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A Holly Lee and Lee Ka-sing online magazine. Published on Fridays.
I Hope You Are Well (to a contemporary art space in Beijing) (2014)
from MOBILE POETRY LAB series
Mixed media: Pine wood, archival inkjet print on paper, acrylic medium
Size: 1334x138x35 mm
The Shades of Portraits
I am thinking of Hong Kong. Its portrait falls into discoloured postcards; in dark sky over deep water, narrow harbour, firework torrents raining down the concrete forest of million sparkling eyes. When I think of my birth place, it always goes back to my childhood, jumps briefly to my teens (which I remember vaguely), over to a period when I started working, fast forward to my photography lives with Ka-sing, our family lives and the many hideous moving lives from one apartment to another, though often in close proximity. This city is a small big city, by the time I left, it had a population of 6.5 million. After twenty three years, in 2020, it has added another staggering million. I remember the life I led before I left, but it too, has ebbed away slowly. However that memory is only present for the one who keeps it in the drawer, for that world has moved on, progressed, and most of all transformed into a state one can no longer imagine. There are hindrances in comprehending its evolving slangs, gestures, life, art, culture, and communication of all sorts. In short, I am just this time-lapsed self of an era that existed in past tense, and to a certain degree, a period erased. My heart is more leaden today than ever, twenty-some years after my departure, despite being successful, robust and brimming with luxuriant growth, my small big city still cannot be saved from repression and subjugation. The city is still largely in denial, but the gradual realization of the set fact has already created vacuums of countless activities, an established authoritarian rule, an unsparing, hard-hearted erasure of the opulent years after 1997.
Snow White Queen 白雪仙
I was born in the days when culture and tradition were still strong in Hong Kong, this included my beloved Cantonese opera. Since the 50s, Yam Kim-fai and Bak Suet-sin, both Cantonese opera performers, partnered and rose to stardom. Yam always played the cross-dressing principal male role known as ‘Man Mou Sang’, a scholar or a fighting hero; and Bak played the female role of Hua Dan, the maiden. The pair worked together on stage, before big screens with love stories usually ended in tragedies, not unlike Romeo and Juliet, or Tristan and Isolde in Western operas. I can still remember, very vividly, a scene from their opera The Revival of the Red Plum (再世紅梅記), in which Bak Suet-sin arose from her grave - the atmosphere was ghastly, her sharp singing/wailing was chilling to the bone. Yet splendid theatre it was and stuck with me for the rest of my life. That year, probably 1968 or 69 when I was around 15 or 16, my aunt brought me to the Lee Theatre to watch this opera - the only live theatre I had seen from Yam and Bak. This charismatic, incredibly talented and inseparable couple, yin-yin in real life, and yin-yang on stage, had created an image of the perfect lovers with such spellbinding beauty and aura, continues to infatuate and live in the collective memories of the Hongkongese today. Bak Suet-sin is now 94, and Yam Kim-fai would have been 107. The heavenly couple broke apart when Yam died in 1989.
In 1996, I could not believe myself, when I had the opportunity to photograph Bak Suet-sin - the Snow White Queen. The opportunity however turned into a disappointed act, as my photographs never pleased her, nor her agent and friends. These images were put aside in folders for many years, and only after all these years I am able to face myself and ask the question - why. Perhaps the assignment was too challenging, I strived to create my best shots but was timid at the same time to cross the line. I was never able to get close, to feel comfortable, or make her feel comfortable to bear her soul - that Goddess image I dared not and perhaps wouldn’t want to unveil. I put away the black and white photographs and all my questions until now.
A timid creature with a shinny outer shell. Secretly, I think I might have been a disappointment to some of the people I photographed back in those Hong Kong days. A ‘people photographer’ who constantly plagued by questions, and uncertainties on the perception, recognition and standard of beauty. How do I take a portrait I like, and also liked by the sitter at the same time? Great photographers like Richard Avedon and Anne Leibovitz know their trade very well. They would set up certain parameter, work within frame structure in limbo background, or guide the sitters through the session in preconceived sets. The result is always under control. Once broken out of that shooting paradigm, free-wheeling becomes free roaming, which means more difficulty for both parties to find that meeting point. Most of the time, I feel awkward to photograph people I know well, or too familiarized with. I am too aware of their temperament, I'd try not to over-directing them. But it is exactly the lack of direction that causes my setback at this side of the camera.
On beauty, and Eyes Wide Open
Outward beauty and Inward beauty. In portrait photography it is the beauty that settled in between the most difficult to attain. To a certain extent that might be the very quality a person is showing everyday. But why is it so invisible, and so impossible to arrest? Another immanent question is on the beauty of getting old. Do you grow everyday, or wither with the years? Could the wrinkles on your face, that make you look like a wilted orange reflect your vivacious soul? Most old people are afraid of being photographed, they refrain from the dreadful thought of losing that outward beauty, and forget to bring forth the inward beauty that, if one wills it, grows with age. Great portrait photographers like, for instance Richard Avedon would have no difficulty in persuading, or reminding senior sitters to reveal that inward quality, acting with self-assurance, stare bravely at the photographer eye to eye. His large format camera would mercilessly reveal all the fault lines on their lustre waning faces, tired eyes wandering, lost, open to negative study and ruthless scrutiny. But it is precisely that very beaten face that had roamed between worlds, creating bitter thunder and sweet calming winds, markings of histories and makings of many amazing stories to be told. The beauty of revealing the experience and wisdom of a life time, confidently, with eyes wide open.
Eyes Wide Shut
No, never a single frame, a single portrait can adequately represent a person. Eyes represent human emotions and no one would accept a picture with eyes closed. One would then raise the question why so many portraits of famous people shot with eyes closed? Avedon’s Ezra Pound, Irving Penn’s Truman Capote, Horst P. Horst’s Salvador Dali, Martin Schoeller’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Floyd’s Paul McCartney, Clive Arrowsmith’s Dalai Lama, Philip Montgomery’s Martin Scorsese, and Michael Avedon, the grandson of Richard Avedon, shot Jonas Mekas, Warren Ellis, Ishmael Reed and John Lewis all with their eyes shut, giving the viewer a sense of all doors closed. Could it be the photographer’s idea or the sitter’s idea, conveniently. Or is it escapism? By avoiding eye contact, things become indecipherable, things go deeper, so it seems. The portrait becomes a self-portrait of the sitter entering a state of trance, navigating the plethora of realities, reconnecting to the many lives lived. It is far more perplexing than just a refusal to communicate, it is the impossibility to relate a full life in one single frame. And the inability to hold on to everything could become a burden. By closure, a way to release the pressure, is simply to let everything go. Nothingness, eyes wide shut, a false moment of nirvana - to be free from entangled roots, to escape from woven webs.
A colour question
In her recent public photographs, Bak Suet-sin no longer wears tinted glasses. She has, perhaps at the age of 94, got closer to the state of profound peace and happiness - that coolness in Nirvana. The diva image of her, which I inherited since a child, was a photo image I could not recreate, especially under the pressure of an assignment. In my settling thoughts, the portrait I took twenty four years ago was just a glimpse of Bak’s long and colourful life, in black and white, a neutral shade among all the other colours. A sediment that has deposited and layered into the collective history of my small big city. A marker of memory, it stretches from my teens to adolescence. The only failure then, as I am thinking now, maybe just my inability to discharge the imaginary portrait, to bring it to closure, to treat it as a job done.
There remains indescribable melancholy, not of my inadequacy to capture a ‘presumably’ idyllic celebrity portrait of Bak, but of the aggravated, deliberate erasure by the government all colours attaining to the city’s past, together with the many shades in between. What will the colour be in my next portrait of Hong Kong, I wonder. Will it be the colour of Bauhinia, the immaculate city flower; or dim gray, a colour that describes my heart, which appears closer to the lower end of the achromatic value scale, or, would it be just another failing portrait - one that I cannot simply capture with a full stop.
A Holly Lee and Lee Ka-sing online magazine. Published on Fridays.
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Holly and Ka-sing currently live in Toronto with their daughter Iris, and their cat Sukimoto.