdong.

A few months ago I visited Taipei and visited Taiwanese photographer Chen Sun-chu’s latest exhibition at IT Park (asemi-commercial space run by a photographer that exhibits innovative art). I think his on-going portrait series and pre-occupation with his own family will become one of the great bodies of photographic work taken by any Asian photographer. I also admire his work because it is not bound by constrictingtaboos and political correctness: his latest large-scale colour photographs are set in the physical confines of family burial plots.

There is a long history of Western photographers working in Asia, including over the last 50 years Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud.Recently, Lois Connor’s use of a large-format banquet camera on her yearly visits to China and Vietnam haveproduced a seminal collection of beautiful silver gelatin and platinumprints and these placed alongside herwork in her native USA makes herone of the world’s outstanding contemporary photographers.

Hong Kong-based Michael Wolf is a freelance photojournalist who hasbeen working in China, predominantly for the German Stern magazine, overthe last nine years and whose on-going explorations of Hong Kong haveproduced an important series of work:his Architecture of Density series depicts Hong Kong’s large housingdevelopments - these front-on photographs depict endless clinical grids of apartments as well as their inhabitants’ attempt to personalise their outwardly anonymous homes. Together with his Backdoor series (see the forthcoming Thames and Hudson publication), Michael’s Hong Kong work will be seen to be ground-breaking in future years.

New Zealand photographer Laurence Aberhart was invited to Macau in 2000 by the Macau Museum of Art to document a changing Macau and his later exhibition ( and catalogue : Ghostwriting: Photographs of Macauby Laurence Aberhart) at the Museum displayed sixty of his 8 x 10inch contact print photographs of Macau - reminiscent of the 19th century photograph albums that travellers visiting Hong Kong or Macau would purchase as a memento of their visit. Aberhart’s photography is photography at its purest and inthe mould of Eugene Atget or Walker Evans. He has since photographed inChina and Japan (adding to his extensive work in Europe, NewZealand, Australia and USA).

Thai photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom is regularly seen at artbiennials and is well known for hissocial realist imagery using ‘the pinkman’ as the protagonist. The pink man- who in real life is a well-known Thai actor, dressed in a bright pink suit - isdepicted serenely standing amongstscenes of chaos. Manit’s manipulated images often make use of distressingphotographs (usually press agency photographs) from recent Thai history -one of his most notorious photographsdepicts the pink man standing asaccuser (of the then militarygovernment) amongst on-lookersstaring at the bodies of dead students strung on trees adjacent to the Royal Palace in Bangkok in thestudent riots of 1973.

Seen alongside such powerful political social commentary as Manit Sriwanichpoom, contemporary Chinese photography seems almost trite.However, it is Chinese photography that will most be seen in the world’s public museums - curators are pre-occupied with China and governments are keen to promote trade by encouraging cultural and art exchanges;so, money is available for Chinese artexhibitions; whereas the Philippinesand Indonesia - who it could be arguedhave equally if not more talented artists- are much less seen.

A phenomena that is almost solely seen in China is that artists work with awide range of media e.g. painters will also make videos, take photographs, doperformance pieces and installations -thus, a ‘Chinese PhotographyExhibition’ may well comprise photography done by artists who merely use photography as an extension to their wider artistic practice. These artists have become masters of digital manipulation, cutting and collaging - the power of Photoshop has taken the place of stringentmeasuring of light, subject composition and meticulous darkroom techniques. The presented photograph (usually adigitally printed image) will often be of material that will shock the viewer. These generally glossy gratuitous imageswill be presented with little or no social or political context or comment - in keeping with the Chinese State’sintolerance of overt criticism.

China does, of course, have some excellent photographers and these serious photographers should form the backbone of a Chinese photography collection. Luo Yongjin’s austere black and white photographs of industrial buildings and abandoned domestic apartment buildings is reminiscent of the famous German husband/wifephotographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Liu Zheng’s documentary photography is excellent and his historical tableaux - such as his Peking OperaSeries is some of the best narrative type photographydone in China at the moment. I love panorama photographs: Zhuang Hui’s recent panorama photographs or workers and work units fits into China’s long history of such photography and is itself important work. One photographer whose digital photographs are impressive is Weng Fen: his Wall Straddle series is enigmatic and begs so many questions for the viewer. He has used the same idea - originally young schoolgirls but since expanded to include families and the elderly - of someone staring into a distant series of skyscrapers or,recently, to a seascape horizon line.

Collecting contemporary Asian photography just requires knowledge and a practised eye - good luck.

Monday, May 12, 2008

PICTURE PARADISE: The first century of Asia-Pacific photography 1840s-1940s

Held at the National Gallery of Australia, 10 July to 9 November 2008

Hoping to find time to go for this show.

The Gallery’s new Asia and Pacific collection will be showcased for the first time from 11 July to 9 November 2008 with The first century of Asia–Pacific photography. This exhibition will be the first survey of the history of photography from India and Sri Lanka through Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific to the west coast of North America, from the formative decades of the 1840s to 1860s to the early 1940s and advent of the Second World War.

The exhibition will cover the adoption of successive photographic processes across Asia and the Pacific region – from the unique daguerreotype portraits on metal plates in the 1840s–1860s to the mass production of views on paper made possible from the 1860s on to the turn of the century by the wet-plate and then dry-plate glass negative process and finally, the modern era of small 35 mm film cameras introduced in 1925 with the release of the Leica. A special feature of the exhibition will be a presentation of the first colour photographs taken in the Asia and Pacific region from the 1920s to the 1940s.

The exhibition will include pioneer nineteenth-century local photographers as well as European photographers working in the region such as Scot John Thomson, who published the first travel photography books on Asia. Work by first generation indigenous photographers – Lala Deen Dayal from India, Francis Chit from Thailand, Cassian Cephas from Indonesia, Afong from Hong Kong and Carleton Watkins in California and Alfred Bock in Australia will complement views and ethnographic photographs by immigrants such as Armenian Onnes Kurkdjian in Indonesia, JW Lindt, who migrated from Germany to work in Australia and Alfred Burton, an Englishman who worked in New Zealand. Surrealist work by Australian Modernist Max Dupain will be placed in context with the work of Lionel Wendt from Sri Lanka and Osamu Shiihara from Japan. An important feature of the exhibition will be the first account of women photographers in the region including Hedda Morrison in China, Imogen Cunningham in California and Olive Cotton in Australia.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why I Collect What I Collect

I have just started out collecting 19th century photographs though I have been looking at them for the past 4 years now. Why collect photographs and not something else?

Firstly, it is within my financial means. I can spend a few hundreds on a really nice albumen print (I'll just forgo that Paul Smith printed canvas bag or pair of G-Star jeans). Secondly, it is a subject that I have some knowledge about though there is still lots more to learn and know. And lastly, my unit trusts have not been doing too well lately. Rather than banking on (no pun intended) the financial expertise of someone else, I might as well depend on my eye for aesthetics.

I'm focusing on 19th c. japanese portraiture and se asian topography.

Photographers whose work I own now include (list will be updated progressively):

Tamamura Kozaburo
(born 1856; date of death unknown) was a Japanese photographer. In 1874 he opened a photographic studio in Asakusa, Tokyo and subsequently moved to Yokohama in 1883, opening his most successful studio. He was an originator of the Yokohama shashin photographic scene. His studio was still operating in 1909.

Woodbury & Page
Walter Woodbury (1834-1885) was an apprentice in a patent office in Manchester from 1849 to 1851. He went to the Australian gold fields in 1852. Woodbury took up professional photography (he invented the 'Woodburytype' process) and emigrated with James Page to Java in 1858. They established the firm of Woodbury and Page in Batavia. Woodbury returned to England in 1863, but the firm continued trading until the end of the century.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Proceses and Techniques of Photography: The Albumen Photograph

The albumen print was invented by Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard (1802-72) in 1850, and it was the most prevalent type of print until the 1890s. A photograph can be identified as an albumen print from the slight sheen (due to the use of egg-white) on the top surface. Almost all of the photographs produced in late 19th century Singapore were albumen photographs.

An albumen print was made by floating a sheet of thin paper on a bath of egg white containing salt, which had been whisked, allowed to subside, and filtered. This produced a smooth surface, the pores of the paper having been filled with albumen. After drying, the albumenised paper was sensitised by floating it on a bath of silver nitrate solution or by brushing on the same solution. The paper was again dried, but this time in the dark. This doubly coated paper was put into a wooden, hinged-back frame, in contact with a negative, usually made of glass but occasionally of waxed paper.

After printing, which sometimes only required a few minutes but could take an hour or more, the resultant proof, still unstable, was fixed by immersing it in a solution of hyposulfite of soda ('hypo') and water and then thoroughly washed to prevent further chemical reactions. The print was then dried. Gordon Baldwin, 'Looking at Photographs', J. Paul Getty Museum, 1991

The wet collodion process was invented in 1848 by F. Scott Archer (1913-57) and published by him in 1851. It was prevalent from 1855 to about 1881. Wet-collodion-on-glass negatives were valued because the transparency of the glass produced a high resolution of detail in both the highlights and shadows of the resultant prints and because exposure times were short, ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the amount of light available.

Collodion is guncotton (nitrocellulose) dissolved in ethyl alcohol and ethyl ether. In the wet-collodion process, collodion was poured from a beaker onto a glass plate tilted to quickly produce an even coating. When the collodion had set but not dried, the plate was made light sensitive by bathing it in a solution of silver nitrate, which combined with the potassium iodide in the collodion to produce light-sensitive silver iodide. The plate in its holder was then placed in the camera for exposure while still wet - hence the name of the process. After exposure the plate was immediately developed in a solution. Gordon Baldwin, 'Looking at Photographs', J. Paul Getty Museum, 1991

The wet-plate was not without disadvantage. The plates needed to be processed while still wet which meant a portable dark-room for landscape photographers. In 1871, Richard Leah Maddox introduced using gelatine for coating dry plates which could be processed later. This became a popular process for amateur photographers who could take their photographs using dry-plates and get them processed at a studio. In Singapore, its use probably started in the late 1880s (the amatuer Straits Photographic Society was established in 1889 at Hill Street) and became common from the 1890s onwards.