Penang has in Ismail Hashim and Ooi Cheng Ghee two black-and-white photographers par excellence, writes Cecil Rajendra.
In this digital age with its emphasis on clamour and colour, it is extremely rare to find one good black and white photographer anywhere; to find two exceptional black and white cameramen working on the same island at the same time, is nothing short of miraculous. Yet Penang, with its uncanny knack of being able to constantly surprise – both in art and politics – has in Ismail Hashim and Ooi Cheng Ghee thrown up two black and white photographers par excellence.
Besides being close buddies, the pair share many common denominators: both are die-hard Penangites; both have an abiding, if somewhat old-fashioned, faith in black and white photography; both have passion for perfection; and both are partial to a glass of Shiraz.
However, each has his own distinctive vision.
Now within the space of one year, each has been honoured with a major solo exhibition and a complementary coffee-table book featuring a section of their oeuvre.
Ismail Hashim (fondly referred to as Prof” in local coffee shops) was accorded the rare honour of a Restrospective exhibition by the Penang State Art Gallery at the end of 2010. The exhibition, if somewhat poorly curated, was a powerful testament to the breadth and scope of Ismail’s work.
Stretching back from his early paintings, graphic designs for Aliran covers and IOCU (International Organisation of Consumer Unions) posters, to great masterworks of the 1990s – Kedai Gunting, Snooker Table and After Having Nasi Kandar – right to the present millennium with Kean Chye at the War Museum (2007) and The Last Mangrove (2010).
Though the human figure rarely inhabits Ismail’s prints, they are nevertheless impregnated with life; and, whether the subject matter be plastic chairs, improvised post-boxes, battered bicycle seats, or phone-booths, one can always catch a whiff of the human spoor before and after the moment the camera clicked.
Besides a mastery of his craft, the stand-out feature of Ismail’s work is his sense of humour and strong social awareness.
Masterworks such as Penang – of the Orient (1998), What a View of Penang Bridge (1997), The Placid & the Putrid (2003) and The Last Mangrove (2005), though subdued in tone, speak volumes about the sorry state of our environment.
(See Ismail Hashim and his photos.)
I dare say no photographer in this country has the ability to register in a single frame such moral courage without compromising his artistic integrity.
A detailed study of the social significance of these photographers is highly recommended to students of the Arts and Social Sciences alike.
But perhaps this is only to be expected of a man of unswerving moral fibre who, many art-lovers may be surprised to discover, was also one of the founding fathers of Penang’s historic reform movement: Aliran.
In constrast to Ismail Hashim’s book and Restrospective that spans a lifetime and covers a variety of concerns and locations, Dr Ooi Cheng Ghee’s Portraits of Penang’s Little India consists of a series of photographs shot in one specific area over the period of a single year – 1979.
Cheng Ghee says that he snapped over 4,000 shots of the people who live, work and play in that enclave of Georgetown known as Little India.
Of these 4,000 shots, 160 were selected for the exhibition and coffee-table book in a sequence described by art commentator Gareth Richards as “arguably Malaysia’s first great social documentary photo essay”.
While there is no denying the stunning visual beauty and technical excellence of Cheng Ghee’s photographs, one comes away from the exhibition and the book with a strange feeling that something is sorely missing from this ‘great’ photo-essay.
Particularly so, for a habitue of Little India is indelibly associated with its spice and saree shops and rustic banana-leaf eateries.
More so in 1979 than today when Muslim, Hindu and Punjabi spice merchants sat behind open gunny sacks of coriander, mustard, cummin etc. and hollered to passing housewives in much the same fashion as purveyors of Bollywood CDs try to entice punters into their loud parlours these days.
Yet though there are eight shots of handcart pullers, and 11 of betel-nut workers, there is only a single print of a spice merchant and not one of a saree shop or a banana-leaf eatery.
Nor is there any record of the three iconic 1970s chapatti makers – a Sikh, a Bangladeshi and a Bengali lady – who had pitched their stalls in fronts of three Chinese coffee-shops – and were locked in a fierce, if silent, competition in terms of price and variety of accompaniments. Another striking imbalance in Cheng Ghee’s portraits is the paucity of women.
But perhaps these lacunae can best be explained by the fact that the good doctor is a full-time medical practitioner and almost all his photographs were taken on Sundays and holidays. That time perhaps when the spice and saree shops, the chapatti stalls and banana-leaf eateries were most likely shut and the women of Little India cloistered in their kitchens cooking dinner for their husbands.
But for all its skewed perspective and lop-sidedness, in terms of quality of production, Cheng Ghee’s coffee-table book trumps Ismail’s by a mile.
The sloppiness in editing, proof-reading, captioning and reproduction of Ismail’s prints can be laid firmly on the lap of the Penang State Art Gallery Committee.
To catalogue the misprints and mistakes would take up epochal space in this brief essay. Suffice it to say that this august body even failed to notice that the “I” in Ismail was missing in the name grandly embossed on the cover of the commemorative book.
At first glance, it now reads like Snail Hashim!
But let us get back to the photographs …
In his classic essay Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography – the renowned French sociologist/philosopher Roland Barthes ruminates on how millions of fine photographs that evoke polite interest, even admiration, are “inert” in that they lack “punctum” i.e. that latent element in a photograph – whether by accident or design – that pricks and wounds one’s awareness; leaving the image lingering in memory long after one has stopped looking at the photograph. This, I find, is the essential difference between the work of Ismail Hashim and Dr Ooi Cheng Ghee. In Cheng Ghee’s prints, for all their visual beauty and perfection of composition, what you see is what you get.
In Ismail’s, you don’t often get what you see … until much later; and then they haunt you for a lifetime.
For in, the final analysis, though Cheng Ghee is arguably the better technician/photographer, Ismail is indubitably the greater artist.