‘Pornsak Sakdaenprai,’ by Manit Sriwanichpoom in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly news magazine. Yr.59, Vol. 35, 18 – 24 May, 2012
In September 2011, I had a chance to have a meal with Boy Pisarn Pattanapiradej, a great actor of ferocious ability on stage who played ‘Make-det,’ or ‘Macbeth’ in the film ‘Shakespeare Must Die,’ which Samanrath Kanchanawanich directed and for which I was director of photography.
I told Boy that I was looking for photos by older, past generations of photographers in my project, ‘Seeking Thai Master Photographers,’ for the Kathmandu Gallery. I knew very well that off stage, Boy has held political office as deputy mayor of the city of Pimai. I thought he might know some provincial photographers in that city, or that he might be able to offer some recommendations.
“My own father,” Boy said in all sincerity. Go and see for yourself if his work is the kind of thing you are looking for.”
I thought he was joking, but when I grilled him about it, asking a lot of questions, I found he was serious. He wasn’t joking. So I made plans to visit to Boy’s father’s photography shop as quickly as possible, but because of the terrible floods I had to put those plans aside.
At the beginning of January 2012, I came to the front of the Pimai Historical Park. Directly opposite was the row-house where the photography shop was located. The Photo Studio Pornsilpa Express. It looked quite small at first, but the space was quite deep and decorated with a host of pictures in gold-colored frames -- images of people, monks and the chedis of the Pimai monument. There was a computer for touching up photos, souvenirs for sale, and bottles of water in the cooler to sell to tourists. In this photo shop there didn’t appear to be anything special at all.
Boy introduced me to his father, Kohngpop Pattanapiradej, and took us out for lunch, a chat and an interview.
“I was born in 1938 in Angthong. My Chinese name formerly was Meng Sae Eung. I changed my name to Pornsak, my surname to Sakdaenprai. Later, I opened a photo shop. Eventually, my children asked me to change my name once again, this time to Khongpop Pattanapiradej, because people in Pimai were more familiar with the surname.” Boy’s father, who looked younger than his age in his light green shirt. He began to tell his story.
This was one problem for Thai people in times past: they liked to change their names and surnames. This could become very confusing: people couldn’t remember each other. So I asked permission of Khun Khongpop if I could call him by his old name, Pornsak Sakdaenprai, because it was the name he used when he first started taking photographs. It was Pornsak whose photographic works very well reflect the country music influence in his work.
“I moved to live with my aunt (Mrs. Chaihuai Sae Jia) here in Pimai when I was 14 yrs old. She had opened a little retail grocery shop. When Chinese New Year would come round, people in her shop would go out celebrating. Then I would volunteer to help out in the shop.” At that time, they were using an Agfa-Click I camera purchased for 19 baht. He used 120 film size to take 8 pictures. He practiced on his own, reading textbooks to help him.
“When they opened the Friendship Highway, (about 1958) tourists began arriving. I took photos and printed pictures of the Pimai Chedi for sale. Aunt’s shop was opposite the Pimai site. When I heard the sound of busses coming, my friends and I would run out with photos for sale. I developed them in an upstairs space of the shop which we had turned into a darkroom. I developed pictures using sunlight.
"I pressed the film onto the paper. (The size of the pictures are equal to the size of the film.) At that time, I didn’t have any proper developing equipment.
“I opened my shop in 1959 when I was 21. I borrowed the first money from my aunt – 20,000 baht. I was still developing pictures by sunlight because we still didn’t have electricity. I used mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a table which I had turned into a film tray. After that, I bought a Yanmar generator to power two 500-candle light bulbs. At that time, I was charging eight baht for a dozen, two-inch size pictures.
“ The developing chemicals I ordered from the Snow White Store in Korat. If I had any questions, I would ask [Snow White]. At first, the pictures were not beautiful. I had no skill in touching up film. So, I decided to hire a Vietnamese technician from Udorn. These people were very skilled. In those days, all the photo shops had to use Vietnamese technicians to touch up their photos. We paid them 800 baht, a high salary than a policeman in those days.
“ I hired up to three people and things went very well. We even caught up with the older enterprises in the field like Wibulsilpa, which started in business before us,” K. Pornsak told us the background story with pride.
After lunch, K. Pornsak took us back to the shop to show us his old film. It was not the plastic acetate we are used to. It is Agfa Gevaert glass film which he kept very nicely in their own red box. On the box were written the relevant months and years. Unfortunately, the glass film from the earliest years of the shop’s activities couldn’t be found. K. Pornsak could only show us film from 1965 – 1967.
Just looking at this film briefly, I could see one clear aspect of the personality and style of K. Pornsak’s photo-taking. I saw the influence of record album cover photos of Thai country music singers in the era of Surapon Sombatcharoen. The influence was quite clear. Especially the images of men with smoothly combed, well-oiled hair, dressed in suits, showing one hand lifted and holding a cigarette.
“In those days, Surapol Sombatcharoen was famous. I knew a lot of those country music vocalists. When they were having a show in Pimai they would come by to pass the time at my shop. I had my friends dress up like one of these singers, and then I would take their picture and put it out in our shop window. The young men would see it and then ask to have their picture- ‘like that one’- taken.” Those happy times and bygone days were still radiant as K. Pornsak recalled them to us.
“Mostly, I was good at taking pictures of men, because I could pose them myself, set them just right" he said. "With women in those days I couldn’t take that liberty.”
When I turned over the glass images to see the other side, where the body of the film was visible, I could see traces of the touching up process on the faces of every model. There was not a single image that had not been touched up.
K. Pornsak explained that, “For the most part, the customers who came to have their photos taken in those days came from farms. Their faces were very dark, burned by the sun. We had to help pretty them up. For example, some people had very thin eyelashes or lacked strong eyebrows. So we had them dress up and strike a pose with dignity. They wouldn’t have looked very good in a photo otherwise.”
“The monks, too?” My question was a bit bold. There were a number of images of monks in full clerical robes. When they took off their robes, they then put on suits instead.
“Oh, that! The monks came in to take photos to hand out to pious Buddhist laywomen. We had to cover their shaved heads with properly styled hair. They used to like to have these sorts of photos.” The master photographer shared with us these anecdotes of old Pimai society.
I asked K. Pornsak if I could borrow 70 pieces of the glass film to take back to Bangkok to try to develop and enlarge these film images. What I saw before me were works which reflected an era, which reflected very well a provincial world and the taste of the people of Pimai in clothing, facial expression and makeup, and hair styles. Images of Thai country music vocalists served to express the people’s longing to define themselves. Young men from the paddy fields and rustic gardens of that era came in together to have their pictures taken at ‘Pornsilpa,’ their hair well oiled with Brylcreem and sleekly combed. Without the slightest objection or offense, they all wear the same shirt, suit, and tie, the same wristwatch. Their fingers all grip a cigarette with the same gesture in order to be handsome and stylish like the country music singers they idolize. Such was the enthusiastic crowd flowing along in the style and fashion of the day.
After World War II, the progress of radio communications technology allowed Thai country music singers to be heard in much wider circles throughout the countryside. The content of this music reflected the lives and struggles, the frustration and anger and the sense of deprivation of the rural poor, the paddy farmers and vegetable and fruit gardeners, the people who are the majority of the nation’s population. These singers were their idols. Young men and women in those days took them as models to emulate in their hearts and their lives.
Besides the individual portrait photos which mirror the gestures and look of Thai country music singers, there were group photos of two or three persons. These express their directness and simplicity in a manner which can be described without reservation as ‘homey’. Perhaps by means of the very simple technique used to take the photos. The photos are direct, the illumination rather hard from an ordinary light bulb. Only two backdrops were available to choose. One was a plain red curtain; the other was a painted urban street scene in which blocks of the latest concrete architecture are clearly visible.
If anyone is interested in issues of national types or anthropology, the works of K. Pornsak are the most interesting evidence. We can see clearly very ancient Cambodian features in these Pimai people. The distinctive local characteristics are undiluted by intermarriage with other groups. Compare these with the photos of the same period by Lieung Eiu (1911 – 1992), a photographer in Phuket, where it is clear that there has been a lot of immigration. People have arrived in Phuket from many foreign lands, many nations, with different languages and different physical trait during the boom years of the island mining town.
So if we want to define the photographic style of Porsak Sakdaenprai, we would say it is ‘Thai country music singer’ style. That wouldn’t be far wrong.