Linhof Factory, Munich 18 April 1969

HRH Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah was born in Kuala Trengganu on 24th January 1907.  He was the 14th Sultan of Trengganu from 1946-79 and the 4thYang Di Pertuan Agong (King) of Malaysia from 1965-70.  Apart from his official duties, he was also known for his exceptional ability as a photographer.  He was a patron of the Photographic Society of Malaya (then Malaysia)  the Camera Club of Selangor, and the founder of the Camera Club of Trengganu.  In 1959, for his services to photography in Malaya he was made an honourable life member  of the Photographic Society of Singapore.  He was the first Malay photographer to be an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society (United Kingdom) in 1958.  In 1965 he was awarded the EFIAP (Excellence, Federation Internationale de l’Art Photographique) Switzerland.  He is acknowledged as the pioneer of modern Malaysian photography.  


Several of his photographs of the 1950s and early 1960s were seen at various Malayan Photo Salons during that period. His street scenes of Kuala Lumpur were shown at the Malaya Independence Trade Fair that formed part of the independence celebrations of Malaya in 1957.  However, his exhibited photographs are a very small fraction compared to those many more not seen or even printed until recent years.   Although he had always worked on his own and took photographs that were quite different than his contemporaries, he was generous to use his high office to lend indispensable support  to the Salon circuit.   Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at many salons in Malaya and Singapore were presented under his name.  After 1965, his photographs regrettably disappeared from public exhibitions and were kept in storage until 1997 when Galeri Petronas held a mini-retrospective of his Trengganu photographs.  The same gallery also hosted a smaller exhibition in 2008, this time at the Petronas Twin Towers.  After a long absence from the public exhibition domain, Sultan Ismail's were exhibited in Feb - March 2017 at the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. This major and extremely successful exhibition attracted international and local visitors in droves and showed unseen works, most of them recently discovered: and digitally restored colour images, dating from 1930s to 1971.  It was also the first time handcolored works were shown.


Sultan Ismail was 16 when he was first given a camera, a Kodak.  But it was not until 1928 at the age of 21 that he seriously took up photography, learning how to develop films and plates on his own, as well as making enlargements using only  kerosene lamp and the sun’s ray's due to the lack of electricity and purified water supply in Trengganu. In 1929 he took lessons on picture-making from an elderly retired Japanese photographer by the name of Yamada whose traces of influence can be seen substantially in Sultan Ismail's works.  But essentially as an amateur, he was not bound by any rules and was free to experiment.  He  did so not only in the type of shots he had taken but also through a variety of cameras such as the Kodak Premo, a 4 x 6 studio camera, the Leica III and a Graflex Pre-Anniversary Speed Graphic.  Regrettably when war came to Malaya,  he was forced to “present” his cameras to the Japanese occupying forces and was left with no choice but to abandon his photography pursuits altogether.  Very few of his works from the pre-war era survived.  By 1948 he was able to resume his passion for the art, now in a position that he had never envisaged, as the Sultan and Ruler of Trengganu.  The camera he favoured by then was a Plaubel Makina III, a medium format German press camera.  He explored many areas of photography, and resumed some of the things which he had been forced to abandon, including the Japanese technique of zokingake - hand colouring of photographs.   In the late 1950s he even ventured into color printing of Ektachrome films and also had a passion for cine-film; on many occasions was seen carrying his Bell & Howell 8mm cine camera together with his still-cameras. 


He was peerless, a purist visionary, well ahead of his countrymen when in the 1920s he practiced photography based on a Pictorialist discipline but with a heavy slant towards a modernist Straight Photography platform, infusing a mix of Western and Japanese photographic sensibilities to create the birth of a new Malayan style of photography. Not only did he capture traditional aspects of Malay culture and practices, he also rendered visible the modernisation of a new Malaya that was looking for its rightful place in the global arena. Sadly, his important contributions are not a widely known fact in Malaysia and Singapore, where there is hardly any material written about early photographers or the development of history of the medium itself.  For Sultan Ismail it was only from 1997 that there were reviews on his works;  but since there is no written history, writers are struggling to define him and had to base their opinions entirely on quick observations of the few photographs that they had seen through the exhibitions. Henceforth, the real significance and value of his achievements in photography are not fully appreciated even in his own country that mostly remembers him only as a former King.   But a recent review of his rare and scarce photographs from his early period of the 1930s;  unprinted shots from 1948-72; and, personal notes and negatives just discovered in his archives, Sultan Ismail's role as the nation's earliest photographer will be redefined and find its proper place.


In 1965 with Sultan Ismail’s ascension to the throne of the Yang DiPertuan Agong (The Exalted Ruler or King) of Malaysia his ability to take photographs became severely limited due to the protocol of his high office.  Even so, he was still able to take pictures of what could be considered the most historical and powerfully emotive photographs ever taken of independent Malaysia – the deserted streets of Kuala Lumpur under curfew following the disturbances of 13 May1969; or in his own words, “Kuala Lumpur Berkurung”.  It was Street Photography with a rare deviation that captured shots devoid of any visible form of life.  Sultan Ismail resumed his role as the Sultan of Terengganu in 1970 and  returned permanently to his home town of Kuala Trengganu.   From then on until his demise in 1979, whenever away from official duties he would dedicate himself to his darkroom at his home, the Istana Badariah; occasionally venturing to the countryside, rivers, nearby islands and coastal strip with his camera just the way he did 50 years before.


© Raja Ihsan Shah (Oct. 2011)

HRH Sultan Ismail : The lost Photographs

State Visit to Germany 1969