THE MARANG SERIES – EARLY EXPERIMENTS IN COLOUR
The eight-kilometer stretch of the coastal strip of the state of Trengganu, stretching from Chendering, Rusila, to the inlet of Sungai Marang was an area that His Royal Highness the late Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah had photographed more than others during his 55 years as an award-winning amateur photographer. The photographs he shot were of fishermen setting out to sea and returning; at work on the beaches mending their nets and unloading their catch; and, also of their families in a supporting role on the beaches, occasionally with little boys frolicking in the sea. Sultan Ismail took up photography in 1923 photographing exclusively in black and white. It was not until around 1952, with the availability of colour film in Malaya, that he started to shoot in colour.
Sultan Ismail, the ruler of the state of Trengganu immediately after World War II and later, Yang Di Pertuan Agong from 1965-70 experimented with colour photography more than anyone else in Malaya had done. He embraced colour photography a good six years before other photographers were confident enough to exhibit colour in the photography salons in Malaya in 1958. He had approached it in great fashion, with boldness and conviction when other photographers, not only in Malaya but also worldwide, were hesitant to embrace the new technology. Sultan Ismail’s talents flourished in this new medium. Colour to him was a way to complement his subjects rather than to overwhelm them. It is with this subtle approach that charm and poetry exude in the enlargement prints in this exhibition, possessing qualities inherent in the most romantic of paintings. MARANG: Early Experiments in Colour is an important exhibition as they reveal for the first time, enlargement prints of unique colour images taken 60 years after they were first shot. After lengthy work on colour restoration of digital scans of original Ektachrome transparencies and Kodacolor negatives, the images are now ready to be viewed.
In chronological order, this exhibition begins with hand coloured black and white photographs of Rusila 1949, followed by pure colour photographs shot a few years later with the advent of colour photography in Malaya. It ends with those from his island hopping days in the mid 1970s while on his cruiser Maziah, of spectacular sunsets over the mainland captured when anchored between the islands of Kapas and Gemia, just off the coast of Marang. They are unique, and they are also Malaysia’s largest and earliest body of work in colour on a single subject. Rusila 1949 and Fishermen seated with Nets 1966 in particularhighlight His Royal Highness’s trademark compositional strength of a complex situation (of numerous moving forms). In the former, he shows too his mastery of hand colouring in photo oils, having executed it with a supreme precision and assurance of not only a photographer, but also an artist with great sensitivity. The painterly Fishermen Seated with Nets 1966 is virtually a close up abstract study of forms. While the grandiose photos (taken with a zoom lens) of Pulau Kapas in the background and the mouth of the Marang River in mid ground convey a highly sophisticated, seemingly orchestrated design of strategically placed boats, fishermen, huts and baskets on a massive scale. Everything seems to be in place as if they were carefully set up shots. But this is not true of course, and it just goes to show the magical aesthetic qualities that the photographer possessed.
The earliest pure color images in this exhibition were shot using 2 x 2 inch or 6 x 9 Kodak colour film taken on a Plaubel camera. In later years it was 35mm Ektachrome transparencies with a Leica. Sultan Ismail also shot on the little-known Ansacolor 35 mm transparencies made by Agfa. The most recent of the Ansacolors date from 1966, but were only recovered from storage in 2015. The Ektachromes were recovered earlier in 1998 while the Kodacolors of the 1970s were only converted to digital this year. In his darkroom are printing manuals on Ektachrome and Ansacolor – evidence of his experiments in colour printing. But unlike monochrome printing, which was a life long practice, printing in colour was an endeavour that was one step too far for him, both in terms of time and financial viability. Therefore it was short-lived. As a result, most of the colour transparencies that are in existence were processed by professional laboratories in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Australia and perhaps, even the United States. So it was common for His Royal Highness to wait up to several months to see the results of his shots.
Photographers who shot in colour in Malaya, including Sultan Ismail himself, never had the privilege to view their own works in such glorious colour enlargements as this exhibition has presented. The quality of early printing was so inferior worldwide that the well-known and highly respected American, Ansel Adams (1902-1984) never made any real attempt to print his early transparencies, horrified by the inaccuracies made to the original source and their lack of archival qualities. The Sultan of Trengganu, Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah shot more than this coastal strip of Trengganu. He had also focused on the markets and rivers of his home state, together with scenes of Penang, Port Dickson, Kuala Kangsar, Taiping and Kuala Lumpur amongst others. They will be the subjects of future exhibitions.
© Raja Ihsan Shah, 2016
NOTE: The visuals in this exhibition will be offered for sale as archival limited edition prints printed on Hahnemuhle fine art paper, each image in an edition of 8. Each print will be authenticated and certified by the archives.
DATE: 12 April - 31 May 2016
VIEWING HOURS: Mon-Thur 10 am - 2 pm; Sat 12- 4 pm. Other times by Appointment
VENUE: G4 Taman Tunku Apartments
Off Langgak Tunku
50480 Kuala Lumpur