Figures of Speech
2015.12.13 – 2016.02.29
“Figures of Speech” presents the work of a diverse group of photographers living and working in Hong Kong from the 1950s through to the present. The title refers to the subjects of the photographs, who in those different eras were photographed to various purposes, yet, few of which represent portraits in the conventional sense. Here, personal character or identity tends to be enacted by the person in the picture.
From Yau Leung’s studios shots of famous actresses, who give us a performance of the public persona by which they were most immediately recognized, to Meng Minsheng’s staged tributes to mainland ideology, from Leung Chi Wo + Sara Wong’s recognition of the unknown figures caught in historic photographs to Stanley Fung’s moving, spiritual narratives, the people in these portraits function in metaphoric fashion as a figure of speech to speak of something more than just themselves.
The inspiration here is both serious and playful – it should be stressed that all the works were, in the time of their making, wholly serious in intent—and the photographs are the result of a great deal of creativity. The exhibition begins with a rare group of five portraits by Fan Ho, arguably Hong Kong’s most well-known and regarded photographer; one who saw daily life as a “living theatre” and thus evokes the aura of the figures of speech. If a photograph is a stage, then the various bodies of work in “Figures of Speech” demonstrate the incisive role of dramatist that great photographers play so deftly.
Fan Ho (1931-2016)
Fan Ho arrived in Hong Kong in 1949 aged 18. The territory was his most immediate subject, or rather, it became his singular Muse: the streets were his studio, as well as the landscape on which he mapped tales of daily life from the harbor side to the views provided by the highrise buildings down to the narrow roadway below.
A talented actor, Fan Ho joined the Shaw Brothers Film Studios in 1961 and starred in a number of successful movies. His sense of life’s drama as it unfolded on the streets was innate. Later, in 1969, he would leave the Shaw Studios to develop his career as a film director, affirming that a lens was the vehicle by which he saw the world most clearly.
The three portraits included here in “Figures of Speech” were taken between 1952 and 1956. The subjects are stage actors or photographer friends of Fan Ho. The portraits deftly assert Fan Ho’s story-telling skills; perhaps most clearly in the frame Behind the Mask, which cleverly reveals nothing of the actor behind the mask. Instead it is the vacant, painted gaze of the mask that becomes a macabre force of attention, and the mysterious portrait of Robert Ray.
Meng Minsheng (1919-2007)
Born in Shanghai, Meng Minsheng grew up in Hong Kong. He started working with photography whilst in the brief employ of a local film studio, which would lead him to produce the Beauty series. But he was also an affiliate of the left wing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, which he joined in the late 1940s and which was a group of people with strong ethnic pride who loved their motherland and actively responded to the socialist ideology that was being implemented across the mainland. Photographs Meng Minsheng took in his spare time documented many social aspects of Hong Kong, especially the daily life of ordinary local people, who formed a very different picture of Hong Kong from the wealthy elite affiliated with the British ruling class. But for Meng Minsheng, the mainland’s political directives, which led in 1966 to the launch of the Cultural Revolution, were the most useful vehicle for asserting his patriotism. In 1965, he produced the first of a series of surreal photographs that can be described as more truly representing his own expression. Creating painted backdrops and simple but effective sets, he used an economy of means similar to that found in the mainland, as would be used in the performing of the model operas.
Yau Leung (1941-1997)
Yau Leung is one of Hong Kong’s most important photographers. Working from the 1950s to his untimely death in 1997, he produced images which exemplify the social and economic development of this period as well as the growth in the Hong Kong entertainment industry. Yau Leung began as a photographer in the golden age of Hong Kong film. From 1965 to 1970, he was employed as a stills photographer for Hong Kong Cathay Film studios and his images of women adorned the cover of countless issues of the film magazine Southern Screen. In 1970, Yau Leung briefly joined the rival Shaw Studios, but in 1971, moved to the monthly magazine Southern Screen. In 1973, he founded the monthly magazine Photography Life, and then in 1980 became chief editor of the magazine Photography Arts.
The 1970s and 1980s were a golden era for Yau Leung’s photography, but however we might celebrate the vision Yau Leung brought to capturing the flamboyance of the era, this natural flair for commercial celebrity work that he showed was strictly directed at his day job: his passion was for street photography. Yau Leung continued to produce documentary photographs of people from all walks of life in Hong Kong until his untimely death in 1997, when working at his day job in the studio.
Stanley Fung (1961-)
Born in Hong Kong in 1961, Stanley Fung was four when his family moved to Taiwan, where his father founded the province's first Methodist church. He himself converted to Christianity at the age of thirteen, but initially showed no signs of following in his father’s footsteps into the church. Photography was his first calling, a decision inspired by his experience seeing two exhibitions by the Taiwanese photographer Juan I-Jong, who would later be his teacher.
Stanley Fung’s expression finds full form in the series he titles Dust Icons. The subjects are friends and followers of the church which he leads. Each portrait was shot in a rented studio above the church and this sense of the closeness of this community emanates from the photographs as a bond of complete trust between subject and author. All are dressed in simple garments befitting the persona from the Bible that are there to represent: David the young shepherd boy, the Virgin Mary, Noah, Samuel the boy prophet, and Miriam the Prophetess. Each portrait tells its own tale, above and beyond the narrative that was for Stanley Fung the point of departure. From one face to the next, in gazes that are direct and averted, postures that are modest and at ease, we encounter childlike innocence, purity of spirit, modesty, humility, a quiet comfort in life lived free of unmanageable desires. Other portraits in the series achieve a similar aura but are less specific in terms of constituting a particular character. They serve instead as metaphors for human qualities; modesty, loyalty, determination and strength.
Leung Chi Wo + Sara Wong (1968-)
An imaginative investigation through staged photography, He was lost yesterday and we found him today is a series of 28 self portraits in which Leung Chi Wo + Sara Wong re‐enact the image of anonymous figures that they picked out from images in old magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, souvenir books and other documents that they have been collecting over the years for a project they title Museum of the Lost.
Inspired by Roland Barthes’ analysis of photography, an idea that a photograph points to and repeats something that “has been” and that "could never be repeated existentially", Leung Chi Wo + Sara Wong set out to do attempt the impossibility of repeating an image be restaging it as exactly as is possible. As a process of interpreting images and researching the context of the anonymous subjects, the artists seek to recreate the attitude and identity of each figure. By posing as individuals who incidentally appeared in a group of found images, the artists Leung Chi Wo + Sara Wong project a layer of irony onto the grand historical narrative that is portrayed by the media. Placed against a flat single-colored backdrop, their faces concealed from us, the subjects remain unidentifiable. The impossibility of identifying an anonymous person from the past as caught in a photographic image is, for the artists, a romantic encounter with history, experience in a most humble but vivid way and permits the existential aspects of their gesture and posture to exert a forceful fascination which underscores the poetics of photography in portraying the human figure.