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Nik Ridzuan Nik Yusoff (UiTM), from Afterimage.

The Ascent Of The lnwge

For the first time in Malaysia, four national institutions and 11 commercial galleries came
together to celebrate the art of photography at the first Kuala Lumpur International Photography
Biennale. The Biennale was theme-oriented as each gallery retained curatorial flexibility.
s Asia closes the economic gap
with the West and art becomes
an ever more important part of
society, an increase in art
biennales in this part of the
world has become evident. Even with the
proliferation of such festivals, the inaugu-
ral Kuala Lumpur International Photog-
raphy Biennale 7005 was greeted with
great enthusiasm. Granted that Chobi Me la
in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is still the most poi-
gnant photographic event in Asia with its
clear commitment to present voices from
the majority of the world, but it is techni-
cally not considered a biennale.
For eo-curators Alex Moh and Li-
En Chong, it took great tenacity and hard
work to piece together the inaugural Kuala
Lumpur International Photography
Biennale Qune 4 - October 9, 2005). In
the 21 exfii'6itions that made up the
Biennale there were works from over 200
local and international photographers from
such countries as Australia, Canada, Cuba,
Germany, Japan, Norway, the Philippines,
Singapore, the United Kingdom, and
United States, as well as Malaysia.
Although the scope of photogra-
phers-in terms their countries-looked
comprehensive, it was still narrow for such
a biennale. Most of the well-known pho-
tographers command a fee to attend and
so, due to a very tight budget, priced them-
selves out of the Biennale. Morten
By Zhuang Wubin
Krogvold, Norway's Hasselblad master, is
one such example. While his environmen-
tal portraits were exhibited at Darling Muse
Art Gallery in conjunction with the
Biennale, his lively presence was sorely
missed. Krogvold's images are direct and
simple, although they also enhance the
"Oriental" perception of Asia and Africa.
German photographer Martin Fengel's se-
ries of five images, collectively titled Guns,
worked well as an insight into the sharp
reality of guns in the name of providing
security in Manila. Printed on inexpensive
paper, Fengel invited the audience at Val-
entine Willie Fine Art to take his posters
home for free. But a key feature of the in-
augural Biennale was that it was medium
rather than theme-oriented, as each indi-
vidual gallery retained curatorial flexibility
to present photography in its myriad forms.
The initial impetus of the Biennale
came from the success of the exhibition
History & Beyond: Malaysian Photography
from 1900 to the Present (2004) at the Na-
tional Art Gallery of Malaysia, also co-
curated by Alex Moh and Li-En Chong.
Continuing in the vein of recognizing
Malaysia's photographic heritage, the key-
note exhibition of the Biennale was The
Loke Legacy: The Photography Collection of
Dato Loke Wan Tho at the National Art
Gallery. Because of his personal interest in
photography and his privileged back-
ground as the ninth son of tin magnate Loke
Yew, Loke Wan Tho was able to amass in
the 1950s a collection of .2.32.. photographs
by 173 photographers from 25 countries.
making it the largest collection of
Piq orialism in the region, and possibly the
world. Loke Wan Tho's collection is being
exhibited under the themes of Landscapes.
Still-Lifes and Studies, and Portraiture, from
May 31 2005 to March 7, 2006.
Building on renewed interest
among Malaysians to learn about their ~
tory through old photographic images, -
selection of 20 gelatin silver prints sho
by lsmail Nasiruddin Shah, the late Sultan
of Terengganu and former Yang Di Pertuan
Agong, from 1948 to 1962, was eXh1bita..
at the Darling Muse Art Gallery. Because
of his position, Sultan Ismail could affon...
to photograph Malaysia and Singapore
when the majority of the residents were
merely trying to eke out a living. He worked
in the manner of a street photographer, per-
haps without thinking that his images
would be archived for later generations
Today, the legacy of Sultan Ismail, who was
the first Malay photo,JSrapher to be an As-
sociate of the Royal P ~ p h i c Society
of the United Kingdom, is under the cus-
tody of his grandson, Raja Ihsan Shah. Un-
like some descendants who have allowed
their photographic treasures to go to waste
Raja Ihsan Shah is proud of his grandfather'
legacy of hand-printed originals, negatives.
and photographic equipment.
Lee Seah Kee (Singapore), Fancy, gelatin silver print. Kan Hing Fook (Hong Kong), Soaring Wings, gelatin silver print. Collection of National Art
Collection of National Art Gallery Malaysia. Former collection of Gallery Malaysia. Former collection of Data Lake Wan Tho.
Data Lake Wan Tho.
Sultan lsmail Nasiruddin Shah, Bukit Besi, 1959, silver gelatin print. Sultan lsmail Nasiruddin Shah, Jetty, 1954, silver gelatin print.
Sultan lsmail Naslruddin Shah, Pukat Tarek, 1957, sepia-toned silver
gelatin print.
Sultan lsmail Nasiruddln Shah, Perahu Biduk, 1961 , fiber-based Kodak
calor print.
c:t .... "tt t' ("Th_!' images are his memoirs, his
writings. Only by studyin_g his entire col-
leCtion can we qnderstand his li fe and 'his
photographic philosophy," says Raja Ihsan
Shah. "Sometimes, people would walk into
the gallery and tell me that his composi-
tions are influenced by the Japanese. I
would then check with my grandma and
realize that he did have some Japanese
friends who taught him things about Japa-
nese photography. But my grandfather was
more like a photographer he un-
derstood the places and peoQle he.J)hoto-
gra_Rhed, things that were significant to
him. In Kuala Lumpur, he focused on the
citysbustling street economy. "
There were various phases to Sul-
tan Ismail's photographic life. From 1948
/ to 1953, he shot numerous portraits of
children and workers, hand-printing or
hand-coloring his images in his studio.
Sometimes, he would color the negatives
to accentuate the blacks or the facial de-
2 tails. From 1957, the Sultan started experi-
menting with color. His first interview ap-
peared in the Malay paper in 1958. By the
mid-1960s, all his color pictures were shot
) on Leica cameras. Most of his printed im-
-J ages were not cropped unless there were
a lot of people in the frame. According to
Raja's grandmother, Sultan Ismail's favor-
ite hours were 7 to 9 am, 12 noon and 4
to 6.30 pm.
While there are no issues with the
physical preservation of the legacy, Raja
Ihsan Shah is only at the start of the long
process of archiving all the negatives.
Some of them require restoration because
the colors have faded over the years. Digi-
tal technology is an option that Raja Ihsan
Shah is currently exploring. And like him
there are photographers from the Biennale
who have harnessed digital technology to
reinterpret Malaysia's heritage and history.
Rizal Zainudin, 29, is one photog-
rapher whose application of digital tech-
nology is straightforward. Inspired by Andy
Warhol, Zainudin manipulated the images
that he shot in Malaysia using a Wacom,
so that there is an interplay of color and
black-and-white within each image,
thereby evoking a sense of nostalgia be-
neath Malaysia's modernist facade.
n the other hand, Yee 1-Lann's
Sulu Stories feature a series
of digital montages created
using pictures she shot of the
region and the images she
bought from the national archives. As a
Sabah-born Malaysian, Sulu- sandwiched
between the southern Philippines and East
Malaysia- is Yee's area of darkness. The
Philippines claims jurisaiction over the is-
lands but in reality, the identity of the re-
gion, where different histories merge and
collide- is much more complex. The area,
shut off from the world for the past 30
years, is mainly Islamic, whereas the Phil-
ippines is predominantly Catholic. The ar-
rival of European colonists added to the
volatility of the issue as British, Spanish,
and Dutch interests divided the region.
However, "colonization" through econom-
ics came much earlier when Chinese mer-
chants started trading in the area about a
thousand years ago, while their Arabic
counterparts "colonized" by religion.
Yee, 34, is one of the most excit-
ing young artists currently working in
Southeast Asia. Her series was produced
for Art ConneXions, a recent residency
initiated by the Goethe lnstitut. To negoti-
ate the complexity of the region, she tried
to "enter" Sulu through myths and memo-
ries. When her residency started in March
2005, Yee, who functioned like a re-
searcher, spent a considerable time talk-
ing to people from Sulu, poring through
related materials at Manila's Filipiniana
Heritage Library, and the Sabah State Mu-
seum and State Archives in Kota Kinabalu.
She learned about the Tau-tau islands,
where locals place effigies of illnesses so
that malaria or fever can be kept away.
She read about the Bajau people, who live
their lives on the reefs and move onto the
islands to die, their graves facing the direc-
tion of Mecca. In the end, Yee's images
were a product of a mental
ol;yhat she saw phYsJCa !ly and she
found in the records. But, although she was
nOtnecessarily interested in depictin_g the
reaHty of Sulu, she was drawn by
the mood and temperament of it.
"When you do a Googie on Sulu,
there is so little info, as though it is an
area which has fallen off the map, " says
Yee, who has exhibited in Asia, Australia,
and Europe. "And yet, it is an area where
all the metaphors of the modem world
can be found. As far as I'm concerned,
globalization started in the 15th century,
right here in Sulu. "
Of course, there are many photog-
raphers around the world who are still ex-
cited by the notion of photography as a
discipline to document literal reality. Some
of Eric Peris's peers continue to work rig-
orously in this direction. One is Chan Kin
Wah, 43, whose series, Reality, of black-
and-white hand-printed images on "the
disappearing lifestyles and communities"
Yee 1-Lann, Sarang, from Sulu Stories, 2005, digital print on Kodak
professional paper.
Yee 1-Lann, Sarong, from Sulu Stories, 2005, digital print on Kodak
professional paper.
of Kuala Lumpur was exhibited at Galeri
Seni Maya. More comfortable with pho-
tography than any language as a medium
of self-expression, Chan's artistic approach
is based on capturing "the serendipitous
moment" with "a calm, clear, and aware
mind. " He has emphasized the need to
reach viewers spiritually yet his technique
is grounded in classical photography.
ric Peris, 66, who has moved
off another tangent, was eas-
ily one of the most progressive
in the Biennale. Peris pre-
sented a series of images, at
Sutra Gallery, combined a unique adapta-
tion of Japanese woodblock printing with
photography. His Ukiyo-e: Pictures of the
Floating World is part of his endeavor to
push himself within the (lledium of pho-
tography since he retit:ed as a photojour-
nalist from the New Strqjts Times in 1994.
As a photojournalist, crossing over
to fine art photography was like stepping
into a totally different world. Like other fme
art photographers, Peris started by making
gelatin silver prints of Malaysian landscapes
and fishermen casting their nets. After-
wards, it occurred to him that he needed
to evolve. The impetus came from the
books he was reading and the influence of
his father, who was also an artist.
"The right to create is yours, " says
Peris. "So lQng as you respect the religious,
social, cultural, and racial norms, the doors
will b e opened for you to explore and
expenment. One ts mterested in telling a
st01y through pictures; the other is inter-
ested in creating his or her personal im-
ages. My father impressed on me that I
needed to experiment for my own good.
Whether people accept or dislike the re-
sults doesn't really affect me. "
Eric Peris, Terengganu, from Ukiyo-e: Pictures of the Floating World.
Two years ago, a London-based and then back to photography before the
Chinese architect gave Peris the Ukiyo-e: results were printed on sheets of fiber-
An Introduction to Japanese Woodblock based Ilford photographic paper, on which
Printing by Tadashi Kobayashi. From the 1 he would hand-color.
book, he learned that the term ukiyo-ewas Clearly, Peris's desire to overcome
originally associated with the Buddhist the tendency of repeating himself and
worldview on the transient nature of hu- doing the things that the collectors' mar-
man existence. Peris borrowed the con- ket expects of him is commendable, be-
cept and applied it to the landscapes that cause even young photographers struggle
he has taken in Malaysia, where every- with the same temptations. But the ob-
thing is changing rapidly. Strictly speak- stacles stacked against Eric Peris pale in
ing, the technique that he used was not comparison to those of Leong Siak Yin,
woodblock printing per se. First, he had 48, a blind masseur who works in
to turn the pictures into line prints so that Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.
he had the outlines of the forms to work Photographer Gillian Tan used to
with. Then, he had to clean up the line visit Leong after her stressful assignments.
prints so that the tonal ranges were more About ten months ago, she asked the ar-
adaptable for hand coloring. The entire ticulate Leong if he would consider tak-
process demanded that he move from ing pictures through which to voice frus-
analog photography to digitized line prints, trations. Leong found it a very odd idea.
His prior experience in photography con-
sisted only of some vacation snapshots
made about 20 years ago. Objectively, the
danger with such an initiative is that the
photographs taken by Leong would be-
come secondary to the fact that he is blind.
It would be self-defeating if he turned out
to be a mere curiosity, but he decided try
out the idea. His urge to tell a story, to
connect the blind world with the sighted
one, might be too much to bear.
"At first, I was very reluctant to use
the camera, " says Leong. "Trust me, I can
sense my subjects' reactions: Here is a
cuckoo with a cane in his right hand and
a camera in his left hand snapping away. "
But photography grew on him and his
confidence picked up.
Eric Peris, Taslk Bukit Merah, from Ukiyo-e: Pictures of the Floating World.
Focusing with his ears and shoot-
ing with his heart, Leong's photographs,
entitled 1be Silent Scream, are honest and
unpretentious. Shown at the Photogra-
phers' Gallery at Jalan Ampang his work
was easily the highlight of the Biennale,
and proof that compelling art is
driven by a compelling story. In
the story, he woke one day at
29 only to be told that he would
go blind. Two years later, Leong
was totally blind, but ready to
start afresh. "Being blind is not
synonymous to being stupid or
useless, because from my exhi-
bition, you will see that I'm very
much alive, " he says. "I don't
want to be a blind man. I want
to be a man who just happened
to be blind. "
Changkat Bukit Bintang, 50200 Kuala
Lumpur. Tel: (60-3) 2141 2566
The Art Loft, 4th Floor, Muse,
Star Hill Gallery, Jalan Bukit Bintang
55100, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: (60-3)
2145 2434
Art Space Gallery, S 162, 2nd
Floor City Square, 182 Jalan Tun
Razak, 50400 Kuala Lumpur. Tel:
(60-3) 2161 7128
Darling Muse Art Gallery, 142
Jalan Bukit Pantai, 59100 Kuala
Lumpur, Tel: (60-3) 2284 7441
Galeri Seni Maya, 12, 1st Floor,
Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru, 59100
Kuala Lumpur. Tel: (60-3) 2282
espite its minor
flaws, the First
Kuala Lumpur In-
ternational Photo-
Leong Siak Yln, Brickfields The Day Life Stopped, from Insight.
Gallerie Taksu, 17 Jalan Pawang,
54000 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: (60-3)
4251 4396 graphy Biennale was a fine
attempt by Malaysia to place itself on the
global art map. What the curators need to
do for the next biennale is to assume
greater control of the exhibitions in the
respective venues, bringing them in line
with the philosophy and objectives of the
Biennale. In this way the collective range
of shows is sure to pe stronger and more
coherent. The exhibitions from this year's
event suffered from the impression that
they were isolated events taking place in
Kuala Lumpur, without the intimacy and
"dialogues" of a tightly curated biennale.
Photojournalism, cutting-edge fashion and
digital art were underrepresented and the
number of photographers representing
Southeast Asia needs to increase if the
event aims to be truly relevant to the re-
gion. At the same time, it is a pity that the
entire Biennale was shown within special-
ized galleries. Kuala Lumpur has a lively
juxtaposition of histories and cultures in
her public spaces so that the organizers
may well consider incorporating uncon-
ventional exhibiting spaces like shopping
malls, railway stations, or heritage build-
ings into the list of their venues. .1
Venues of the Kuala Lumpur Interna-
tional Photography Biennale 2005
National Art Gallery Malaysia, 2 Jalan
Temerloh (off Jalan Tun Razak) 53200 Kuala
Lumpur. Tel: (60-3) 4025 4990
Badan Warisan Malaysia, 2 Jalan Stonor,
50450 Kuala Lumpur. Tel : (60-3) 2144 9273
Galeri Petronas, Level 3, Suria KLCC, 50088
Kuala Lumpur. Tel: (60-3) 20517770
Galeri Shah Alam (Laman Budaya, Persiaran
Tasik, Tasik Barat), 40000 Shah Alam, Selangor
Darul Ehsan; Tel: (60-3) 5510 5344
ARTrageous ly Ramsay Ong, 43 & 45
NN Gallery, 53A & 56 Jalan Sulaiman 1, Taman
Ampang Hilir, 68000 Ampang, Selangor; Tel:
(60-3) 4270 6588
Sutra Gallery, 12 Persiaran Titiwangsa 3,
53200 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: (60-3) 4021 1092
The Photographers' Gallery (City), 4th
Floor, Lot FF3 (B), Muse, StarHill Gallery, 181,
Jalan Bukit Bintang 55100 Kuala Lumpur.
Tel:(60-3) 2145 2434
The Photographers' Gallery (Garden), 183,
Jalan Ampang, 50450 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: (60-
3) 2145 2434
Townhouse Gallery, 19A Jalan Medang
Tanduk, Bukit Bandaraya, 59100 Kuala
Lumpur. Tel: (60-3) 2094 3381
Valentine Willie Fine Art, 1st Floor, 17 Jalan
Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur.
Tel: (60-3) 2284 2348
Zhuang Wubin is a Singapore-based pho-
tographer and arts writer.
Leong Siak Yin, Exact Change, Cane, Umbrella, Rain, from Insight. Leong Siak Yin, Denial, Anger, Frustration, Now Acceptance, from
ng ew
A/ex Moh and U-En Chong are eo-curators of the Kuala Lumpur International Photography Biennale.
Both have significant experience in the Kuala Lumpur photography world. M oh, former president of the
Photographic Society ofPetalingjaya ( 1999 to 200 I), became a full-time photographer in 2000. Chong
co-curated the History & Beyond: Malaysian Photography from 1900 to the Present show in 2004
at the National Art Gallery of Malaysia. Recently Zhuang Wubin spoke with the curators about the
making of the Bienna/e.
Zhuang Wubin: In the past few years,
many photographers have been mak-
ing their way to Dhaka, Bangladesh,
for Chobi Mela, including such digital
artists as Pedro Meyer, Magnum pho-
tographer Raghu Rai, and Iranian
photo-artist Shadi
Ghadirian. How does the
Kuala Lumpur International
Photography Biennale dif-
fer from Chobi Mela? What
was the impetus behind the
Mob: Chobi Me/a's emphasis is
on photojournalism, although
its director Dr. Shahidul Alam
has been trying to move it be-
yond the genre. At the same
time, he has the luxury of be-
ing backed by the Prince Claus
Fund, while we don't have any
sponsorship, which limits the
range of photography that we
can show.
The main problem in
Malaysia is that we don't have
a venue to showcase photog-
dptiy. Most amateurs and seri-
oUshobbytsts depend on !Peir
cfUb's and associations to show-
c'E["their p h o t ~ s . The don't
get to exhibit outside eir
groups. After attending the sec-
o!i'd and third Chobi Me/a, I
have gradually developed a
sense of how to do things.
Shahidul Alam has also given
me many pointers.
suggested a month of photography for
2005. My initial plan was to gather the
clubs and associations from Malaysia to
showcase their works at the National Art
Gallery. I also approached five exhibition
spaces that were already supportive of
photography to see if they were interested
in joining the project. Even without the
promise of sponsorship, all of them agreed
to come on board, and word started to
get around.
Before I left for Spain towards the
end of May, the number of
participating spaces had
jumped to nine. The lineup
resembled a festival more
than a month of photogra-
phy. The National Art Gal-
lery finally decided to
adopt the concept of a
biennale. In the last two
weeks of June, I still had
to turn down offers from
venues, including two
shopping malls, that were
keen to host exhibitions.
What was the role of the
National Art Gallery of
Malaysia in theBiennale?
Mob: As the patron of the
Biennale, National Art Gal-
lery was responsible for
producing the catalogues,
event calendars, publicity
posters, and invitation
Chong: The National Art
Gallery is a purpose-built
space with six galleries. It
has a very active calendar.
There is a new exhibition
almost every month. More-
over, it has always been
supportive of young artists.
Anyone can walk in and
talk to the curators. You
After the success of the
show History & Beyond: Malay-
sian Photography from 1900 to
the Present, Wairah Marzuki,
who was then the director gen-
eral of National Art Gallery,
Lee Chee Meng (Limkokwing University College of Creative Technology), from see students coming in for
Afterimage. unsupervised visits. This is
a genuine art institution, which is not di-
rected by visitor numbers.
A common perception of Malaysia
is that it is an inefficient country. But in
the art scene, things tend to move very
fast. Sponsorship came in one-and-a-half
months before the opening of The Loke
Legacy: Tbe Photography Collection of Dato
Loke Wan 7bo. The agreement was only
signed a week after the cheque was re-
What were the objectives of the Pho-
tography Biennale?
Mob: What I really wanted to do was to
get a commitment from the private galler-
ies and the national institutions to expose
photography to a wider audience. Malay-
sians would be able to see a wide range
of work and understand the different ideas
in play. At the same time, it was impor-
tant that private galleries open up and ex-
hibit works-photojournalistic ones, for
example-that are harder to sell. For the
local photographers, there is an urgent
need to exhibit alongside their peers from
other countries so that there is compari-
son and exchange.
Cbong: I feel we can also take a more
proactive and independent stance with the
Biennale. Instead of saying photography
has borrowed from other art forms, let's
acknowledge the fact that photography is
art and that other art forms have also bor-
rowed from photography. I think we are
ready for a different perspective.
Afterimage was the inaugural exhibi-
tion of the Biennale. It featured a selec-
tion of images by nine different photo-
graphic societies and institutions in
Malaysia. How did you put the exhibi-
tion together?
Mob: I basically handpicked the partici-
pating organizations for Afterimage, from
Effel Chong (Limkokwing University College of Creative Technology), from Afterimage.
institutes of higher learning to the more
traditional Salon clubs. There were 162
photos in this show. I didn't give them a
theme because I didn't want to lock them
in and limit their creativity. Of course, the
basic image had to be taken by a camera.
But there was no other restriction. With
Afterimage, I wanted the different societ-
ies to use their in-house curators, select
their own pictures and come up with the
money to print them-basically to be re-
sponsible for what they showed. A group
of critics would decide if a certain photo
society is below par. If that was the case,
we would drop it from the next Biennale.
I didn't want them to feel like they are
filling up space in the gallery.
Do you feel that there were some im.-
ages from Afterimage that were un-
suitable for National Art Gallery?
Mob: The National Art Gallery is a public
space. School children visit our exhibitions.
So we have to be quite careful with nude
photography. It has to be done in a taste-
ful manner. In this case, boundaries can
only be pushed in the private galleries.
What were your frustrations in curating
the Biennale?
Mob: The galleries were fine. My main
problem came with the photographers.
They were slow in responding and feed-
ing images, which Li-En needed for the
catalogue. Some of them were not even
sure if they wanted to be involved. They
went back and forth, and were quite fickle-
What were the curatorial challenges in
putting together The Loke Legacy: The
Photography Collection of Dato Loke
Wan Tho?
Cbong: Alex first saw the entire collec-
tion when we were curating History & Be-
yond: Malaysian Photography from 1900
to the Present. The condition of the m ints
was not what we expected. The collec-
tion has not been shown as a whole since
it was donated m 1963. It is a shame. The
g;Tiery's permanent collection has about
3,000 artworks, of which Loke Wan Tho's
contributiOn of over 2QQ g!lotQgraphs
makes up a sizeable portion. In a way, his
d9nation should have shaped the direc-
t i ~ n of the gallery.
.... We spoke to Rahime Harun, direc-
tor general of National Art Gallery, and
Zanita Anuar, director of research and
development. They were interested. Be-
cause of the size of his collection, we chose
the smaller gallery, which we can have
for 10 months, a longer period of time.
When the preceding exhibition
vacated the space, we had a terrible shock.
The walls were green and the carpet was
blue. We had to paint the walls white and
put in black carpet. I also wanted yellow
lights but we didn't have enough money.
So a combination of yellow and white
lights was eventually used.
My curatorial direction for the show
was very deliberate. We even built a wall
so that visitors have to navigate through
the space in a particular manner. I feel
there has to be a deliberate narration so
that visitors don't walk away saying: 'Oh,
these are just a bunch of photos.'
Take the sub-theme of landscapes,
for example. As visitors walk through pic-
tures of open spaces, panoramas, bodies
of water, and unblocked vistas, I want
them to contemplate the idea of landscape
as a theme and concept, or to consider
landscape as a moment that has passed. I
want them to get behind the minds of the
photographers, the buyers, or the cura-
tors, and draw different levels of interpre-
tations from the exhibition. They can even
look at the walls of images in relation to
one another. They can approach with their
preconceptions and hopefully walk away
with new ideas.
Based on Loke Wan Tho's collection,
what are the differences between
pictorialists in the 1950s from the West
and Asia?
Chong: The case is best exemplified with
the portraits he collected. In those by Asian
photographers, the subjects were more
theatrical in the costumes that they wore
and the poses they put on. It probably
had to do with the way photography was
brought into the region as a means of eth-
nological record. Thus, in these early por-
traits, there was no easy relation between
the subject and the camera. Instead, they
were hammed up. Some critics may find
the portraits stifling.
In comparison, the portraits by
Western photographers were more spon-
taneous. There were more nudes. There
was a sense of celebration of the female
body and its inherent beauty. Whereas in
the female portraits by Asian photolSra-
phers, tiie women were cast in idealized
roles. At that point of time, the phQ!Q-
graphic experience was still very exclusive
for the subjects and the photographers.
Casual snapshots were not economical.
Thus, the subject would want to
certam image an t e p otograp ' wmil d
want to capture a particular mood.
The popularity of Pictorialism has
waned during the past few years. So it
is not entirelysurprisingyoungerview-
ers should find the pictures in Loke
Wan Tho's collection dated. How
Dennis Lau (Sarawak Photographic Society), from Afterimage.
should the viewers approach the exhi- or double exposure without the luxury of
bition? digital preview.
Chong: When you talk about Impression-
ism and Cubism, you will not feel that they
are dated. Similarly, Pictorialism used to
be the style of the times. We have to con-
sider it in the bigger scheme of things.
The other day, I was guiding a
Malaysian journalist through the exhibi-
tion. The journalist asked: "Why were
the pictures not shot in color? Shooting
in black-and-white makes the pictures
nostalgic." But there is no way that you
can cast off the identity of an image from
its genre.
In a way, the photographs look
dated because viewers are unfamiliar. 'Ib.ey
giggle. Reliving Pictorialism is important
because the visual language is relevant
while the visual code has changed. Pho-
tographers can choose to practice
Pictorialism in the traditional manner, or
they can borrow from it in a post-mod-
ernistic way.
But the broader intention of the
Biennale and an exhibition like After-
image is to encourage Malaysian pho-
tographers to update themselves. Does
showing Pictorialism, which you still
f'md photographers practicing today
without much innovation, not under-
mine your goal?
Mob: Younger audiences need to have an
idea of Pictorialism, which places so much
emphasis on creativity and craft. In the
digital world, with the help of Photoshop,
photographers can cut and paste their
images until they are perfect. In a way,
they are repeating what the Pictorialists
had experimented with in hand-painting
The older audiences need to see
the collection because it relates to the times
in which most of their images were shot,
when opportunities to see photographic
exhibitions from Hong Kong or England
were very limited. I spoke to Harry Wu,
president of the Photographic Society of
Malaysia. He said it would be hard for the
older generation to change very much.
However, they are trying to get younger
photographers to join them so that con-
temporary ideas can be introduced to the
group. One day, the older generation will
pass away. Unless the rules are changed
now to give more emphasis on new ideas
rather than producing picture-perfect im-
ages, the group will cease to be relevant.
What do you hope to see in the next
International Photography Biennale?
Chong: The next Biennale will have a
more definitive feel and a more definitive
feel and theme. Hopefully, there will be a
group of curators helping the different
exhibiting spaces fulfill the vision of the
Biennale. We will also aim to attract cor-
porate sponsors and foreign institutions
to the festival.
Mob: With corporate sponsorship, it will
be easier to convince the private galleries
to put up works that are harder to sell.
Personally, I hope the Kuala Lumpur In-
ternational Photography Biennale will be-
come a festival of high standards, show-
casing a cross-section of works with a
strong focus on up-and-coming Southeast
Asian photographers, alongside one or two
big names. 8