Saturday, December 17, 2011

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘M.L. Toi Chumsai’
In the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News
Yr. 59, Vol. 11, 2 – 8 Dec. 2011

            I had heard of the reputation of M.L.Toi Chumsai (1906 – 1961) for a long time in his capacity as Thailand’s first photographer of nudes - although there is still no [absolute] evidence that proves he was in fact the first.  But nude guru Niwat Kongpien has dared to say M.L. really was the first (in Niwat’s view at any rate),  because [M.L.Toi’s] works emphasize the artistic aspect. They weren’t like the vulgar images of naked women appearing in shady porn magazines.  And he was the first to create a system for photographer’s nude women models in our country.

            In any case, when it came right down to it, I wasn’t able to find any examples of the works of M.L.Toi to see anywhere – not even in the collection of nude pictures of nude guru Niwat.  He didn’t have any! By good luck, M.L.Toi’s nephew, Sihabutr Chumsai na Ayudthya, has a company which makes movie advertising.  The place is located just opposite the house of Aphisit Vechachiwa on Sukhumwit Soi 31. So I just parked my car there and went inside to make inquiries.

            Though I had never met K. Sihabutr face to face, this famous director for film advertising was really very helpful.  He graciously allowed me a leisurely look though eight large photo albums of his grandfather’s works.

            Those yellowed old albums, sealed with great care, held black and white, 8” x 10” photos of female nudes.  With the passage of 50 to 60 years, the glue that held the photos in place had lost its holding strength.  As each page was turned, the pictures slipped off the paper. They were ‘nude images of the past’ long preserved in silence since their owner left this world in August of 1961.

            There were 112 old photos of nudes. The images were yellowed and tea colored.  In some of them, the silver salt ( เกลือเงิน) had come forward, glittering. These were the last pictures, the only remaining set.  The original film negatives were beyond hoping for: they would be long gone.  Even it they still existed, they would be peeling and running, disintegrating in the constant heat and humidity.

           According to Singh Sanamluang and Niwat Kongpien, M.L.Toi Chumsai  was born on 28 January, 1906.  He studied at Dhepsirin school in the same class as Kularb Sai-Pradit (Sriburapa), Sodt Kuramalohidt and  close to Chote Praepan , whose pen name was Yakob (Jacob).  In the end, M.L.Toi graduated from an advanced agricultural school in Bang Sapan district of Prachuab Kirikun.  He used the pseudonyms Khun Aree and Noi Apirum.

            M.L. Toi entered politics as a two term representative from Prachuab Kirikun, from1938 – 1942.  After the coup by Field Marshall Plaek Pibulsongkram, he began working as a building contractor and doing business in the North and South.

            In terms of art, besides being a very accomplished writer, he also designed book covers, created illustrations, and did interior decoration and architectural design.  He studied photography on his own – especially taking photos of nudes – which he began to work at seriously after the Second World War. (From an interview with M.L.Toi’s son, Sisak Chumsai na Ayudthya.)

            M.L. Toi even built his ‘Rock Cottage’ on land he owned at Bang Lamung (Pattaya) to use exclusively as a photography studio.  The roof was designed to be open enough to let in plenty of light for the photographer’s work.

            He invested a great deal of time and energy to create works of art which were sometimes well received and sometimes badly criticized. His nude photos stood right on the borderline of society’s delicate moral code.  Either he must have been very brave to do this, or plain crazy.  Just think back to that period when Thai society was being re-engineered, when the country came under the dictatorial direction of Field Marshall Pibulsongkram.  According to the policies of that time, men, women, children and community leaders were all comport themselves in a manner befitting ‘civilized’ people. For example, people were supposed to wear hats when they left their houses. And the men were to kiss their wives before heading off to work.

            Because he had the title ‘M.L.’ (Mom Luang) before his name, the criticism he endured about impropriety was far more vociferous than for a commoner with no courtly connections.  But M.L. Toi didn’t back down. Rather, he was determined and confident in his ideas.  He retorted to his critics with the immortal words [very roughly translated]: ‘Hey! These are not pictures of naked women. They’re photos of nudes! There’s a difference!’

            If you separate M.L.Toi’s 112 photos of nude models roughly into groups by content, you get the following:

                        Nudes in Traditional Thai Life

            M.L.Toi sometimes had his models dress as country people – like farmers or gardeners of the Central Plain or Isarn.  The photographer was very polite.  He simply asked the model to unbutton her blouse all the way. He chose designs of ladies’ blouses which would reveal their breasts, white as peeled eggs. [Looking at these pictures] was like sneaking a peak at the breasts of a young village girl.

            The most beautiful in this series is a picture of a model who pulls up her sarong to cover her right breast, even as she lays bare her left breast to the bright noonday sun.  The young woman, her anxious eyes darkly expressive, leans against a coconut tree in the middle of a field.

                        Nudes in Modern Thai Life

            Sisukdi, the photographer’s son, said in an interview that his father’s models were ‘well-educated persons, and very nice.  Some of them knew each other.  They lived near to each other and talked together.  Dad invited them to come and be photographed this way.’

            So, it’s not strange that in many of the photos, the models are pretty.  Their skin is white and clean-looking, not the dark skin of country women who work in the fields.  The young women [in M.L.Toi’s photos] dress attractively, in the fashions of the era.  They simply wear their clothing more ‘transparently’ or open it a bit to allow us to peep through, and making the viewer’s heart beat faster.

            The outstanding image in this series is without peer.  The model lies listlessly in a large drain pipe on a sandy beach.  I don’t know what M.L.Toi was thinking, so I asked the model from the series with women in shorts and nude from the waist up.  The model had climbed in to lie in one of the abandoned water mains which would become part of a road being constructed.  In the picture, the model’s hand reaches up and gently takes hold of the curving rim.  Her two legs extend out of the main. The photo is taken from a low angle, making it appear that the pipe has the woman within its grasp. The background is an empty white sky which merges with the vacant expression on the model’s face.  The picture looks silent and strangely lonely.

            And we cannot fail to take note of the picture of the nude young woman in short torn jeans who stands, holding onto the railing of a porch.  The low camera angle lifts the woman’s bare breasts like a great cliff.  With her tense and serious expression, she looks incredibly vigorous and robust, full of power.  This is an aspect of grace and beauty in a woman’s body that M.L.Toi Chumsai wants to celebrate.

                        Nudes in the context of Nature

            M.L.Toi liked very much to photograph his women models in nature – sometimes on the beach being splashed by the waves or on rocky hillocks in untamed forests. His approach to posing his models was classic, placing emphasis on the whole length of the model’s body.  Nothing would be put into the picture which obscured that central form, seen reclining sadly on a rocky slope or at play in the sea.

                        Abstract photos of Nudes

            I have no information for certain about how or even if M.L. Toi was influenced by photos of nudes made by whites. I only know that he read photography texts by white authors, and such books would certainly have examples and illustrations.  In any case, there are pictures which are studies of light and shadow on the unclothed body. The pictures by the modern American photographer, Edward Weston (1888 – 1958) put the camera angle at a close range. Sometimes he cropped the face of the model from the image in order to emphasize the physical body and the beauty of the figure, the abstract loveliness of line and volume.

                        Nudes of the Surreal and Dreams

            One image shows a nude model with a great rope wound around her body as if she were a mermaid pulled up from the sea, lying unconscious on the beach.  This is M.L.Toi’s beautifully crafted fantasy.  Any way you look at it, this picture is absolutely stellar – timeless - unlike most of the other pictures in this series.  When times change, people’s tastes change.  People become bored with some things, for example, like nude models photographed in studios with white backdrops; or models awkwardly posed with items on a set: a model pretending to be someone gathering firewood or a vender of sweets in coconut milk. Or a model presented as a worker on a building site.  Such pictures are either innocuous or funny.

            It’s interesting that when M.L. Toi Chumsai was still living and fully devoted to producing images of nudes, his works were seldom disseminated through reprinting in the media.  I tried looking through old issues of the magazine ‘Chao Krung’(ชาวกรุง) from 1952 – 1960 when M.R Kukrit Pramote was the owner.  Wilat Maniwat and Nopporn Boonyarit were both editors, respectively.  And it turns out that the nude photos by M.L. Toi under the pseudonym Noi Apiroom were printed only three times…only three pictures.  Those pictures were only slightly revealing. So! What can you do with that?

            “…As far as we know, this will be work for the Red Cross
             and father will open a stall in that area.  People will be asked
             to buy tickets which will be the price they must pay if they want
             to take a look.  And there will be photography books passed out.
             Sometimes a model will be brought out for the audiences to sketch.
             All the income my father gets he will donate to the Red Cross.”
             Sisak Chumsai na Ayudthya in an interview by Thevirat for the
             magazine Executive,1980.

In any case, afterwards the nude photographs which were the work of M.L.Toi Chumsai became prototypes and influenced the works of later professional or pictorial Thai photographers. But this influence has been long forgotten by now.

No comments: