*Produced by SilverKris for National Gallery Singapore*
When Covid-19 struck and many of us found ourselves suddenly confined to our homes, National Gallery Singapore launched a slate of virtual programming to allow people to experience art from just about anywhere. Under the #GalleryAnywhere initiative, viewers are able to access a slew of digital content, including a collections portal housing over 4,000 artworks and 7,000 archival materials from the museum’s extensive collection spanning the 19th century to the present; browse video and audio content about the latest special exhibitions, such as Georgette Chen: At Home in the World; and check out entire showcases from the comfort of home through immersive 360° virtual tours of past exhibitions.
To kick things up a notch, the museum has just debuted their very first virtual-only exhibition that exists exclusively in the digital realm. Stories in Light: Four Modern Photographers in Singapore offers a survey of four key Singapore-based photographers – namely Lee Sow Lim, Lee Lim, Lim Kwong Ling and Tan Lip Seng – that all played pivotal roles in the development of modern photography in the city-state.
Working across the 1950s and 1960s – a period of massive political and urban change – each photographer offers a distinct take on the rapidly transforming nation in its search for independence from British colonial rule, as well as the anxieties of unfolding modernity. They were also influential members of several of Singapore’s many dynamic photography clubs during this time, and were strongly influenced by the photographic Pictorialism movement, which emphasised aesthetic expression over factual depiction.
Through the exhibition, audiences can explore their groundbreaking works in an all-new 3D environment created with state of the art technology, which offers a unique virtual experience that marks a first for the gallery. Viewers can simply visit the exhibition website (available on both desktop and mobile), where they will be able to easily navigate through the different virtual galleries using the mouse, trackpad or touchscreen function. There’s also the recommended option of a guided curator tour, which is available via an audio guide. And should you want to find out more about the specifics of an artwork, you can simply click on the informational card displayed next to it.
Before experiencing the exhibition for yourself, read on to find out more about the lives, works and impact of the four featured photographers.
1. Lee Sow Lim
Hailing from Malaysia, Lee Sow Lim moved to Singapore with his mother and sister in his youth following the death of his father. He purchased his first camera (a Zeiss Ikonta) in 1951 at the age of 21, and the rest, as they say, is history. The self-taught photographer is known for his excellent darkroom technique, and his diverse body of work spans everything from portraits to landscapes and nature studies. Rather than focus on a particular subject matter, Lee instead prioritises creating beautiful and technically perfect photographs across a wide range of genres.
Although he didn’t exhibit as frequently as his peers, Lee wrote two books and several articles on the art of photography. He also presented a series of talk shows about the subject on radio; hosted several photography television programmes; and taught briefly at various schools including Singapore Polytechnic. He was the first and only photographer to receive the Public Service Medal (in 1978) and later chaired the photography selection panel for the Cultural Medallion – Singapore’s annual award for artistic achievement.
2. Lee Lim
Originally from China, Lee Lim is lauded as one of the most important and influential modern photographers in Singapore. The self-taught artist initially moved from China to Malaysia, where he trained as a photography assistant from the age of 18. He then moved to Singapore in the 1950s and opened his own studio in Tiong Bahru with several other members of the Photographic Society of Singapore. Lee is known for his flawless technique in composite photography, as well as the distinctive style of his landscape and portrait work. His landscape shots in particular reflect his great interest in and inspiration from Chinese paintings.
Lee continued to experiment and innovate throughout his life. His final body of work – which was never exhibited during his lifetime due to his sudden death in 1989 – was shot in colour. It features abstract images that appear like landscapes, but actually depict the distressed exterior walls of old buildings. Between 1952 and 1979, Lee took part in more than 100 photographic competitions and won numerous awards and honours. He also received Singapore’s Cultural Medallion in 1987.
3. Lim Kwong Ling
Born and raised in Singapore, Lim Kwong Ling took up photography in his 30s – a relatively late age compared to the other photographers in this exhibition. The former businessman was spurred by the desire to take photographs of his family and signed up for a beginner’s photography course taught by Lee Sow Lim at Singapore’s Adult Education Board, which was set up in 1960 to provide courses on language and learning, vocational, technical and general classes to adult learners.
Lim’s photographic style follows a documentary approach. Rather than produce images for pure aestheticism – which he felt was “shallow and meaningless” – he believed that one needed to deeply examine the ordinary rhythms of daily life in order to produce more meaningful works. While this pursuit of naturalism led him to reject the conventional practice of staging scenes, the composition of his photos was not entirely spontaneous: he followed the aesthetic “rules” of composition and framing taught during his studies. Lim was a founding member of the Photo-Art Association of Singapore, established in 1965, and took part in numerous local and international salon exhibitions during his active years.
4. Tan Lip Seng
Born in 1924 on the sunny shores of Singapore, self-taught artist Tan Lip Seng first picked up photography at the age of 12. He started his career as a medical photographer – a position that he held for 42 years as he pursued other subject matter on the side. Tan counts Lee Lim as one of his major influence, a lineage that can be seen in Tan’s experiments with photo montage. However, while Lee produced only black and white composite photographs, Tan was more interested in colour.
Indeed, in the late 1960s, Tan developed a specific colour derivation technique using Ortho film and dizochrome film. With this, he created semi-abstract and brightly coloured landscapes of Singapore that have become a trademark of his style, and which are shown as part of this exhibition. Rather than being developed as prints during their time, they were circulated as 35mm slides and viewed as projections. Tan is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and was awarded Singapore’s Cultural Medallion in 1985. He was also recognised as a World’s Top Ten Colour Slide Exhibitor by the Photographic Society of America from 1969 until 1988.
You can experience “Stories in Light: Four Modern Photographers in Singapore” here. To learn more about National Gallery Singapore and other current and upcoming exhibitions and programming, click here.
If you’re planning to visit National Gallery Singapore in-person, please check the website for opening hours and visitor information before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.