The Art of the Photographic Exhibition

[written by Bluffname, all photos by Bluffname]

[This story was originally featured in JPG Magazine HERE.]

Coming of Age, a photographic exhibition by David Tay Poey Cher featuring “Forgotten faces of a greying Asia”, is more than just about the art of photography. It is as much about the art of the photographic exhibition – how photography could, or perhaps should, be presented.

Never before has Singapore seen photographs presented with such drama and impact, with wall-size portraits greeting visitors as they enter the ION Art Gallery at ION Orchard, a mall in the heart of Singapore’s shopping and tourist district. A friend who had studied photography in America says even the many exhibitions he visited there, featuring the works of great masters, were never presented in such spectacular fashion.

While David Tay’s show is utterly stylish, other similar shows here were “conventional”. And there have been quite a few of these for comparison.

David Tay, a long-time President of the Photographic Society of Singapore, is the third “veteran” photographer in recent years to stage a solo exhibition. First off was Tan Lip Seng with Light and Shadow in August 2009, followed by Foo Tee Jun with Photographic Stories in December 2010.

All three are Cultural Medallion winners in photography, the highest honor accorded by the state in recognition of achievements in the arts. All marked roughly 50 years of photography (51 years in the case of David Tay, who started photography in 1960 after his father bought him a camera instead of the motor scooter that he wanted.)

There were also the Ngee Ann Photographic Exhibitions, open to lesser mortals like myself, which have been an annual affair since 2005. These other exhibitions roughly followed the same presentation format – a selection of large prints at the entrance, mid-size prints further in, all evenly spaced out.

At David Tay’s exhibition, the print sizes ranged from large to extra-large to ginormous! Some stand alone while others are grouped in clusters of two, four or more. Blank wall spaces, with a line of text, further break the rhythm.

And while it may be natural for a photographer of 50 years to present his life work, David Tay chose not to bask in his past glory. For he strongly feels that a photographer should not be judged by awards and distinctions that the person might have picked up in the past. David was, in fact, the first photographer to be awarded the Cultural Medallion back in 1982, but that is history…

So he opted instead to present his present. He gave himself one year (but in the end took two and a half) to create a new portfolio focused on a very narrow theme – candid street portraits of old people in Asia. He calls them “forgotten faces” because these are ordinary people whom others pass by daily, often without noticing.

Now this is not easy. It may be easy enough to have one or two or three exhibition-standard images of one subject. Try aiming for 10 and most photographic artists will already have to slip in mediocre pieces. Now try for 55, the number David Tay presented in his exhibition, or 80, the number contained in his book. Far easier to show a few nice lotus flowers, a few scenes from the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, a few landscapes from rural China…

But David Tay wants to encourage other photographers to work themes! Personally, he found the experience both challenging and satisfying.

“I pushed myself to the limits and also pushed my camera to the limit,” David Tay shared in his exhibition opening address. He later explained that pushing his camera to its limits included making a 93-inch tall print, of the bearded Vietnamese man at the gallery entrance, from an original Nikon D3X jpeg file cropped to 1/3 of its original size.

David had shot over 5,000 images for this project, so what he shows is about his top one percent. But they are enough to engross the visitor. Despite this being a relatively small exhibition, compared to the others that typically featured more than 200 images each, Coming of Age left a very satisfying feeling.

This is also despite of the fact that David Tay’s portraits of old people are, ultimately, “ordinary”. His compositions are straight forward, occasionally with the subject smack in the middle but usually following the conservative “rule of thirds”.

The bulk of the images were shot with a normal-range 24-70 mm zoom lens and only a few with a longer 70-200 mm telephoto zoom. “I try to engage my subjects and to avoid stolen shots,” David Tay explains. All were shot at roughly eye level. There were no bird’s eye, ant’s eye, fish eye or other gimmicky viewpoints.

The choice of subject, too, tended to be ordinary. One old lady seemed particularly grumpy while an old man had an out-of-this world expression of bliss only because he has a mental condition. Most of the rest are regular old folks, with regular, albeit often intense, expressions. All are strangers.

This is basic, honest-to-goodness photography. David Tay displays true mastery in his ability to bring out the specialness in the ordinary, without resorting to extraordinary photographic techniques. In an age where advanced digital technology takes care of most technical issues like sharpness, exposure and color balance, David Tay demonstrates that what really matter are the basic photography skills of composition and waiting for that decisive moment. He does not believe in shooting 10-frames-per-second bursts of “indecisive moments”.

His message is that when one gets the basics right, there is no need for odd angles and special effects. A friend likens this to preparing a dish of Chinese fried rice. It is a simple dish yet few people do it well. But when done well, it is very delicious.

Here are some of the comments  on the exhibition from F.U.N. members:

“The subject (elderly) with unique look mostly. The subject’s expression captured the right moment. Good composition. Nice image treatment to make the subjects stand out/pop out from the background. Higher than usual colour saturation.” – TheChef

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“I like the expressions captured in the photos… Got to thank David Tay for taking the time and effort to give a narration of the photos.”
– Indigo2008

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“When I see photos that are taken overseas, it just makes me feel that that person is rich enough to travel so far to shoot the photos. Probably if I am there i can do it as well. Seeing those pics did make me want to take nice street photos too and enough to make me want to go a bit further…

BUT seriously speaking, Mr David Tay’s photos are very well taken, carefully selected and I can feel the effort taken by him…” – Yingbin1005

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“Personally, I feel that David Tay’s photos are excellent but the venue (ION ART) is not. The spotlights on the ceiling are not adjusted properly thus creating hotspots and flare on some of the exhibits. What is unacceptable is when I went there last Friday during lunch time, many spotlights were TURN OFF even though some people were there viewing the exhibits.

There are other ways to save electricity like turning down the air-conditioning instead of letting people view David’s photos in the dark.”– KopiOkaya

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“Mr. Tay was trying to capture the soul behind the face. That is very difficult to do in a city like Singapore because people are always on guard. I have found that pictures of old people in the city are mostly quite pathetic, “cham” if you like. Pictures of old people in rural areas are quite often very dignified, even minus the teeth.

I also agree that the exhibition was very well presented…international standards… to be fair, I think Mr. Tay has been to more international photo exhibitions than the others.” – Second Wind

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“I really like the BIG BIG print out, is kind of luxury enjoyment looking at the big print.

But the most important thing to me is that in this exhibition, it give me chances to look into people eyes, no matter how long, not easy to do that on the street here.” – Pengkhiong

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[click image to enlarge]

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