Malaysian Photography. History and Beyond. Part 3

Date Published: 8/27/2012
Category: Malaysian Photography

 
This article contains copyrighted materials from the original authors Alex Moh and Li-en Chong. No part of this articles may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission.


1920-1939 (PART 1 of 2)


The 1920s was a period of prosperity in British Malaya as political stability and maintenance of law and order were incentives to draw in foreign investment. British interests grew rapidly and trade links were improved. By the 1930s, Britain’s goal ‘to open up the country by great works: roads, railways, telegraphs, wharves’ 1 had reached fruition; roads and railways linked from north to south, connecting the coastal towns and mining settlements to the urban areas. The tin and rubber industries became the mainstays of the economy and exports reached as far abroad as China, India, Europe and the Americas.

A Plantation, ca. 1920
Gelatin Silver Print
From the Collection of Tan Yeow Wooi
Taken in Penang, this is an image of industry- labourers are hard at work clearing up the grounds of the plantation.
Beach Street, Penang, ca. 1920
Gelatin Silver Print
From the Collection of W.L Lim
Taken at the crossroads in the centre of Penang, the viewer's attention is drawn from the smooth well-paved roads towards the imposing buildings. The architecture is grandiose and exhibits an amalgamation of Moorish and European architecture.

 

Increasing local affluence saw a subsequent upturn in demand for portraits. Due to the prohibitive cost and technical undependability, early photographs of Malayans had been limited to formal portraits of the Malay royal families, the very wealthy and ethnographic surveys. The status symbol of possessing a portrait was a privilege that became a middle class mania.

The High Street, ca. 1930
Courtesy of the National Archives,
Malaysia


Assuming or evincing particular characteristics thru a dress or attitude was a common thread that ran through portraiture of this period. Great care was taken to convey particular tastes or aesthetic themes. Status enhancing props such as fluted columns, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, heavy fringed and damask curtains were used.

A young lady, ca. 1930
Hand-Coloured Photograph
From the Collection of W.L Lim
Delicate hand-painted tints and tones bring out the blush of her cheeks and the glitter of her diamond necklace. With attention paid to detail from the subject's eyelashes to her carefullycoiffed hair, this image is reminiscent of old movie star photographs.
Wing Fong Studio
A couple, ca. 1930
Hand-Coloured Photograph
From the Collection of W.L Lim


These melodramatic features were further emphasised by delicate retouching and hand-colouring techniques practised with adroitness by Chinese photographers who were more often than not, early immigrants well versed in classical Chinese brush painting. The pictorial emphasis carried through to the photographs and it was not uncommon to find elegant calligraphy and poetry verses as part of the composition.

Portrait of a gentleman, ca.1930
Hand-Coloured Photograph
From the Collection of W.L Lim
Demonstrating fine hand-painting, this photograph evinces delicate shades of colour in the creases of the white jacket to the misty background. The crimped white-bordered photograph and the inscription reading 'Yours lovingly, Kenny' were characteristic features of 'cartes de visite'.


The postcard movement gained further momentum during the late 1920s and early 30s. Improvements in printing techniques allowed for the addition of caption information and a thin white border to frame the scene. Postcards were of great importance in the history of Malaysian photography because they recorded the physical development of the country and acted as publicity awareness tools when sent abroad. On a more factual level, objective data listing a vast quantity of intelligence from mineral deposits to literacy levels were also collected. The country was effectively charted to make the best use of available resources. European capital and enterprise flooded in and this self-perpetuating cycle was one that allowed for continuous advancement.

'The Esplanade', ca.1930
Gelatin Silver Print
From the Collection of W.L Lim
Taken at the Esplanade with a view of the law courts, a crowd gathers peacefully under the watchful supervision of the police. Fronting the shoreline a succession of Union Jacks flutter in the breeze. A patriotic image, this postcard presents a most favourable impression of British Malaya.


Whilst to some extent, the postcard images showed a romanticised view of the exotic east, it is fair to say that the postcards can be considered an early form of photojournalism in that they were used in an informative context for popular consumption. It was only in the 1930s that photojournalism truly emerged as a genre of its own with the higher volume printing of local newspapers and periodicals. With the popularity of illustrated magazines such as Life and the invention of the Leica 35mm camera, everyday images could be taken with greater ease and spontaneity. An interesting development at this stage was the production of landscape views. These documentary images were printed in an extended horizontal length, giving the viewer an eagle eye’s view.


 
 
 
Panoramic Views of Ipoh, 1930
Gelatin Silver Print
From the Collection of Tan Yeow Wooi
These photographs printed in long horizontal format impress upon the viewer the rapid development that has taken place in Ipoh. Natural features such as Sungai Kinta, captured in its enormity, present a magnificent vista. Careful attention is paid to the composition of the pastoral photograph, bringing the subjects to life.
 


A radical change in professional studio portrait photography was brought about with the invention of the ‘cartes de visite’ or visiting cards technique. In certain respects, the visiting card process anticipated the motion picture film movement. The brainchild of André Disdéri, it reduced the size of photograph cards to about two by four inches in a single shot so that more than one print could be taken from a single negative. This effectively reduced the production cost and hence improved access to the ‘cartes de visite’. They were extremely popular and many copies of a favoured image were ordered for distribution amongst friends and family as personal keepsakes. The larger cabinet photographs of around four to six inches also enjoyed a broad public appeal. This format was larger in size and mounted onto gilded and decorated cardboard frames for ‘cabinet’ display. The slightly higher costs of production secured significantly better profits from sales for the studios.

 

Gelatin Silver Print Visiting Card
From the Collection of W.L Lim
These two fine examples of 'cartes de visite' integrate printed greetings with photographs of the senders. It is interesting to examine them to see the way in which people chose to be portrayed and the personalities that they wished to project. The message 'With the Seasons Greetings' shows the proliferation of these 'cartes de visite', as this was a personalised Christmas card that would soon be outdated.
Stereophotograph of a young lady, ca.1930
Sepia toned Gelatin Silver Print
From the Collection of W.L Lim
This is a beautiful example of an imitated stereophotograph. This was not taken with a double lens camera but instead two images were duplicated side by side. In the background, a tree branch testifies to the superimposition of the sitter's double image.


<End of part 3> <NEXT: PART 4>