Paint­ing with a cam­era

Leo K.K. Wong’s works make for a happy mar­riage of the photographic and the painterly. A show of rep­re­sen­ta­tive works by the mas­ter pho­tog­ra­pher is now on in the city. Chi­tralekha Basu re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE -

Leo Wong made a com­plete U-turn from his ear­lier style, mov­ing from land­scapes to cre­at­ing ab­stract images of na­ture in vivid col­ors.

It’s hard to be­lieve Leo K.K. Wong never pho­to­shopped an im­age in his more than 50 years of wield­ing the cam­era. In his ren­di­tion, lo­tus leaves ap­pear in a stun­ning shade of cerulean blue. Plum blos­soms grow­ing on tree branches look like an in­tense fuschia red for­est ready to erupt in flames.

The artist’s stead­fast loy­alty to old tech­nol­ogy seems to have served him well. Us­ing a film cam­era rather than go­ing dig­i­tal al­lows him to ma­nip­u­late the play of light on the pho­to­sen­si­tive film roll. He says the sur­real land­scapes he cre­ates are a re­sult of al­low­ing mul­ti­ple ex­po­sures and vary­ing the shut­ter speed. But then not ev­ery­one who prefers ana­logue over dig­i­tal can in­vest na­ture with the lux­u­ri­ant, fan­tas­ti­cal, breath­tak­ing al­lure that Wong seems to be able to achieve.

Ex­treme pa­tience is prob­a­bly at the heart of Wong’s won­drous images in which lo­tus leaves float­ing on a pond glow like LED flash­lights and a snow-cov­ered land­scape with a flock of herons graz­ing on it looks like a hand-painted Christ­mas card. Wong seems to have an in­tu­itive sense of the per­fect mo­ment and the per­sis­tence to wait for hours to- gether un­til he can freeze it.

When he had be­gun tak­ing pic­tures, way back in 1965 (a some­what late en­trant to pho­tog­ra­phy at 34) he would set off for Kowloon or the New Ter­ri­to­ries at 6 am and wait there un­til mid­day, train­ing his cam­era on the stream of peo­ple who went about their daily chores. He would park him­self in a quiet cor­ner of the com­mu­nity play ar­eas in newly-built hous­ing es­tates, or visit the sprawl­ing beaches where the kids frol­icked around with­out a care. Wong says he misses the sense of sheer aban­don with which chil­dren played on Hong Kong’s streets and other pub­lic spa­ces in the 1960s. At that time he shot only land­scapes in mono­chrome — an em­pa­thetic, some­times joy­ous, nod to a way of life that was slower and less stress­ful than the way it ap­pears now.

Cyn­ics might ar­gue that Wong’s Hong Kong land­scapes are way too beau­ti­ful to pass off as real. Even when he is por­tray­ing me­nial la­bor­ers and road­side ven­dors, there’s a dreamy, some­what un­real qual­ity about them.

Wong tells us he wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily ig­nor­ing the harsh and un­sa­vory el­e­ments of life when he went about look­ing for sub­jects in Hong Kong’s fish­ing vil­lages, schools and mar­ket­places. “At that time Hong Kong wasn’t a very rich so­ci­ety but you can see the peo­ple were quite happy.”

Be­sides, he says, doc­u­men­ta­tion of Hong Kong life was never a pri­or­ity for him, although he ended up do­ing a bit of that as well by de­fault. For the same rea­son he took care to not leave ob­vi­ous and iden­ti­fi­able ref­er­ences to the city’s ar­chi­tec­ture and generic fea­tures in his land­scapes.

“I have con­sciously avoided in­clud­ing Hong Kong land­marks in my pho­tos,” says Wong. “Some pho­tog­ra­phers in my time would use a wide-an­gle lens. They wanted to in­clude ev­ery­thing, like nowa­days the trend is to take shots from high above. Peo­ple say these would have a historic value. Then I never thought of my pho­tos as ma­te­ri­als for his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence.”

Learn­ing from the finest

In the 1970s, Wong won the In­ter­na­tional Sa­lon Ex­hi­bi­tions hosted by the Photographic So­ci­ety of Amer­ica, nine years in a row, pick­ing up the top prize four times. And yet his first ma­jor solo show in his home­town was not held un­til 2002. By that time he had re-in­vented his photographic per­sona completely, go­ing from mono­chrome to color, and from land­scapes to ab­stract, in­ter­pre­ta­tive takes on na­ture. In be­tween, for about 10 years, he had stopped tak­ing pho­tos completely, choos­ing to study Chinese paint­ings and cal­lig­ra­phy in­stead.

He seems to have sought out the best teach­ers when he wanted to pick up a skill. Just as his med­i­cal de­grees were earned at world-renowned in­sti­tutes in the UK, when it came to cul­ti­vat­ing artis­tic skills, Wong learnt his craft by watch­ing the cre­ative pro­cesses of the best in the line. His first guru in pho­tog­ra­phy was the mas­ter pho­tog­ra­pher and por­traitist S.F. Dan (Deng Xue­feng). Wong also learnt from his close friend, the pho­tog­ra­pher­film­maker Ho Fan, who could ma­nip­u­late the play of light and shade on the vary­ing street lev­els in down­town Hong Kong to as­tound­ing ef­fects. So when Wong de­cided to cre­ate pho­tos with a painterly feel, he turned to the Chinese mas­ter painter Zhu Qizhan for guid­ance. “That old man was an ex­pert in man­ag­ing col­ors,” says Wong. “His brush­strokes were very pow­er­ful. He en­cour­aged me to do min­i­mal­ist com­po­si­tions, and use sym­bols and sug­ges­tions.”

When he took up his cam­era again, in 1995, Wong was back in a new avatar, pro­duc­ing hyp­notic, sur­real images in vivid, un­worldly col­ors.

Hong Kong, says Wong, be­came aware of his land­scapes in mono­chrome only af­ter he did a joint ex­hi­bi­tion with ac­tor Chow Yun-fat in 2009, in which Wong’s blackand-white por­traits of Hong Kong from the 1970s were placed against Chow’s more con­tem­po­rary ones. A ret­ro­spec­tive of his oeu­vre, span­ning more than 50 years, can now be seen at Hong Kong’s Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery. This is the first time Wong’s work is in the mar­ket. Gallery owner Cather­ine Kwai in­forms the show has met with con­sid­er­able in­ter­est from sea­soned and toplevel col­lec­tors, although the idea of pho­to­graphs as high-value col­lectibles is yet to catch on in the city.

Kwai says they wanted to pitch Wong’s pho­tos as “works of fine art, with long-term col­lec­tion value”, a sta­tus she feels is richly de­served by a man hav­ing such a long and il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer. For a pho­tog­ra­pher who draws heav­ily on the paint­ing tra­di­tions of China — from the splashed ink art tech­nique to the min­i­mal­ist charm of line draw­ings to the in­ter­play of light and ri­otous col­ors — such recog­ni­tion cannot be too far away.


Leo Wong’s monochro­matic land­scapes of Hong Kong from the 1960s hark back to a time when life in the city was more care­free than it is to­day.


In the last 20 years

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