International Herald Tribune, MARCH 31, 2006
Master of lens turns to masters of ink
By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
SINGAPORE They were the Chinese ink masters of the 20th century. They
lived and worked in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even New York, and
their art works still speak for themselves. But who were these men?
Poignant photographs taken by one of Singapore's most famous
photographers, Chua Soo Bin, in the 1980s give a rare glimpse into their
daily lives, personalities and idiosyncrasies.
The exhibition "Legends: Soo Bin's Portraits of Chinese Ink Masters,"
running at the Singapore Art Museum from Friday until Tuesday, presents
14 photographs, one of each master, and coincides with the launch of a
similarly named book of photographs published by Foreign Languages
Press. A separate show of the legend photographs will start exhibiting
at the Guangdong Museum of Art on Thursday.
In order to capture these ink masters at their most candid moments, Soo
Bin made numerous trips between 1985 and 1988 to their homes and
studios, shooting more than 200 rolls of black-and-white film. He
studied their art, extensively researched their hobbies and mannerisms
and talked to their friends, families and students. "I wanted to capture
the true life of each artist," says the photographer, now 74.
Like an unobtrusive photojournalist, Soo Bin relied on his Nikon F3
camera and used only natural light, shooting at high speed.
The exhibition's curator, Victoria Huang, says "the result is a
powerful, nostalgic, visual declaration that catches our imagination.
"The use of the black-and-white medium is also consistent with the
masters' ink paintings, thereby creating an enduring appeal."
Soo Bin was born in Singapore in 1932, and his interest in art and
photography started at a young age. After studying at the Nanyang
Academy of Fine Arts, he worked as art director for an international
advertising firm, where his interest in photography developed from hobby
to profession. In the 1970s, he became a freelance commercial
photographer, handling accounts like Singapore Airlines, for whom he
captured the iconic Singapore Girl, wearing a traditional kebaya dress,
for its 1985 calendar. He made a name in the fashion industry with
campaigns for Levi's and Lanvin, among others.
"After so many years of shooting advertising, which was good money, I
felt I had to do something I liked to do," he says. "This project is
meaningful to me."
Soo Bin says that while in China on a one-month assignment for Singapore
Airlines, he had the idea to get shots of the culture and landscape to
promote the country as a tourism destination. With the help of the
Chinese artist Huang Miaozi, he contacted 14 masters - Zhu Qizhan, Liu
Haisu, Li Keran, Ye Qianyu, Wu Zuoren, Lu Yanshao, Xie Zhiliu, Li
Xiongcai, Tang Yun and Guan Shanyue from China; Huang Junbi of Taiwan;
Chao Shao-an of Hong Kong, Chen Wen Hsi of Singapore and Chi-Chien Wang
in New York.
"One of the criteria was that each artist should be above 80 years old,
so they would be much revered," he says.
Instead of photographing the artists working in their studios, Soo Bin
studied them in their daily routines, aiming to reflect their
personalities. "This is what the fourth-century Chinese artist Gu Kaizhi
would have advocated: 'seeking the soul through form,'" Huang Miaozi
writes in the foreword of Soo Bin's first book on his subjects, which
was published in 1989 and is now out of print.
He learned how Guan Shanyue, known for his landscapes and plum blossoms,
liked to read with a book in one hand while grinding his ink stone with
another; and why Lu Yanshao, known for his unique use of color and
strong interest in clouds and mists, cherished a collection of seven
pebbles that had seen him through dark days of homelessness, bombings in
wartime and persecution by the Communist guards.
Soo Bin recalls with fondness a session where Lu Yanshao and Li Keran,
generally considered the masters of southern and northern Chinese
landscapes, respectively, met for the first time in front of his lens.
"They talked about everything: ink, technique, Picasso," he says. "I
taped the conversation, but they made me promise not to print it."
Another fond memory is of a drunken crab feast with Tang Yun, who is
based in Shanghai: "Of all the artists, he really knew how to enjoy
life, from eating and drinking to smoking." Soo Bin still has one of the
bottles of rice wine the artist downed.
Huang said she finds Soo Bin's photographs interesting because they are
"filled with warmth and intimacy not often associated with revered
masters whom most people regard with exceptional deference."
One portrait of Ye Qianyu exemplifies the photographer's attention to
detail. Ye had already stopped painting, spending most of his time
writing his memoirs. Soo Bin shot him through a brush stand, buried deep
in his memories.
Over the years Soo Bin has won many local and international awards,
including the Singapore Cultural Medallion, the country's highest
artistic award, in 1988.
Since 1992, he has also become an important player in the local art
scene, setting up the Soobin Art Gallery, which promotes contemporary
Chinese artists. He still works on ad- hoc photography projects and is
currently "experimenting" with conceptual photography.
But after all these years of experience and modern technology, Soo Bin
still favors black-and-white photography: "With a beautiful flower with
purples and blues, the colors attract you, not the subject, but for
black and white you concentrate on the subject."
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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