Yr. 61, Vol. 19, 24 – 30 January, 2014.
I had a chance to see the old photos of Saengchan Limlohakul in the form of black and white postcards printed up and sold in a little coffee shop on Talang Rd. The proprietor of the shop, Somchai Bamroongwong, a poet and writer, has a fascination with black and white photography.
There are pictures of the town of Phuket as well as Takua Pa in the old-time atmosphere, inviting and peaceful, of ancient white colonial buildings and roads with very few cars to be seen. Seeing the pictures of the city, one thinks of Havana, Cuba. Few people would imagine that 50 or 60 years ago, Phuket used to be like these pictures: a charming city where you might well want to settle down. Bae Saengchan recorded his own thought when he made these photos: “Photographs are important because, when someone clicks the shutter, you’re recording history there in the film.”
Phuket was lucky to have a crazy photographer, someone with vision like Bae* Saengchan Limlohakul (1924 – 1997), who recorded images of the city and the people’s way of life during his lifetime. We are lucky, too, that Somchai Bamroongwong has been there to collect and preserve this important heritage of historic film negatives, preventing them from being lost altogether. He had the chance to see Phuket during the period that it was changing from a city which was a center of lead mining and developing into a city which was a center of tourism in the Thai Andaman region.
(*Bae’ is a Chinese word for an elder uncle.)
I had a chance to chat with Somchai about the life and thought of Saengchan, a masterful photographer as yet not properly recognized in the history of Thai photography.
Manit: How did you meet Bae Saengchan?
Somchai: About 37 years ago, I came jogging at Suan Luang and I saw him doing ‘Thai kek’ fitness exercises with five or six of his friends. I waited at a nearby pavilion until they stopped to take a breather. When he stopped for a rest, I came over and respectfully introduced myself. I remembered that this was someone I used to see as a child. He liked to walk along the street taking photos. He was a very familiar sight: he carried his camera slung on his shoulder. I raised my hands to pay my respects and asked him if he was Bae Saengchan, the photographer, and he said he was. He asked if I was interested in taking pictures. I said I had a camera, but it was just a hobby for me. I thought about the pictures he must have taken and collected, so I asked him if he had kept them – the many he had taken. He said he had them at home, and if I was interested in seeing them, I could, absolutely! So, I asked for his telephone number and two days later, I called. He was available. He didn’t go out much in those days. His health wasn’t very good by that time. He had suffered some slight partial paralysis. Anyway, I went to see him and looked at the photos. They were postcard size and filled whole cabinets. Some of the rooms in his house were filled with old-fashioned showcases, all closed up. There was so much. I was utterly amazed and wanted to see all the photos. They were there, piled up in mounds. I could simply pick them up and look at them.
Manit: After you met, what did you learn about his life?
Somchai: As we chatted, he said that Saengchan knew himself very well. Saengchan didn’t like the idea of a desk job. He just knew he certainly couldn’t do it. So he had to find some way to avoid it. He liked to go out, to travel. He went to all the places that people like and don’t like to visit. For his own vocation, he said he decided to try being a freelance photographer. He said he would find out if he could provide for his wife and children with such a job. So he went traveling, following the crowds to public parks or to popular beaches. He would ask people, ‘Would you like your picture taken?’ And he would cite a price. Most people would agree. He said he didn’t realize that his camera would be so very important. You know, having a camera slung on your shoulder makes you look like a star. People seek you out! They ask you to take their picture! And that was his job. It was his career; he was able to support his wife and children just staying in his chosen line of work. He would go out in the morning and come back in the evening, bringing the film to be developed. He made a darkroom at home. In the morning he would make an appointment to send the work to his customer. That’s what he did.
Manit: Do you know where Saengchan studied photography?
Somchai: He started like this first. At that time, cameras were a novelty. If I remember correctly, at age 12, he bought a camera which he referred to as ‘a box camera’. It wasn’t very expensive, something a little more than 10 baht, second-hand. He photographed what he liked. He went picture-taking with friends as models, enjoying walks, and diving in the water along Rawai Beach. It turned out that the whole first roll of film was ruined, but he kept on taking pictures. Then his family was in some difficulty. He had to go looking for work in order to help his family. As for taking pictures, it was just plain fun for him. At first he was a helper in a shop repairing cars and other vehicles in the city. Then, someone invited him to work in Nakorn Sithammarat for a short time. He came back to work in a photography shop named ‘Dara Silp’. It was a three-story building at an intersection. The second floor was the Dara Silp studio. Saengchan was one of the employees. This was the beginning of his studies in taking photos. He worked at this shop. The shopkeeper ordered some texts and magazines about photographs from Hong Kong. He read the magazines, looked at them, and studied them.
Manit: So how did the negatives happen to come to you?
Somchai: Because I introduced myself to him. It must have been the right timing. He was just about ready to quit. His health was not good. That’s why he offered to sell his developing box to me while we were talking. I wanted to take a step up, so I said, ‘Bae, please don’t think badly of me, but would you sell this film to me?’ I felt rather nervous. He asked me what pictures I wanted. We were sitting in a room, chatting about what he had in a drawer, a box of negatives. I asked Bae to let me practice. I wanted to develop the negatives myself, at my home, because when I got a camera, I had also made my own developing lab. Saengchan seemed ready to part with them. He said I seemed more enthusiastic than anyone else! He didn’t refuse to sell the things to me. He even gave some of them to me outright. He said, ‘Take it! Take it!’ And he gave me more than I asked for.
Manit: From the negatives that you studied and collected from Bae Saengchan, I wonder if you could tell me what you see in these works?
Somchai: At first I didn’t think about them at all. I only thought that anyone who took this many pictures must have a lot of stories to tell. I like to look at things from the past. I like to know about what things used to be like before and to see how they have changed today. Something started here or there in the past. After looking at most of his work, I’d say that if Phuket didn’t have Bae Saengchan, the history of the town would be quite colorless. In all the long time that I lived in Phuket, I never met anyone who took pictures like him; he was called ‘crazy’ because everyone said that he took pictures ‘like crazy’!
Some people scolded him. ‘How can you support your wife and children, taking pictures like this? And you have your own developing studio?’ He told me that those people didn’t understand that the pictures he was taking would rise in value someday. As he explained, ‘Every time I push the shutter, that moment has become part of the past.’ That’s what he said, and those words really touched me deeply. They were really true. I hung out with him and I eventually felt he was a diamond that people overlooked. And Saengchan didn’t bother anyone. He was not a sociable person.
Manit: His approach to taking pictures and subjects was quite varied.
Somchai: You could say he took pictures of every conceivable subject. I mean, if we go by subject, he took pictures of everything from homes and streets to the lives of individuals, car crashes, fires, floods and temple fairs. Sometimes something strange would show up from Bangkok, and he’d be there to photograph it. You could say that there was almost nothing outside the scope of his concern. He was interested in it all and he photographed it all. He collected everything. Even when he went to see a movie, he would try to take pictures of it. It was a challenge to see how such photos would actually turn out. When television came along, Saengchan would take photos off the screen. He took photos like still lifes, findng some delight in almost anything that came up. He would take a beautiful vase with flowers and put a collection of objects beside it. He said that he had taken pictures of anything at all, but afterwards, he began studying from texts, I mean, setting the lighting and a bunch of other things from the texts that he took into consideration. At that time, Hong Kong was still using Chinese, and he was a fluent reader of Chinese, so he studied Chinese texts, too. He began to be a bit more artistic. He started controlling various aspects, setting things up. In later years, when he went out to photograph things, there had to be more involved in setting up the picture than in earlier days.
Manit: From 1947 till 1957, I see development in arranging the major elements in the photos. They present themselves in an order that makes sense.
Somchai: Yes, yes. Especially, he photographed figures – people- a woman in a bikini, for example, a two piece, you know. He would arrange the pose as he needed and choose what else would appear in the frame. A doll of some sort to cling to, or something like that. And lighting as well as other things like that. But he didn’t go as far as to buy more lighting equipment to use in his pictures. He didn’t have any. It was natural lighting, however much there was. He would set up his photos depending on the available light.
Manit: One subject he liked was women, right?
Somchai: Women – he liked photographing them. He would stick around nearby if there were beauty queens or stars around [Somchai laughs]. He went out on the town to those places where the women were to be found. Sometimes he went in only to take photos – he paid by the hour for their time. He had a friend, a close friend who was going to help him set something up – a helper of his, a protégé – in order to photograph the figure of a woman, more or less nude. Something like that.
Manit: I notice that the gestures or expressions of the women in the pictures are very relaxed. That is perhaps the charm of Bae Saengchan. Am I correct? When photographing a woman, was there a technique for helping the subject relax, to keep her from being self-conscious?
Somchai: I’m sorry I never went deeper into the matter and asked such questions. Bae Saengchan knew how to conduct himself, and he was quite good looking, actually. That must have made it easier for him to chat with women.
He was a good-natured person. Handsome [he laughs]. These things probably made it easier for him to work in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.