Masters in black and white

Chua Soo Bin: Truths & Legends, featuring works by photographer Chua Soo Bin (left), is the National Gallery Singapore's first exhibition focusing on photography.
Chua Soo Bin: Truths & Legends, featuring works by photographer Chua Soo Bin (above), is the National Gallery Singapore's first exhibition focusing on photography.PHOTOS: CHUA SOO BIN, KELLY HUI, NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE
Chua Soo Bin: Truths & Legends, featuring works by photographer Chua Soo Bin (left), is the National Gallery Singapore's first exhibition focusing on photography.
Left: Self-portrait (1970s). Right: Ng Eng Teng (1989).
Left: Chen Wen Hsi (1985 to 1988). Right: Liu Kang (2003).
Left: Chen Wen Hsi (1985 to 1988). Right: Liu Kang (2003).
Left: Ye Qianyu (1985 to 1988). Right: Huang Junbi (1985 to 1988).
Left: Ye Qianyu (1985 to 1988). Right: Huang Junbi (1985 to 1988).

Photographer Chua Soo Bin's 1980s series Legends, featuring 14 artists going about their daily lives, is part of a show of his work at National Gallery Singapore

Singapore photographer Chua Soo Bin is known for his black-and-white portraits of 14 Chinese ink masters. But none of the images in that 1980s series, Legends, shows the artists making their work.

"I had a different plan - I wanted to capture their daily lives," says 87-year-old Chua, whose works will be shown at the National Gallery Singapore from Friday as part of a retrospective exhibition.

The series is included in the nearly 100 photographic works on display, ranging from a portrait of Singapore artist Chen Wen Hsi burning the artworks he was not satisfied with, to commercial work such as images of the Singapore Girl in the Singapore Airlines calendar.

Some of the portraits - for example, those of Chen, Ye Qianyu and Guan Shanyue - are accompanied by the artists' paintings.

Chua came up with the idea for Legends in the early 1980s, after three decades in the advertising business left him with a desire to shoot something more "real".

The series, which was selffinanced, has not been shown much in Singapore since it was first exhibited in 1989. All 14 of the featured artists - who were photographed in their old age - have since died.

"In the end, we exhibited 84 photos. Each took me only a fraction of a second to shoot, but I needed four years to capture them all," says Chua, who would meet each artist at least three or four times to understand him better. He shot the artists with natural light and a high film speed using a Nikon F3 camera.

  • VIEW IT/CHUA SOO BIN: TRUTHS & LEGENDS

    WHERE: Wu Guanzhong Gallery, Level 4 City Hall Wing, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Friday to June 28, 10am to 7pm daily, till 9pm on Fridays

    ADMISSION: Free for Singaporeans and permanent residents

    INFO: For more information on the exhibition and related talks and curator tours, go to www.nationalgallery.sg/truthsandlegends


    PANEL DISCUSSION: LEGENDS IN THE MAKING

    WHERE: The Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium, Basement 1 City Hall Wing, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Friday, 6.30 to 7.45pm

    ADMISSION: Free with registration at bit.ly/2Y5M7E8

    INFO: Chua Soo Bin, artist Li Xingjian and art critic Liu Xilin will discuss Chua's Legends series. The session is moderated by art critic Teo Han Wue and will be conducted in Mandarin with simultaneous interpretation in English. Go to bit.ly/2Y7fmGB

Each image tells a story - from a shot of Chinese artist Tang Yun raising a glass ("He knew how to enjoy life," says Chua) to one of Chinese artist Lu Yanshao and seven pebbles he had picked from a river in China during the wartime years.

Chua, who persuaded the ink masters to be photographed by winning them over with his sincerity, lets on that he was careful to sidestep certain sensitivities.

His photo of artist Liu Haisu being carried up China's Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) on a litter, for example, was published only after the artist's death so as not to offend him.

Liu and fellow artist Wu Zuoren, who was also featured, did not get along. Chua says in Mandarin: "When I showed Wu Zuoren the dummy version of the book (featuring the Legends series), I didn't include the parts on Liu Haisu, and when I showed the dummy to Liu, I removed Wu."

Chua worked in advertising agencies for several decades before setting up his own photo studio in 1972.

He is also known for his photos of the Singapore Girl, which appeared in the Singapore Airlines annual calendar. These are on display in the exhibition, along with archival materials and a documentary from 1989.

In 1988, he received the Cultural Medallion for photography. Two years later, he founded Soo Bin Art Gallery (now SooBin Art International), one of the first platforms in Singapore showing works by emerging avant-garde Chinese artists.

Chua, a congenial man who continues to travel often, describes art as a source of "joy and strength".

He is generous with his advice, dishing out tips to the photographer who was assigned to take his portrait last week: "Don't ask for permission. Just shoot first. Also, the light in front (of a figure) needs to be a bit dimmer than the light behind him - then you get a sense of depth and a more threedimensional quality."

He hopes the exhibition will encourage Singaporeans to find out more about these ink masters.

"I feel that there's still a lot of scope for artwork on paper - people might not feel these are worth a lot of money, but they are really representative of the Eastern tradition."

Chua Soo Bin: Truths & Legends is the National Gallery Singapore's first exhibition focusing on photography.

The gallery's director Eugene Tan says: "While photography has traditionally been under-researched in Singapore, it has played a significant role in our art history.

"We hope this retrospective will raise awareness of Chua's significant contributions to Singapore's art scene as a photographer, a gallerist, an art dealer and an art patron.

"At the same time, visitors will be inspired to learn more about Singapore's very own photographers and reflect on the changing role of photography."


Life in monochrome

Self-portrait (1970s)

Chua Soo Bin took this self-portrait to promote his services in the 1970s, after he had quit Cathay Advertising and set up his own photography studio in Oxley Road. This photo was used in a tongue-in-cheek advertisement alerting the public to the presence of one "photographer at large". He was later hired to shoot multiple high-profile campaigns.

Ng Eng Teng (1989)

"Many of my artists' photos have some relation to the sort of art they made," Chua says, with a nod to this inkjet print on paper image of Singapore sculptor Ng Eng Teng.

"Eng Teng's works are quite round, so I used a fisheye lens to make him look like one of his sculptures."

Chen Wen Hsi (1985 to 1988)

Painter Chen Wen Hsi, the only Singapore artist in the Legends series, was one of the pioneers of the Nanyang style - a marriage of Chinese and Western styles and techniques of painting. He is perhaps best known for his paintings of gibbons, two of which are printed on the back of Singapore's $50 note.

Liu Kang (2003)

This image of renowned Singapore painter Liu Kang and his wife Chen Jen Pen is one of more than 20 intimate portraits Chua took of him before his death in 2004. They show Liu as an artist as well as a husband, father and grandfather. "He had a very loving relationship with his wife," he says.

Ye Qianyu (1985 to 1988)

Chinese painter Ye Qianyu decided to hang up his brush after the authorities in China chose to tear down his courtyard home. Chua read about this in a Beijing newspaper, which prompted this shot.

Huang Junbi (1985 to 1988)

Chinese artist Huang Junbi, pictured here doing his daily morning exercise in his garden, was known for his paintings of Chinese ink landscapes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2019, with the headline 'Masters in black and white'. Print Edition | Subscribe