Sunday, December 5, 2010

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘ Surat Ostanukrau and the Art of Photography'

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘ Surat Ostanukrau and the Art of Photography,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham Column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine Yr. 55, V. 35, May 23 – 29, 2008.

I would like to join in a sad farewell on the occasion of the unexpected demise of Khun Surat Ostanukrau (1930 – 2008). He was the former head of many ministries and a billionaire businessman. He greatly expanded his family’s business. He was a scholar and the founder of Bangkok University. Toward the end of his life he devoted himself wholeheartedly to creative work, works of art in the form of photography.

I first met Khun Surat in the work, ‘Vanishing Bangkok,’ a photograph exhibition collected in his first book.
The show took place at the National Gallery on Chaofah Road at the beginning of January, 2002, six years ago. He took part not in the capacity of a politician or a member of the elite, but as an artist-photographer who had created some interesting work. (I would like to refer to Khun Surat as an artist because he created the works from his own imagination, not as a hired photographer for an employer.)

When I think back, even now I’m still taken with that Bangkok series, mostly for the reason that he started doing these works after the age of 70. People at this age usually ‘take pictures’ which look like exhibition works – the stuff seen and done for associations or clubs. But Khun Surat’s work is not at all like that. He worked very freely, not constrained by rules of composition. He preferred decisiveness, clicking the shutter at the decisive moment, according to the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson who influenced him so much: he emphasized content over form, which is totally different from exhibition photography.

Speaking of photos taken for exhibitions, Khun Surat used to explain that they were ‘readymades,’ dreamed up in the past by members of the Photography Club of England under royal patronage for a group of friends who enjoyed playing with cameras. (Some research is needed to confirm this.) Such readymade formulae were passed on to the members of photographers’ associations both within and without the British Commonwealth.

I guess that ‘exhibition photos’ are formula aesthetics, both in terms of content and composition.
For example: ‘A photograph of the sea should not have the horizon in the middle of the frame because doing so divides the picture squarely in two, which is boring and uninteresting. The line should be high or low.’ Such rules make photographers look at landscapes and see a beauty they already know. But they fail to see the beauty that actually lies before them.

We find that no matter how many decades of exhibitions we have, the winning works from competitions since the beginning of the association up to the most recent times are pretty much the same, despite the development of technology from film to digital.

A more important point is that exhibition photos cannot reflect the always changing world and society
. This makes the works of members of photography associations (almost every association and almost everywhere in the world) uninteresting, dated, out of touch with social change. For this reason, the pictures they make are almost always judged as ‘mediocre.’

When Khun Surat was welcomed so warmly in his work, ‘Vanishing Bangkok,’ and was invited many times to show, both at home and abroad, he gained confidence in the approach he was taking.
His rapid success led to his becoming president of the Thai Photography Association under royal patronage. The association had fallen into a sad state and lacked the funding needed to carry on their activities. Khun Surat told me that he took the position as an opportunity to develop the photography scene in Thailand; he was confident that things could be better.

I was against the idea and told him straight out: Why don’t you start your own institute of contemporary photography? It would be easier [than rebuilding the old organization]. I didn’t believe it was possible to change the existing association because most of the members themselves didn’t see any need for change. They were satisfied with what they had, with their own ways. Most of them saw photography as a hobby rather than a profession. Photography was for their own pleasure, a way of relaxing, without passion or determination. They didn’t expect to learn anything new about the art of photography except in terms of cameras and shooting techniques. That’s why the taste for ‘exhibition style’ photography lingers on among the members, despite it being such an indifferent approach.

When Khun Surat first began working in the Thai Photography Association, he was faced with the prejudices of those who preceded him. They whispered behind his back in the jealous Thai style that he wanted to use the association for his own glorification. Khun Surat was not disturbed by this, however. He just held to his objectives, ignoring the raucous chorus.

Khun Surat invested quite a few years in working with that association. Although he brought them fame and fortune, he eventually came to feel that he was wasting his energy. He was unable to change the attitudes or understanding of the committee or the members about the art of photography. Despite the fact that they were younger than him, they didn’t understand what he was trying to do. It was discouraging.. Still, he didn’t give up altogether. Leaving the Thai Photography Association, he set up the Photography Foundation of Thailand, an alternative to push forward with activities for Thai photography. (It may be too late for that now, however.)

Of course, Khun Surat collected a large fortune before entering the artworld. He had investments in properties and he made political investments (connections with politicians, public officials, businessmen and merchants) and social investments (in fame and respectability). Personally, he was a very open-minded person and far-seeing. He was friends with people in many circles with many varied political ideals and beliefs, both for and against the titled elite, some for capitalism, some for communism. Khun Surat accepted diversity and didn’t see it as an obstacle to developing the world of Thai photographic art. He wanted to bring it to a par with international circles. In order to develop, he said, ‘we must cooperate and push together.”

For this reason, Khun Surat quickly became the center of Thai photography circles when a big project like the ‘9 Days in the Kingdom’ book came up. It was to include 55 photographers contributing as part of the celebrations for His Majesty the King’s 80th birthday. For this project, 45 well-known photographers were invited from around the world, and 10 were selected from Thailand. Khun Surat was invited to chair the advisory committee of editors. This was acceptable to the famous Thai and foreign participants who agreed to take part.

The book included photographs which were surprising, even stunning – like the costumed backup chorus of country singers in the photo, ‘Uraiporn, Little Bird.’
In this picture, Khun Surat was able to capture an incredibly embellished atmosphere of sparkling and flashing costumes. We can almost hear the ecstatic shout of the young male fan who grasps a female singer’s hand. The images of the smooth, sexy legs of the chorus girls tear ones heart. The dancers wear tight-fitting costumes - their legs are not naked. But the camera angle, the light on the dancers, and the rhythm of movement – Khun Surat pressed the shutter so decisively – anyone who sees the picture will feel a chill in their heart.

We will miss Khun Surat Ostanukrau and he won’t be forgotten.

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