Vivian Maier in Thailand

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I’m a great fan of the Chicago-based street photographer Vivian Maier. Her considerable body of photographic work – in black and white, in colour, in movie format – is still seeing the light of day. John Maloof, who almost by happenstance discovered her archive, makes new finds every day. Maier worked as a nanny for a number of families in Chicago. While her photos show the influence of the ambient photographic styles of the day, as you would expect, the best of her work rivals the greats. She was particularly good photographing children and the downtrodden. Her photos remind us of the underside of American prosperity, always salutary, especially in an election year.

June 5, 1959, Thailand

Though she remained mostly in Chicago and New York, she did travel to India, Puerto Rico, Canada, Yemen, Thailand, Vietnam, Egypt, and throughout Europe. In June 1959 she was in Thailand. Mayer kept everything meticulously filed it, so one day a full account of her travels with a camera will emerge. Meanwhile we have these three photos she took in Thailand, which caught my eye. I’m relying on my friends in Bangkok to identify the above temple scene. The soaring stupas are under a rainy-season sky, and John Maloof gives the date of June 5, 1959. The composition and contrast in shade are lovely, the temple dog almost camouflaged by the undergrowth. It’s a scene of decay and renewal.

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The self-portrait with Rolliflex could have been taken anywhere in Bangkok, but it has the look of New Road or perhaps around Hua Lampong train station. It may not even have been taken in Bangkok. A group of schoolgirls in the background could be from any decade – the uniform length hasn’t changed. Vivian is protected from the July heat by her trademark floppy hat. The wavering reflection in the mirror shows a traffic police podium and a street crossing. I like in particular the way the underside of the galvanise awning creates a crazy cross-hatching, echoed by the chaotic wiring above the street. It’s a hot, dusty, bleached Thai street scene, not too different from when I first saw the country in 1983.

June 5, 1959, Thailand

This lovely portrait shot of two children is also dated June 5 1959, so perhaps it was taken in the precinct of the same temple. The white paste on the little girls’ faces and shoulders is part of a religious ritual, a sign of protection to ward off evil – perhaps even the evil eye.

June 27, 1959, Asia

Another fine composition here in this portrait of the boatman, probably taken with the Rolliflex on her knee, so the rowing man is not particularly aware the shot is being taken. It’s dated June 27, 1959, somewhere in Asia. A further photo seems to be to have been taken in Malaysia or Indonesia, again on June 27 1959.

June 27, 1959, Asia

If you’re new to the work of Vivian Maier, go have a browse at John Maloof’s Vivian Maier site. The documentary about her is also excellent, and a trailer for it is here on YouTube. An example of one of her home movies is here, also on YouTube. You can also find my July 2014, much fuller post on Vivian Maier here.

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Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography

A fisherman at Bangtao, Phuket, circa 1962. Photo by Saengjun Limlohakul.

A fisherman at Bangtao, Phuket, circa 1962. Photo by Saengjun Limlohakul.

I missed the exhibition of Thai photographs on which this excellent book is based. They were on show at the Bangkok University Gallery in September 2015. The accompanying catalogue is the work of celebrated Thai photographer and owner of Kathmandu Photo Gallery on Pan Road off Silom, Manit Sriwanichpoom. Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography comprises a selection from seven neglected photographers, all male, quite a few of Chinese origin, operating in Thailand mostly during the 1950s and ’60s. Many of the reproductions are from glass negatives or vintage prints, the original negatives having been lost or wasted away. In the case of the monk photographer Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, this decay both of print and negative has been incorporated as an aspect of the work: all things must pass. Each of the seven photographers gets a mini-essay by Manit, introducing the geographical, technical and social contexts of their work, but also the circumstances of the photographer’s re-discovery. This re-discovery is in itself fascinating because it points to the fragility of the photographic art in a tropical climate, but also to questions of historiography, of whose culture to preserve. In a culture which sees things very much in a hierarchy from the top down, it is good to pay attention to the grass roots.

S. H. Lim's portrait of Phusadee Anukkhamontri in Bong girl mode, circa 1967

S. H. Lim’s portrait of Phusadee Anukkhamontri in Bong girl mode, circa 1967

All over Bangkok and throughout the Kingdom the visitor will see photographs of His Majesty the King with a camera. He has been a recorder of his realm’s many changes since the Second World War. One day a curated selection of his photographs will see the light of day. Photography in Thailand, as so much else, has until recently followed the royal narrative. Last year the National Gallery in Bangkok hosted an exhibition of John Thomson’s photographs of Siam dating from 1865-66, taken under the reign of King Mongkut. The court of King Chulalongkorn at the end of the nineteenth century disseminated the recording art. Photography in Thailand, therefore, is already a century and a half old. But how much of this filtered down? And how much has been lost by neglect and the ravages of climate?

H.M. the King of Thailand's custom-made gold plated Leica.

H.M. the King of Thailand’s custom-made gold plated Leica.

What is refreshing about Manit Sriwanichpoom’s approach is that it is provincial in the best sense of the term, and varied in scope. His photographers hail from Phuket, Phimai and Bangkok, emerging from provincial Chinese-Thai photography studios, from a shed in the garden, from the proverbial drawer. One is a minor princeling, another a revered monk, still others were working in photo-journalism and the lubricious world of post-war nudity. It’s a mixed bag, but an interesting bag from the point of view of Thai sociology.

Sociology is all over this book. Tracking down photographer Liang Ewe (1911-1992), Mani mentions Phuket’s tin mining industry:

… the collection of photographs from Liang Ewe’s working lifetime (1932-1987) has now become a cultural trove of immeasurable value, both as treasures of art and as social document. This period coincided with the tin-mining boom reaching its height and then declining, in parallel with Liang Ewe’s retirement as Phuket closed its last mines in 1992-93.

Liang Ewe, Phuket woman in Baba-Peranakan style clothing, no date given.

Liang Ewe, Phuket woman in Baba-Peranakan style clothing, glass negative, 1959.

Liang Ewe was born Aree Khorchareon on Phuket, of Chinese Hokkian parents, and educated in Penang. The name change and the mixed cultural heritage point to the wonderful peninsular diversity of this book and of Phuket itself. Self-taught, he became a portrait photographer, therefore capturing the class aspirations of his sitters. “Local girls during the tin boom,” could almost be a song lyric. Ewe’s portraits show a diverse cross-section of Phuket society:

If the photo showed a man wearing a Chinese tunic, a Muslim headdress or a Sikh’s turban it does not mean he wasn’t a Phuket native; the island had seen a thriving mining industry for over a hundred years, and seekers of its fortunes have not only been local Thai people but those of various nationalities.

Liang Ewe, Phuket woman, 1955.

Liang Ewe, Phuket woman, 1955.

Ewe’s abandoned studio is still there in Phuket, “worn down by the tide of time,” as Manip puts it. He moots the idea of preserving the space for posterity as a “living museum”. Documenting the trove of photos stretching back decades, waiting to be brought to light, is a labour of love.  Meanwhile, the glass negatives are beginning to be scattered and the studio is gathering dust. Unless there is grassroots interest and government or private intervention, this aspect of Phuket’s artistic and cultural heritage will fritter away in the tropical sun.

Photo by Rong Wong-Savun, The Memorial Bridge, circa 1958, Bangkok.

Photo by Rong Wong-Savun, The Memorial Bridge, circa 1958, Bangkok.

One of the discoveries for me in this book is the work of Rong Wong-Savun, whose eye, as MR Kukrit Pramoj said, “takes photographs with a Westerner’s mind”. In the above photograph of the Memorial Bridge it is the density of incident, light and shade which is appealing. The upward thrust of the bridge, the bamboo poles and the smoking chimneys on the Thonburi side, seems to express the crisp preparedness of the pedestrians. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s line about Londoners crossing Westminster Bridge: “Who would have thought that death had undone so many?” In 1957-8 Thailand was in the throes of yet another dictatorship. Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram’s time in office had come to an end and Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat was waiting in the wings with the usual musical chairs of goons, politicians and ex-military filling in the gaps. It is an optimistic picture from this unassuming photographer who seemed to have learned not to look at things straight on, but from an angle.

 

Only a few people knew that before my father became an author, he was a professional photographer who dreamt of becoming an architect. Although some time would pass until he became a writer, he would always have his camera beside him every time he was on a trip. He would bring the camera with him wherever he went, taking photos, together with writing in some journals. This set of photographs is pictures of Rama I Bridge after a renovation in 1957. I believe my father intended to capture the atmosphere of people who had gathered to see the bridge after it had been restored. I cannot assume what my father really wanted to communicate from these pictures but I do believe these can convey the story of an event from the past to the present. The photos act as a ‘bridge’, connecting both eras for today’s Thai people to understand the past of this big city called ‘Bangkok’. (Saroengrong Wong-Savun, the photographer’s son)

The Bridge, circa 1958, by Rong Wong-Savun

The Bridge, circa 1958, by Rong Wong-Savun

Long Wong-Savun was educated, as his 2009 obituary in The Guardian put it, “at the elite Triam Udom Suksa school in Bangkok. Despite demonstrating literary promise, he was expelled after an altercation with a teacher and was obliged to seek employment, including spells as a ship’s helmsman, log yard supervisor and model.” His photographic work was overtaken by his work as a writer, and he became national artist in the field of literature in 1995. His chiding critique of Thai society often took the form of satire and noir, and he was both prolific and a cult figure on the literary scene. The Guardian obituary again:

In the early 1960s – against a backdrop of repressive military rule, rapid economic expansion under the umbrella of American anti-communist influence, and profound social transformation, including urbanisation and the first signs of the emergence of an educated middle class – he produced several ground-breaking novels. Sanim Soi (1961) addressed prostitution, a particularly sensitive area associated with poverty and neglect. Concealed beneath an artificial edifice of public morality are the “paid women” who service the sexual needs of society. In the days before Aids, this was the first Thai book to address sexually transmitted infection. Bang Lampoo Square (1963), named after the inner-city Bangkok district, was a semi-autobiographical account of a school dropout living among petty criminals on society’s edge.

Pornsak Sakdaenprai's country music-style portraits from 1965.

Pornsak Sakdaenprai’s country music-style portraits from 1965.

Pornsak Sakdaenprai is from Pimai, a northeastern town with the remains of a famous Khmer temple compound testifying to its position between two cultures: Khmer and Thai. His sitters have the lick and spittle of country and western stars, the negatives touched up to give them an upwardly-mobile sheen. Motorcycles, cigarette, a cowboy slouch and a Brylcreemed quiff are the appurtenances of this luk thung look. Luk thung is Thai country music. Like Liang Ewe, Pornsak originally had a Chinese name. He started taking photos at fourteen and selling them to passing tourists visiting the Phimai temple.

I opened the studio in 1959 when I was twenty-one by borrowing 20,000 Baht from my aunt. There was no electricity here then, so at first we made prints from sunlight. We’d use a mirror to reflect light into a drawer (in which the paper is affixed, to be pulled in and out of the desk to control exposure]… The chemicals for the developing process came from the Snow White shop in Korat. When i didn’t understand something I would go and ask them.

Slouching towards Korat: Pornsak Sakdaenprai's country people in 1965

Slouching towards Korat: Pornsak Sakdaenprai’s country people in 1965

He worked with Agfa Gevaert glass plates, employed Vietnamese technicians to do the retouching, and posed his country folk in front of a Western-style painted city backdrop. The glossy results have a vintage kitsch quality which is very appealing.

Most of the customers who came in those days worked in the fields; their faces were dark, their skin burnt by the sun. We had to help make them look good. For example, some people didn’t have eyebrows and eyelashes, so we added them. If we didn’t do anything they wouldn’t be presentable.

Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography is a fine selection of the work of these neglected photographers and of the fleeting time they captured. The book is available in Bangkok bookshops and at Kathmandu Photo Gallery in Bangkok.

Photo by Mom Luang Toy Xoomsai (1906-1961), circa 1946-1961.

Photo by Mom Luang Toy Xoomsai (1906-1961), circa 1946-1961.

Trieste of the mind: Saba, Svevo & Joyce

 

It’s a strange hemmed-in corner of the world, north of the Istrian peninsula and east of Venice. For any well-read Irishman, Trieste is associated with James Joyce, who spent the years 1905-1914 there, writing Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Exiles (1918) and the early drafts of Ulysses (1922). I’d read about Trieste in countless books before I got around to visiting the place in October last year. Italo Svevo is its homegrown novelist and Umberto Saba one of the top three Italian poets of the twentieth century. Both writers celebrate Trieste’s cultural and sexual landscape as a port city at the edge of other peoples’ empires: Roman, Austro-Hungarian, Slavic, with a Jewish admixture. This was perhaps what the Dubliner Joyce saw in it too. All three writers found Trieste a lustful place.

The port of Trieste in 1885

The port of Trieste in 1885

Umberto Saba in Ernesto (1975), an unfinished novel about growing up in Trieste, describes the city at the turn into the twentieth century:

The city was spreading in all directions: old, shabby houses which Ernesto remembered from his childhood walks and had always assumed would stand forever, were being knocked down for new building. A factory chimney poured out thick smoke, blackening the surrounding air, and workers were already streaming out of the factories, their food boxes under their arms. All comrades, all socialists, thought Ernesto, wanting to be one of them.

Umberto Saba climbing the steps of the via Ciamician in Trieste, 1953 (Montadori)

Umberto Saba climbing the steps of the via Ciamician in Trieste, 1953 (Montadori)

Saba’s Ernesto is an account of a sixteen-year-old’s sexual awakening, at first with a labourer, then with a port prostitute. Ernesto has good Italian and handles the business correspondence, working in a depot as a clerk. He supervises the unloading of flour sacks by the stevedore who awakens him. Saba’s description of their sexual relationship is tender but realistic, a recollection of an encounter in his own youth. It is a meeting of classes, of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as much as an account of lust. “He heard the man softly asking him to shift position, and did so as if it was an order. All at once he thought I’m lost, but there was no regret, no wish to turn back.”

Salvatore Samperi's 1980 production of Ernesto with Martin Halm in the title role

Salvatore Samperi’s 1980 production of Ernesto

What Saba captures so well is Mediterranean lust. The coupling takes place during the long southern lunch hour. Drays are tethered, the sound of cutlery tinkles from open windows. Saba’s sex in the afternoon occurs on flour bags piled high, one of which gets stained over and over. The author understands the peculiar boredom of old-style office drudgery: scrivening before computers jazzed it up. The nameless stevedore has a kind of Oliver Reed earthiness, reminding me of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Go Between. A modern sensibility would see Ernesto as a story about power and exploitation, but that would be to miss the point. The lover is a rapidly ageing labourer on daily hire, rough-hewn but with the gentleness of the old inverts, the sexual outsiders: a working class queer.

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When Saba wasn’t writing, he ran an antiquarian bookshop in Trieste, which can be visited on Via S. Nicolò. He was a poet from a part-Jewish background. Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba (2008) sprinkles poems about boys among those about women and place. Together with Ungaretti and Montale, Saba is counted among the twentieth century’s greatest Italian poets.

Before the First World War Trieste had a complicated ethnic, linguistic and national mix. Italian was the language of the intelligentsia. Slavs (Slovenes) had their own newspaper, cafés and theatres. The German of Vienna was associated with officialdom and the upper echelons. There was a sizeable Jewish community. Saba describes the Caffè del Tergesteo, still doing business, frequented by Joyce and Svevo:

It was a rather genteel cafe, popular with rich businessmen, nearly all of them old men and some from faraway Turkey, wearing red fez hats like the people in The Arabian Nights.

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Italo Svevo (Aron Ettore Schmitz, 1861-1928), like Saba, issued from Trieste’s Jewish community. His name literally means “Italian Swabian”, testifying to the cosmopolitan Triestine culture he brought to life in his novels. It was Joyce who championed him and who re-discovered his talents as a writer. In As a Man Grows Older (1898) we are in the doldrums of middle age, among boulevardiers chasing infidelities in a seaside town. Svevo describes the port of Trieste in all its turn-of-the-century glory:

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Afternoon light at Poreč on the Istrian peninsula. © Padraig Rooney

He looked at his watch and stood for a while on the sea-front. The weather seemed worse here than it did in the town. The tremendous clamour of the sea, joined to the howling of the wind, made one vast uproar composed of many voices small and great. The night was dark; nothing could be seen of the sea but the white crest of a wave here and there, which had burst asunder before it could hurl itself against the shore. They were keeping watch on the boats anchored along the quay, and here and there he could see the figure of a sailor working in darkness and danger up aloft on the masts which were keeping up their ritual dance towards all the four winds in turn.

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Putti on a Roman frieze, Trieste. © Padraig Rooney

A few days in Trieste brings us face to face with the remnants of the city’s various masters: Roman, Austrian and Slav. Mussolini’s Fascist-era torsos, dating from 1934 (Anno XII), decorate the old Maritime Air Station building in the docks. In the following year Italy would invade Ethiopia and its pretensions to imperial power would take a battering thereafter. Restaurants in Trieste have more of a Hungarian flavour than Italian – no panna cotta but serving up wonderful apfelstrudel.

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Fascist-era torso on the Maritime Air Station building, Trieste. © Padraig Rooney

At Buffet di Pepi I sampled their signature dish of pork cooked four ways: tongue, fillet, sausage and bacon, served with mustard, sauerkraut and bread. It’s a choucroute in all but name. While I ate outside on the terrace, I was accosted by beggars and panhandlers. I looked at the architecture: imperial, jumped-up, full of its own importance, the buildings of insurance companies and shipping magnates.

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Holding it all up on the Maritime Air Station building, Trieste. © Padraig Rooney

The Istrian Peninsula is proud of its Joycean connection. The Irish writer has a museum in Trieste. A statue has been erected on the Via Roma where it crosses the Canal Grande, and there is a city tour of Joyce’s stations of the cross: where he taught, the many temporary lodgings, the locations of his nighttime roistering. In Largo Barriera Vecchio you can find the old Pasticceria Pirona where the writer apparently had his coffee and pastry and whatever else you’re having.

Proud of its Joyce connection: the Caffe Pirona in Trieste. Photo Maurizio Valdemarin

Proud of its Joyce connection: the Caffe Pirona in Trieste. Photo Maurizio Valdemarin

At the time of Joyce’s stay, Trieste had a lively red-light district, as befits a port city, and Joyce was no stranger to the charms of the dark bordellos of the Jewish district and the Città Vecchia. There were between forty and forty-five whorehouses in the city. The aptly named Via della Sanità (now via Armando Diaz), where the Joyce family lived for a time, was the entrance to the red-light district in the area known as Cavana. Jan Morris in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere has further details:

James Joyce is said to have been an assiduous drunken frequenter of the Trieste whore-houses, allegedly preferring La Chiave d’Oro, the Golden Key, or the poky Il Metro Cubo, the Cubic Metre … How strange it is, nevertheless, that the man who wrote “Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba” in the daytime could stagger sozzled from pub to prostitute at night! Joyce adored his children and loved his wife after his fashion, yet apparently he still felt the need to wander, night after night, down the via del Solitaire to the House of the Golden Key.

Case Chiuse Trieste Chiave D'Oro

Case Chiuse Trieste Metro Cubo

Tickets for the bordellos in Trieste.

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Cavana district in Trieste

Further down the Istrian coast at Pola (in present-day Croatia,) where Joyce taught for a time, there is a smoke-filled Joyce pub. Joyce’s connection with Istria seems to me to come to the fore in a number of poems published in Pomes Penyeach (1927), especially in “On the Beach at Fontana”, written in Trieste in 1914 on the eve of war, about his son Giorgio:

From whining wind and colder / Grey sea I wrap him warm / And touch his trembling fineboned shoulder / And boyish arm.

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Statue of James Joyce in Trieste. © Padraig Rooney

Joyce and his wife Nora had mixed views about Trieste and he tended to see it as a backwater:

Trieste is the rudest place I have ever been in. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the incivility of the people. The girls and women are so rude to Nora that she is afraid to go out in the street. Nora can speak about thirty words of Triestine dialect…The Trieste people are great ‘stylists’ in dress, often starving themselves in order to be able to flaunt good dresses on the pier.

 

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Plaque in Pola (Pulja), where Joyce and Nora first decamped after an abortive stay in Zurich.

The Church of the Holy Trinity Thaumaturge in Trieste is where Joyce used sometimes to follow the Greek Orthodox service. It sits four-square in the form of a Greek cross, crowned with a large dome, where the Canal Grande has been filled in to form the Piazza Sant’Antonio Nuovo. Joyce writes in his letters:

The Greek mass is strange. The altar is not visible but at times the priest opens the gates and shows himself. He opens and shuts them about six times. For the Gospel he comes out of a side gate and comes down into the chapel and reads out of a book. For the elevation he does the same. At the end when he has blessed the people he shuts the gates: a boy comes running down the side of the chapel with a large tray full of little lumps of bread.

The church is now the place of worship for the Serbian Orthodox congregation in Trieste. There was a notice at the entrance about switching off phones. Inside, an old, stooped lady, a bit unsteady on her pins, approached the lit candles in front of the iconostasis with her slim yellow taper. Then her phone rang in her handbag, echoing under the dome, and she had to return to her place, all the time hoking in her bag for her phone. She held it in one hand and the lit taper in the other, dripping wax all over the carpet. Her interrupted piety was comical. It could have been a scene from a Samuel Beckett play.

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Church of the Holy Trinity Thaumaturge in Trieste.

Jan Morris describes “the sweet tristesse that is onomatopoeic to the place” in her excellent travel account, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. She recalls coming ashore as a young soldier at the end of the Second World War. In the chapter entitled Love and Lust she writes: “Certainly I sometimes think that transient love, the sort that is embodied in a one-night passion, or even a passing glance, is no less real than the lifelong sort. Even imagined love is true!” Our three Triestine writers would certainly concur with her there.

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