”Days in the Sun”: Personal images as a source in anthropology

”Days in the Sun”: Personal images as a source in anthropology

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Nguyễn Phương Thảo writes for Hanoi Grapevine
Images: Matca and author provide
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Coming to the exhibition “Days in the Sun” currently running at Matca Space for Photography, the spectators will be astonished by their encounter with historical photographs. Through the portrait of a remarkable Vietnamese photographer – businessman, the exhibition prompts several thoughts on the heritage significance and the research value of vernacular photography.

A young man stands with his arms crossed on a steep cliff, his gazed fixed at the viewer; his vest, fedora and camera rest on the rock behind him. In another photo, he is dressed in traditional H’Mong costume, or looks like a detective in trench coat posing in front of a charming painted landscape. Who is this person, where do these pictures come from, and what journey did they make to end up in this place, at this moment, before my eyes? The unaccustomed encounter with photographs that dated almost a century ago initiates a series of questions, through which the audience will progressively explore the life and career of an extraordinary man from Lai Xa village, while reflecting on the meaning of time and the heritage value of vernacular photography.

Ông Nguyễn Văn Chành (ngoài cùng bên phải) trước cửa tiệm Luminor Photo
với slogan tiếng Pháp _Tất cả công việc ảnh, tất cả vì hình ảnh_
Ảnh tô màu nước chụp ông Nguyễn Văn Chành mặc đồ người HMong

A young man stands with his arms crossed on a steep cliff, his gazed fixed at the viewer; his vest, fedora and camera rest on the rock behind him. In another photo, he is dressed in traditional H’Mong costume, or looks like a detective in trench coat posing in front of a charming painted landscape. Who is this person, where do these pictures come from, and what journey did they make to end up in this place, at this moment, before my eyes? The unaccustomed encounter with photographs that dated almost a century ago initiates a series of questions, through which the audience will progressively explore the life and career of an extraordinary man from Lai Xa village, while reflecting on the meaning of time and the heritage value of vernacular photography.

Ông Nguyễn Văn Chành (bên trái)
tạo dáng cùng bạn trước phông nền phong cảnh hữu tình

On one side of the gallery, a series of portraits taken at Luminor Photo Studio offers a typical representation of the craft of photography practiced in the early 20th century, which included meticulous posing, low key lighting and painted landscape backdrops as a prop. Many pictures carry the distinctive embossed stamp of Luminor Photo. The faces of the people belonging to a bygone era appears so lively that within the brief span of the gaze, the spectator enters the same present moment as the photographed subjects; at the same time, time stretches between the contemporary spectator and the historical subjects, surrounding the latters’ figures in a melancholic and mysterious silence. Going through darkroom prints from a time when the production of a photo required a laborious process, and which were preserved almost intact throughout the last century, one cannot help but thinking about the contrast with the democratization and the immediacy of the practices of taking, watching and sharing pictures in the modern context.

Ông Nguyễn Văn Chành (thứ hai từ phải sang)
đứng cùng bạn bè trong văn phòng tiệm ảnh

What impresses visitors most is the opposite wall, where photos from Mr. Chanh’s daily life are displayed. The success of Luminor Photo had given Nguyen Van Chanh a rare freedom to use his medium format in a wide range of situations, from professional activity, social gatherings, travelling to family life. Back in the days when owning a small size, handheld portrait remained a luxury for the majority of people, the photo album containing hundreds of prints, many of which up to A4 size, was a striking testimony of his innovative approach to the photographic medium. Although created with another technical instrument from another period, these personal photos reveal a familiar contemporary aspect: taking everyday life, leisure activities and common things as subjects, they do not differ significantly from the digital pictures produced by any current-day amateur photographer. In addition, certain photos from Mr. Chanh excursions uncover his experimentations with other forms of photography, such as the ‘photo essay’ of the temple vestige in Angkor or the silhouette photo of a person standing beneath a vaulted cavern.

Ông Nguyễn Văn Chành cùng người vợ và con gái đầu lòng
(đạo diễn Bạch Diệp hồi nhỏ)

The diary in photos of this Vietnamese photographer – business owner provides us with an alternative perspective of history in the time when the country was transforming through the war and the exchange in cultures. If photographic representations of Vietnam in the early last century were essentially created by the French for the specific purpose of making picturesque postcards and documentation for ethnographic research, this personal photo archive offers on the contrary a disinterested witness of everyday experience from a local viewpoint. Details about the subjects’ physical appearance, clothing, and life style are indicative of the cultural and historical contexts in which the photos were taken, as well as the photography practice associated with them. In interrogating the aesthetics, the content and the means of production of these photos, the spectator develops a more critical reading not only of historical photographs, but also of those encountered in daily lives.

By choosing an interactive approach that requires the audience’s participation in the interpretation of photographic documents that are distant in time, “Days in the Sun” invites each spectator to revisit their visual memory and rediscover their family albums which might be covered in dust somewhere at the bottom of a closet. Imagine that you were looking at them through the eyes of a person born a century later, what would they tell you about the present age? The exhibition does not simple tell the story of an individual. It also calls for a reflection on the heritage significance of personal photo archives as a potential repository of research in anthropology.

“Days in the Sun” is an extension of Matca’s first publishing project “Makét 01: A Vietnamese Photography Village” about Lai Xa photography village on the outskirts of Hanoi. The exhibition runs until October 7, 2019.

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Some images of the exhibition:

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