What it is about a photograph that distinguishes it from a painting or a sculpture? They are all art in various forms, each with its own ability to reproduce a moment depicting reality and making it eternal. But as Robert Adams implies, unlike Art, photography goes beyond a mere abstract retaining, in its simplicity, a liberty that is revealed through composition.
This philosophy is made manifest in the compositions of Kuching’s perennial imagemaker, Ho Ah Chon, in documenting a whole centenary of the era of the White Rajahs. Beyond Sarawak alone, it helps the world revisit an important period of nostalgia, interspersed with a certain romance, a certain melancholy. From portraiture to iconic landmarks to panoramic imagery, Ah Chon shows us that the key is not so much in the telling, but in the showing. Images of a bygone black and white era communicate an emotion that, in a single glimpse, remains both intense and compelling.
Photographs document realities in an instant to produce that moment exactly as the imagemaker perceived it. Be they a monochromatic depiction of fishermen along the old wharf or a grainy continuity of Fort Margherita’s panorama, I found the essence of Ah Chon’s work lies in the reduction of a scene to its barest essentials; we no longer find ourselves asking if that picture represents its subject or if it captures the significance of the moment.
The Aurora Hotel, built on the old site of the Union Club, was opened in 1955, Kuching.
The Merdeka Palace Hotel now stands in its place.
Ah Chon is no Life Magazine era photojournalist, yet he blesses the viewer with an ability to “see”. You extract the substance, not just form. The black-white era has none of the clarity or colour attraction of our present era selfies that are heavily- filtered, cropped and sharpened. Yet it’s the very lack of clarity in his photos that frees the viewer from the greatest distraction in understanding a photo’s greater message. We are free from the distractions of colour-dependent emotion, contrast and visual intensity that are all extraneous to the essence of the object. As Ted Grant succinctly puts it: ‘Colour photos shift focus to a person’s clothes, black-and-white photos reveal their souls.’ Not surprisingly, appreciating the works of Ho at the State archives also reveals a technical finesse. He appears minimalist, despite using every tool available to promote his chosen avenue in all that technical marvel – the mystery of monotones. Like any pre-war photographer, the image- maker relies predominantly on the standard 35mm Kodachrome camera, to produce not just the required shape, line or form but also to conjure the kind of print required from the negative. It is the most unvarnished medium indeed to convey a message, though containing a richness of panoramic expression even in the most mundane visuals of Kuching’s early life.
Ho Ah Chon, 1924- 2007. All photos are original prints from the Ho Ah Chon archive at Pustaka Negeri Sarawak.
Right: The 'Kiosk' also known as the 'Summer House' selling delicious ice kacang.
The gamut of human emotions present is difficult to describe. They range from a certain richness of human expression in his portraits, to a certain surrealism in his panoramas. There is also a certain unpredictability in the manner he chose to reveal Kuching. His prints swing from one extreme to the other, appearing even deliberate at times. One photo appears grainy yet obvious, with a choice of low tones and high contrast. The very next print reveals the opposite, high tone and low contrast, to create a lasting image that is clear yet subtle.
Carpenter Street, Kuching as seen in 1950.
It is in this way, that he turns the documentation of the every day into an art form. For me, it seemed as if the image served to approach something irredeemably intimate for the image- maker. I was never a photographer and have spent virtually all my life devoid of art appreciation. Yet we never see it as a human deficiency. For most people, reading a deeper meaning into these things seems to circumvent their simple approach to life: face value and being matter-of- fact. So what if I saw an old building? So what if there was milky orb of moonlight over the setting sun over the Waterfront horizon? So what if my eyes viewed a carefree hawker laughing, completely satisfied with his wares for the day?
Street scene of Gambier Road in Kuching.
To me, that answer only appeared at the very end. I saw no purpose, no great calling but simply, a deep desire to visually capture something irredeemably intimate. An old photo has no philosophy. It’s faded, grainy, old and almost translucent, lost in time. But what of memories, what of how we Kuchingites perceive the past? It is perhaps this lack of purpose that reveals it. I saw an old black and white image of Kuching’s iconic Waterfront. But the image-maker saw a lot more, from the perils and pitfalls, to its promise and potentials. Ho Ah Chon’s photography documents our history in a manner than predates the mode or genre itself, seeking to simply expose the otherwise unknown, hidden or obscured. And what might be more unknown, hidden or obscured than the most mundane? Like a good panoramic photo, the essence in understanding the work of Ho Ah Chon lies, literally, in the bigger picture. No one single image alone tells the story. Looking through his entire work chronologically is how I eventually understood its singular purpose as a complete archive of absolute historical significance. He saw what most of our predecessors didn’t, from the elements of a fledgling city and its minute features to its grapple with modernity, almost an iconographical investigation of what constitutes the soul of Kuching.
The Old Kuching Fire Station along Khoo Hun Yeang Street was demolished during the 50s. Today the open air hawker's market occupies the site.
Ho Ah Chon tells no great truth. He just shows. There is no image of his equal to the powerful, singular effect of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s ‘The Kiss’ on V-Day, Kevin Carter’s ‘Vulture Stalking A Child’ or Jeff Widener’s ‘Tank Man’ at Tiananmen. Yet the viewer cannot help but see a certain similarity between Jeff’s iconic image and the seemingly insignificant work of Ho Ah Chon, in the strange realisation that, somehow, both reveal a key message: a belief in courage and ultimately, the notion that it is often not the spectacular, but the mundane that is capable of change.
More than just an image-maker, he is a chronicler.
Capt Dr Thiru Jr is an amateur writer and musician outside his day job flying for a leading airline. A regular Joe from Penang, he currently lives in Kuching with his family, and two demanding dogs.