Monday, March 28, 2011

Manit Sriwanichpoom on ‘S.H.Lim’

Manit Sriwanichpoom on ‘S.H.Lim,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News magazine, Yr. 58, Vol. 26, 18 – 24 March, 2011.

Midday sun, blasting heat, and the crowding of salaried people shopping in Soi Lalaisap (Soi 5 Silom).
It is a road least made for walking, for those who hate shopping. I pulled out the name-card and read it again awkwardly in the middle of the packed, pushing, shoving crowd around me.

On the very plain square of paper, the words said, Siam Colour Slide Club, Vivat Pitayaviriyakul, S.H.Lim
– this name in Chinese characters – Honorary Advisor, Thai Artist in Photography Award, 2005. And on the last line, 403/16. This was the number of the rowhouse I was looking for.

Racks of cheap clothing obscured the house numbers. It was necessary to ask the vendors at each stall in order to find the house I was seeking.

“Is this the house of Khun Vivat? I have an appointment with him [‘elder uncle’].”

The lady vendor, who had smiled, thinking I was going to bargain for a better price for some clothing, showed her disappointment. She indicated with a scowl the room on the other side of the tea-colored glass windows.

“Wait. He’s not back yet,” a middle-aged woman inside told me in an indifferent voice.
Before long, elder uncle returned from having lunch with friends.

“How shall I properly address elder uncle, sir? Vivat or S.H. Lim?” I asked straightaway, because his name-card had both names.

“S.H. Lim is better,” came the reply. “No one knows me by the name Vivat.”

Neither the Thai nor the Chinese name would have any meaning at all for me if I hadn’t had a chance to see elder uncle’s work in the 50th year Anniversary Show of the Thai Photography Association in 2010.
In that exhibition, elder uncle presented four color photos of the beauty queen, Apantri Prayudseni, wearing a red Thai costume standing conspicuously before a black Khmer sculpture of Phra Narai. These pictures reflect the skill of the photographer very well – from lighting, setting the pose of the model and choosing the camera angle. I wanted to get to know elder uncle because I was surprised how a senior photographer as masterful as this had escaped my awareness.

Many boxes of photos, enlarged to 20” x 24”, were stacked under the stairway, filling and over-flowing the space, spilling out into the parlor. I brushed the dust off and carefully picked up each photo to examine and select for a show at the Katmandu Photo Gallery. As I looked, I asked him about the history of his career as a photographer.

S.H.Lim was an ethnic Hailum-Chinese born in Bangkok in 1930. His father worked for Shell Oil Co
. When the Second World War broke out, the family moved to Singapore for about 8 years, before coming back to Thailand for good. While in Singapore, when he was about 18 years old, he began to take an interest in photography. He used his father’s camera, an Alfa 6 x 9, which used a medium film size of about 120. It could be said that S.H.Lim studied photography on his own – that he was self-taught - learning by trial and error and depending on advice from the photo shops he knew.

In 1960, S.H. Lim began to work as a photographer in earnest by taking pictures of pretty girls and beauty queens to sell to leading magazines of the time such as Bangkok Weekly, Sakunthai and Ploenchit. The pictures were printed on the covers of the magazines. He was paid 150 baht per cover in an era when a bowl of noodles cost two baht. Hence the payment can be considered good enough.

In any case, a photographer had to have his own equipment (big cameras – 4x5, and medium size ones – 6x6, which were expensive). And he had to find his own models. The publishing houses had nothing to do with this end of things. After he had sold cover photos to Bangkok Weekly magazine for quite a while, the publishers hired him as permanent staff. They divided the photo credits between S.H.Lim and Smart Photo, which was Lim’s photo shop next to Wat Kaeck, on Silom road.

S.H. Lim agreed immediately that he liked to photograph people most of all, and especially beautiful women. Not surprisingly, most of the photos were of women seen as ‘beautiful’ in Thai society. At that time, some of the great beauties were Appasara Hongsakul, Petchara Chaowarat, Pitsamai Wilaisak, Aranya Namwongse, Orasu Isarangkul na Ayuthya, Pusadee Anakmontri and Saengdeurn Manwongse, and the sex symbols from bygone days - Pariya Roongreung, Prim Prapaporn, Sirikwan Nantasiri and Christine Leung.

Although life outside that row-house was swarming and confusing, time was standing still for the dusty photographs in this room. Time had not moved, had not disappeared or gone anywhere. It was just waiting for someone to come and meet it again. Even though the photos of S.H.Lim were not news-photos, his pictures of fashions and starlets still reflect that era very well and the changes which took place in Thai society between 1959 and 1977.

We see the letting go, the expression of sexual freedom in the black and white photo, Bikini Top, by Preeya Roongreuang na Kohlan, Pattaya 1967. Instead of setting things on fire by presenting the whole rack as the whites like to do, Preeya took the bra and asked the young photographer S.H.Lim to hang it up before the camera. Preeya sits with her naked back straight, tiny waisted and pertly confident. There is no suggestion of bashfulness. Rather, she turns her face slightly towards the left so we can see the side of her face, her cheek, her eyelashes. On her head is the photographer’s own smart black hat, which invites the viewers to use their imagination as freely as they choose.

(An art news reporter made an observation about the bra-less Preeya, noting that the photo looked quite modern and ahead of its time. This also seems to suggest that Thai government censors in those days were much more open-minded. The official censorship practiced nowadays looks extremely out of step with the modern world.)

Another work which I would call ‘extraordinarily liberated’ is a black and white photo in which Orasah Isarankul na Ayuthya wears a bikini and leaps high, floating between palm branches at Pattaya. She smiles broadly, thrust aloft in a charming pose, mid-air. The image communicates very well the pleasure of the model. Khun Orasa had only recently graduated from her modern dance studies, which in those days was an extremely progressive path to take, pushing tradition aside.

Pusadee Anakamontree (Wongkhamhaeng) in a black and white photo strikes a colorful pose wearing a swimsuit
and holding a gun like a femme fatale in the James Bond movies which were only just then, in 1967, beginning to appear in Thailand. I

In another picture, she wears a one-piece swimsuit and sits boldly alone at the end of a swimming-pool diving board, allowing a hoard of young male photographers from the Photographer’s Association to take her picture. They crowd around in swarms, shutters clicking happily. S.H. Lim’s photo shows the crowd of photographers all dressed in suits, contrasting the scantily clad model. The picture is both amusing and thought-provoking.

It’s difficult to deny, even as it was unintended, that S.H. Lim’s photos of fashion stars evoke no little atmosphere of nostalgia. What is the past in these pictures except clothing, faces, hairstyles, the expressions on the faces of the models? All are characteristic of their era. Note that the faces are typically fresh and smiling brightly, innocent and guileless. They make no attempt to put on a ‘sexy’ face with pouting lips as we see in models nowadays.

The naiveté of these fashion models of our mother or grandmother’s day reflect the market before it became so bloodthirsty and insanely competitive, and which eventually replaced the pictures of S.H.Lim.
He always pleases and puts a smile on the faces of his audience. I say this not to disparage sexy looks or even the sale of sex on magazine covers. But applying he brakes or stopping to think these things over from time to time is also good. One sees that it is not necessary always to look at women that way [i.e. as sex objects] all the time.

There were eleven 8x10 personal pictures which S.H.Lim took together with some of these famous starlets – women like Petchara Chaowarat, Pawana Chanajitr, and many others. These photos reflect and show the good relationships between the photographer and the model. Perhaps because S.H. Lim is a rather small man, very slim, handsome, and clean cut - not at all threatening. He looks trustworthy, which was probably something that helped him as a photographer working with women models. It was helpful and made things go more smoothly, more easily and comfortably.

His personal habits as well were appropriate to the work. He was a man of few words, modest and self-effacing, always characterizing himself as a poor, penniless photographer who could not hope to turn the head of any starlet or young beauty queen. So these [photographer-subject] relationships always remained platonic.

Today, that little photographer is 81 years old.
He was asked by an art news reporter who wanted to know what elder uncle Lim was doing with himself nowadays.

“Nowadays, photography is just a hobby for me.” S.H.Lim replies, smiling like a kid ready to show off as he reaches for his digital Ricoh camera. As they say, when you have reached the heights, you find yourself back at normality.

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