“In my first week in Singapore I was taken to an entrance into a piece of jungle along Holland Road. The gate had a sign depicting a man with a gun warning off all intruders. It was far more dramatic than the signs I had just left behind in my native England which threated trespassers on private land with a simple fine. I was rather nervous as I followed my guide, a fellow art director, through a jungle path. We eventually came upon a Nissan hut, a curved corrugated iron structure, left behind by the British army. This hidden piece of land was owned by the Sultan of Johore who actually had a palace there. This was the location of a photographic studio. Willie Tang, a young local photographer, but one already recognised as amongst the top three or four in Singapore worked here for many years. One of his biggest clients was Batey Ads, one of the few agencies which could afford his high fees (for those days). While he did indulge himself with ‘toys’ like high end stereo systems, he also invested heavily in quality equipment (there were no rental firms in those days and, unlike London, none of the local photographers would share which meant each had to buy all the expensive equipment themselves even if they only used it two or three times a year). While many art directors loved working with Willie because of the quality of his work, the ex-pats, in particular, liked the location of Tang’s jungle studio. “
This recollection was given to me by Allein Moore who touched down in Singapore in 1979 to work on the Singapore Airlines account.
By the time he arrived, there were already well-established photographic firms specialising in advertising/commercial work. Though newspapers started to accept photographs from around the late twenties, it wasn’t till thirty years later that the practice became widespread. Advertisers thereupon began to switch wholesale from illustration to black and white shots of their product or models.
After World War 2, the larger advertising agencies employed in-house photographers. Others went to the few portrait photographers to get pack shots and other simple shots produced. One of the first to move into commercial work was Peter Robinson, who operated from his namesake studio in the original Heering Building at Orchard Road. Other similar studios at that time were Tong Photo in Serrangoon Road and Chew Photo Studio in Chinatown.
Incidentally, Helmut Newton, considered today as one of the world’s top fashion and advertising photographers, had arrived in Singapore in 1938 and work for a short time for the Straits Times which fired him for not being good enough! Because of his German decent, he was interned by the British in 1940. Newton went on to have his photos published in Vogue and Playboy as well as in high-profile ad campaigns.
Wong How Khin, aka Robert Wong, and Mun Chor Khoon were in-house agency photographers who later collaborated to form Mun & Wong, destined to became one of the leading firms servicing the expanding advertising industry in the seventies and eighties. Mun was considered to be the best car photographer in town.
Mun had concurrently, while an in-house photographer, formed a pioneering independent studio called Unigraphic with partners James W. Ho, Harold Teo and the ‘baby’ of the group, Willie Tang. These four were followed by studios set up by Chua Soo Bin, Philip Little and Kurt Rolfes, Teo Keng Beng, Lawrence Chong, Teo Tee Hua, Tham Han Chew, and William Leong amongst others.
Willie Tang welcomed to his studio top foreign photographers who were brought in to Singapore by agencies to work on major projects and he willingly worked as an assistant. This experience enabled him to mature and learn faster than many others. Tang eventually moved into directing TV commercials and is now based in Thailand.
Chua Soo Bin, who had filled his studio just off River Valley Road with antiques and artwork, eventually retired to become an art dealer and open up a gallery.
Kurt Rolfes had arrived in Asia with the American forces and became a broadcaster before moving into photography. He was better known to the public in Singapore for his voice-over and in particular for a commercial where he announced in his rich American accent “The time by Raymond Weil is…”
Han Chew sadly died on 22 October 2014 at only 63 years of age. Philip Little also passed away; on the first day of October 2012 after a second serious motorcycle accident within five years. He was a rather eccentric Englishman, often seen pottering around on an old motorbike dressed in old- fashioned khaki shorts. Little published a book called ‘Singapore by the Backdoor’ which captured scenes of Singapore that were fast disappearing under urbanisation and development. His regular parties kept him on good terms with the ad and media crowd. He moved to Indonesia and then Malaysia in the latter part of his life, where he felt more comfortable in a less built-up environment.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of commercial photographers emerged. Corporate Lawyer Yim Chee Peng hung up his legal eagle wig in 1980 to specialise in food photography; with SIA and MPH among his many clients. In the same year, former chief plainclothes security officer, Sebastian Tan, first worked for Winson Photo and after seven years, set up Shooting Gallery. Lee Jen operated out of First Photo for almost 14 years before striking out on his own to form J Studio in 1994. In the late eighties, Russel Wong came home to his roots to continue his career after almost a decade of shooting Hollywood celebrities. There’s also art director Billy Mork who got behind the camera from 1980, went on to architectural school in 1993 and gradually came back to photography after the turn of the millennium.
But many would be swept away as the advertising industry, and its needs, changed. Retouching studios for transparencies and black & white prints, which employed many talented artists, disappeared when computer programmes were created to manipulate images and colours.
Sebastian Tan recognised the tsunami coming to the industry and set up a subsidiary, Wishing Well, to handle digital retouching. He also personally moved into film direction and successfully sought commissions from the region.
Continuing to hold the standards set by the pioneers is a new crop of young photographers who are equally at home in the real and virtual worlds. These young hotshots include Tokyo-based N.D. Chow who commands top Yen in the Japanese media industry , and Stefan Chow, now working on international brands out of Beijing but once stood on top of the world as a member of Singapore’s second Mount Everest expedition. On the home front, we have the likes of Tan Teck Hiang from Teck Photography whose forte is things on wheels, mostly four, sometimes two. And, oh, loves multimillion dollar jewellery pieces – even if he only gets to shoot them.
The photo libraries and online access to images has made it difficult for any but the best or highly specialised to survive into the 2000s. The latitude in the modern digital camera has also encouraged non-professionals to save money and shoot their own photographs further constricting the market for commercial photography.
It is, however, the creative eye that can see and capture a unique image that will save the professional photographer in Singapore and elsewhere.
Henry Tan has published a book on the pioneers in the Photography Profession’. http://ppas.sg/site/