2009 was a great year for photography. For one, I started shooting film seriously, beginning with the field trip to Tanjung Tuan.
But a few events towards the end of the year seemed to act as a pivot, linking all that happened over the past year with some of what will happen in the months to come; three events in particular which summarise and, in some ways, make sense of 2009 while imparting a sense of direction for 2010.
First, there was the win in UM Cares's environmental competition. Then, the win in the Library's 50th Anniversary photography competition. And finally, tea with the legendary Eric Peris on 23 January.
* * *
When I Was Young
UM Cares, the student-and-lecturer-driven 'sustainable development arm' of UM, organised a competition themed 'When I Was Young', featuring three categories: photography, video and essay-writing.
It was nice to have ecologists win something in each of the categories, with Bob (pic) and Joanne taking 3rd place in the essay and video categories respectively.
(Picture by Joanne.)
Joanne delivering her acceptance speech. Seen from another point-of-view, it was also a victory for Sabah (Joanne), Sarawak (Bob) and the Peninsula (me!).
This was my winning photograph, captioned as follows:
When I was young, the sunset was orange with streaks of red, yellow and purple. Today, it has not changed, but let us take care of the seas and the skies lest there come a day when a black-and-white sunset becomes an irreversible reality, darkened by grey sooty skies and black oily seas.
It was taken at Pangkor during the d'NA trip last July. What you see is what I submitted: just a cheap scan of the original negative which, in fact, has far richer cloud textures in the sky. The shop, in scanning from the negative, decided to give more exposure to the boats, resulting in a blown-out sky. Will get it printed properly soon; traditional black-and-white fibre-based printing is not subject to the limitations of digital-based printing.
Victor Chin was one of the judges, and I had no idea then that I would in a couple of months' time meet his old friend and long-time collaborator, Eric Peris.
I was thrilled that my parents were able to make it for the awards ceremony, and although it was a small-scale, low-key event, I finally got a chance to thank Dad when I delivered my acceptance speech. (Yes, acceptance speech!) I guess when events are small, they tend to be more friendly and casual; there's more interaction and it's a good experience for everyone overall. Great job, UM Cares!
So I thanked Dad for paying for all those rolls of film I shot since I was 11. There weren't that many rolls, but given that I had no idea what I was doing and most of those pictures turned out pretty crappy, it said something that Dad was willing to support my hobby.
And then there was the Minolta DiMAGE G400 digital compact camera he purchased (then RM1000 at discount) for me late 2004, which would go on to shoot some of my most definitive photographs in its two-year-odd lifespan. The DSLR that followed needs no introduction.
But while this was a victory for my parents, I also saw it as a vindication of film's relevance and a victory for d'NA as well. My first ever photo win also came from a d'NA trip, and now this. I owe so much to the d'NAers for helping me develop my craft over the years since I started photography proper in 2003.
I thank God for my parents and the d'NAers, because to them, to victory is too small. No roll of film is too trivial, no photograph too meaningless. Because they dared to invest and experiment, respectively, today we reap these rewards.
* * *
What the Library Means to Me
In conjunction with the Libary's 50th Anniversary celebrations last year, they organised a photography competition themed 'What the Library Means to Me'.
This time, I collaborated with Kaun, Yen and Ruth Choy, and decided to split any win equally. It was, for me, more about the win than about the money. We went in, submitted 12 pictures between the four of us (each participant is only allowed to enter three pictures), and came out with more than what we expected.
Special thanks also to Andrew, who submitted Ruth's pictures on her behalf when she was out of the country.
First Prize, Undergraduate Category.
This sequence of 'living books' returning themselves to the Library was partly inspired by Disney's take on 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' in Fantasia. It's not a 'great' picture in the monumental sense, but it's one of those unforgettable efforts, one of the things you'll always remember from your university days.
On the way out to lunch, after Part One of the shoot, we borrowed as many books as our combined quota would allow (Yen's staff quota of 25 volumes helped a lot), and our arms could carry. After lunch, we returned and set up this elaborate scene. The fact that Baguz was closed (we conducted the shoot during the week-long Hari Raya holidays) helped a lot.
Saiful Nang was one of the judges, and we also took the following awards:
Consolation Prize, Undergraduate Category.
Consolation Prize, Staff Category.
Receiving the award from Datuk Ghauth Jasmon, the Vice Chancellor, and Dr Nor Edzan, the Chief Librarian.
(Photo by Mohd Yani Alias of the IPPP, who won one of the top prizes in the Staff Category.)
The Library's 50th Anniversary dinner was held in the Library itself, in an effort to help the University cut operating costs and also for memory's sake. Many of the surviving early staff members of the Library attended their dinner, then in their youth when they joined the University, and now grandfathers and grandmothers all.
The Vice Chancellor said, in his address, that most of the guests at dinner would not be able to attend the next big dinner, the Library's Centenary. He pointed out that he would have to live past 100 to do so. I realised that my friends and I would be in our 70s then, and suddenly the dinner took on a whole new meaning for me.
These are the other photos we submitted:
The yet-to-be-determined 'Consolation Prize' (Undergraduate). I think, however, that it was a mistake on the Library's part and we didn't actually win.
A light painting by Yen. The other advantage of shooting during the mid-semester break was that our playing with lights was not a major inconvenience to anyone.
'Passing down knowledge'.
Great books, like great libraries, get better with age. The Library brought in these comfy chairs and tables to replace the old ones.
Kaun's 'Shouting a whisper'.
What the Library means to me: a place to sleep!
* * *
Meeting Eric Peris
Sometime in December, Kishan and I went over to Danial's place for dinner. We had, in addition to curried 'chicken' and assam 'fish', a 'pork' dish or sorts and also 'frog legs'. Kishan is a vegetarian and Danial, a Muslim.
For the first time, I noticed that the paintings and photographs adorning Danial's walls were works by Eric Peris. And that was when I learnt that Eric is a family friend of theirs. Aunty Sheila, Dan's mother, immediately suggested that we arrange for a meet-up with the great photographer.
After an unsuccessful December, partly due to Kishan's trip to India, and partly due to the usual end-of-the-year hustle and bustle, the dream finally came true on 23 January.
Eric Peris at home.
Eric, Kishan, Mum and I went over for lunch at his favourite mamak joint in Endah Parade, while Aunty Sheila kept Eric's mother company at home. They are a geriatric family, and art literally flows in their blood; it was Eric's late father who taught him the basics of art.
Over lunch, our conversation went from travelling to philosophy, from Buddhism to photography, from music to painting, from being patient with landscapes to the importance of understanding the elements which make an image work.
"If I cannot take a good picture, maybe it is because I don't understand the elements. I will go away to lunch and come back later, and maybe then I will know how to take the photograph."
Eric firmly believes that photography and art must be informed by wide reading, extensive travelling and immersion in other art forms such as music. This is evident in his approach to photography and art, for example his 'Images of Gitanjali' series which was inspired by the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, and his paintings 'Spring' and 'Summer', done while listening to the Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.
If I were to summarise Eric Peris's advice, it would be, "Listen, read and travel!"
He kept emphasising that it is important to see; equipment is secondary. On the way back from lunch, he demonstrated this. "Consider this scene," he said.
"It looks plain now, but a little while later when the sun is lower, it will cast long shadows on the ground. The curved leaves also contrast with the straight metal bars."
True enough, the said shadows were beginning to form in one corner of the scene!
We concluded our visit with a viewing of some of his prints, some of which have been hand-coloured and/or framed. When talking about his series on the Balinese, he said, "Get them to argue; if not, they will smile at the camera, and that's terrible!"
* * *
Inspired by Eric Peris, I took this scene, which was taken in the courtyard of the Sri Menanti palace during the d'NA trip there last June:
And coloured it in with oil pastels:
While Eric colours his fibre-based traditional black-and-white prints with art/photo pastels, I made do with a Canon inkjet print on coarse watercolour paper and the simplest set of Buncho oil pastels.
So how does everything come together?
Well, for me, sometimes it's about redefining conventional ideas. Consider the black-and-white sunset; people always shoot sunsets in colour, because it's the colour that defines a sunset. But I thought to myself, who says a sunset can't look just as grand in black-and-white?
John Sexton, in this interview, said, "It's so bizarre to me that I can show you a picture that's black-and-white and you somehow think it represents reality. When's the last time you opened a window and it was black and white outdoors?"
Winning the Library contest was a pivotal moment in relations with the Library, and particularly with the Chief Librarian.
Two words summarise the future for me: "Experimental Theatre."
It will be really amazing to see how far this project takes the entire team, and what it will ultimately mean in my development as a photographer and a UM student. It is, in many ways, my undergraduate magnum opus.
(The only thing I can't imagine at the moment, is hand-colouring the ET pictures; I think that will be a challenge for another day when the project is all said and done. And that is if those pictures ought to be hand-coloured in the first place.)
One final thought:
Art, more than anything else, outlives man. I daresay that is why music, paintings, sculptures, literature and architecture tell us more about a civilisation or a community, than anything else.
The whole purpose and direction of the Experimental Theatre project rests on this assumption, as does every photographic and artistic endeavour I have undertaken, and will undertake.