Sunday, July 25, 2010

Manit Srimanichpoom, ‘The Shadow Time of Rong Wongsawan.’ Siam Rath Weekly News, Yr. 56, Vol. 35, 22 – 28 May, 2009.

Manit Srimanichpoom, ‘The Shadow Time of Rong Wongsawan.’ Siam Rath Weekly News, Yr. 56, Vol. 35, 22 – 28 May, 2009.

I never realized that Rong Wongsawan (2475 – 2552) was a photographer before he was a writer.
So I missed the opportunity to interview him and to talk with him about his works of photography while he was still living. I once followed my senior, Wat Wanlyangkul, for a drink at P’Phu’s house when he was still in Bangkok, (it must have been 1987) but no one ever mentioned anything about it, about his life before he was a writer or a ‘national artist.’ Before he became a writer, he simply ‘wasn’t there’.

Until, that is, the Bangkok Post newspaper presented in memoriam, ‘From the Shadow of Time of Rong Wongsawan,’ by Pinyo Trisuriyathama on 23 March, ‘52.
The article had black and white photos, four works by Rong. The images were not particularly striking, but told us that the photographer was a skilled one with knowledge and understanding enough to take pictures like a professional.

When I came to People Space, Prangputorn, located next to the Ministry of Defense, I found they had put up a show of about 10 pieces. Tawatchai Pattanaporn, a photographer who works in black and white, developed the film Rong gave him before his death, and enlarged the pictures. And I saw that Rong was more than your average photographer. I haven’t said these things just out of respect for ‘the eagle of Thai literature and letters.’ I wanted to test and be able to sincerely acknowledge the ‘genius’ of the man.

I don’t have any reason to flatter the deceased author-artist, and I don’t think this is a diamond discovered in the dark. It’s just that the history of Thai photography still isn’t functioning. Academics or knowledgeable people are still not doing their job to record, research and disseminate to the public, to let the people know something of what Thai photographers have done in the past. We don’t see the evolution through which Thai picture-taking has passed. So the new generation doesn’t know their forefathers. All they know are the works of foreigners.

I don’t know about the Thai News Photographers Association, the faculties of communications or journalism, the department of photography, Bangkok Techno, the Photography Association of Thailand – teaching, studying, etc. – where do they all get their knowledge in this field? What do Thai photography magazines write about? Why have I never seen anything written about the work of Rong Wongsawan before?

In the the interview by Worapot Pantupong in the book by Rong Wongsawan, ‘Sieng Pood Soot Thai’ [‘the final words heard’], Rong speaks of his own works of photography, saying that he felt it in himself since the age of 16 or 17 when he bought a camera and Kodak book to read. His hand almost withered away, bent out of shape from opening and reopening a Thai – English dictionary.

He developed, printed, and enlarged so many pictures his fingernails were black with chemical stain.
In his twenties he was selling pictures to Mom Luang Rachawong Kukrit Pramote, the owner of Siam Rath Weekly News (which first went on sale in 1953). The Mom Luang appreciated Rong’s skill and bought his work to print in the magazine.
Rong the photographer and M.L.R. Kukrit became friends. They hung around together and became close. Kukrit would subscribe to foreign publications and then order his staff to read them. Among them was LIFE magazine, which Rong liked very much. In those days, LIFE was very well known and quite popular in America. To some extent, this magazine influenced or inspired the photography of Rong Wongsawan.

M.L.R. Kukrit praised him, remarking that, ‘Phu takes pictures like a white!’

I’m not sure what Kukrit meant by Rong’s having ideas like that.

Did he mean that Rong was a thinker with an analytical mind, a man with his own opinions who liked to be different, who didn’t like to simply follow along. The whites are like that, as we know. And these characteristics are quite the opposite of Thai people, who are not thinkers. They dislike expressing their opinions and prefer to be followers. If that is what was intended in the remark, it has a lot of truth in it.

For example, the black and white photos taken on Sapan Bhud (no one knew when these pictures were taken until K. Santi Sawetwimol of Mae Soi Nangrom asserted that the time must have been 1958 because that was the year the bridge closed for major repairs). This set of pictures is really very distinctive – in subject, pictorial elements, camera angles and light and shadow. As they say, it is completely flavorful. It looks modern, wholly alive. Rong, who must have been about 26 years old, went to the bridge in the morning. (He didn’t go later in the day, because standing on the bridge and looking toward Thonburi, the morning sun pours across the left side.)

Rong photographed the way of life of the Thonburi people as they crossed the bridge to work in the city. The placing of pictorial elements is very interesting.

In one of these pictures, Rong has chosen to stand in an elevated spot where the railings of the bridge, wooden light poles and scaffolding divide the picture into two parts. On the left side of one picture you see clean, well-dressed people in white shirts and school uniforms, neatly combed hair smoothed to the uttermost. Some walk smiling; some look tense as they walk in a long line, moving in the same direction, everyone facing the camera.

The large, solid structure of the bridge stands parallel, shutting off the far left side of the picture, and making the figures look like an assembly of mechanical dolls from a factory. On the right, in the very far distance, we see columns puffing black smoke from the Wat Lieb power plant. At the lower right in a dark shadow, a crowd of commuters on the riverside has made the crossing by boat and is just stepping ashore.

You could say this would be a good, quite powerful, propaganda photo for Thailand as it entered the era of industrialization. (Just three years later, the Thai would begin to follow the national economic and social development plans which were intended to turn Thailand into an industrialized country.)

Rong used the whole morning taking the photos at Sapan Bhut. He took many more interesting pictures
in this set, changing the point of view from high to low, as if he were experimenting, bored with the usual camera angle at human eye-level. He put the camera about knee-level or lower. Perhaps he sat on the ground to adjust the Rolleiflex lens.

This generation of cameras used a medium-sized film which required the photographer to have some expertise in order to succeed in capturing movement as he wished. The viewfinder reversed the picture, putting what is on the left onto the right side, and vice versa. It wasn’t easy to focus the picture with the single lens 35 mm. camera. The film was also more expensive: one role could take only 12 pictures.

The good point was that when you wanted to shoot something, the photographer had to look down into the aperture of the top of the camera, which meant that the photographer did not directly face the people being photographed. The subjects probably felt less self-conscious and were less likely to be intimidated into anything by the photographer.

In another picture, an electrician passes before the camera carrying a drill. At the same moment, in the background, another man is walking along on the far side.
That other man suddenly turns his gaze toward the camera with an unfriendly look. His face and his glace are captured, encircled by a loop of cord from the drill carried by the passing electrician. The pictorial elements in this image are strange.

The light and shadow contrast sharply. At the same time, the metal structure of the bridge and the bamboo scaffolding divide the picture into sections,
but Rong breaks up this very fixed order with the moving diagonal lines of hurriedly passing figures. Wondering why that man turned to look at Rong and at us in such an unfriendly way calls one back to reexamine the image.

In another interesting angle, Rong photographs the people from behind. You don’t see their faces. Apparently, photographers in that era didn’t like or didn’t dare to take pictures like that. But Rong set aside the rules by snapping images of women vendors balancing their baskets of goods, barefoot girls, and young women in sarongs walking along carrying dinner-pails. Rong gave viewers pictures they could interpret by using their own imagination.

Looking at this picture for a while, one begins to feel that the people walking away appear cursed or under a spell, and that none of them will ever return. They seem to be hurrying away, walking on, never stopping, never looking back. Where are they all going? One feels like shouting at them to stop! But the sound is trapped in the throat. We live in different dimensions, different eras.
Or this is Rong Wongsawan’s ‘shadow of time.’

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