2006 | Kyotek Sae-Wu’s
12 photographs during 1969-1973
By Natee Utarit
4 – 22 November 2006
Kieotek Sae Ngow
Kieotek Sae Ngow was my mother’s godfather. Tachew Chinese by birth, he left his native China and settled in Thailand shortly after the Second World War. My mother taught me to call him “Kong,” an affectionate term for grandfather. Because I was just a little boy back then, there isn’t a lot I remember about Kong, except how when he took my mother and me places, he always had his camera with him.
In the late 50s and early 60s, it wasn’t all that common to have your own camera. In fact, it made you rather special. Taking pictures was still a pretty complicated process, and the cost of film and developing made it a fairly expensive hobby. Most people back then – my father included – had little interest in photography. It just didn’t seem to be such an important part of life.
But Kong was always taking photographs. He’d write out in Chinese script the date, time, place, and special occasion on the back of every picture. Sometimes there’d be a small Chinese calendar attached. Most of the photographs I still have today were taken between 1969 and 1974, just a couple of years before Kong’s death. After that, there aren’t any more photographs of my family for another twenty years.
Those old photographs make me think of the new 8 megapixel digital camera I use today. Modern technology has turned the past and our memories into little more than bits of data you can edit and rearrange. For me, that word data has such a cold, harsh and impersonal feeling. It’s so different from the way that people used to try to hold on to the past. It was harder back then – it took real effort and determination, and this gave it value and a true depth of emotion that’s lacking today.
Sometimes ease and convenience can coarsen the way we think and act. People today take hundreds, even thousands more pictures than their parents and grandparents did. And there are other new devices besides cameras that we can take pictures with. What photography means today is that we can take pictures any time of the day or night, in any place, and on any occasion. I’ve got more than a thousand digital picture files I’ve taken over just the last few months, and while this is something that should make me feel happy, I can’t honestly say I feel any real attachment to any of the pictures. I remember saying to one of my friends how these days we hardly have time to really look at photographs any more. All we see are pixels – dots of color – that are computer processed into lifelike images.
These revolutionary changes in technology are utterly astounding, when I think of how the exquisite romanticism of the past, so evident in old photographs, has been almost entirely expunged in the span of just a few years.
I’ve always been amazed by how much miniature paintings are able to convey. They’re an invitation to wonder. I still remember looking at some 16th century Italian miniatures and how they absolutely hypnotized me. Those tiny paintings that seemed so insignificant at first had this amazing power to draw me in and hold me. I couldn’t help but be struck by their ability to open up this space and time where I could stop and look into my own mind.
I like seeing people standing still and studying a work of art. I like the fact that they’ve slowed down their lives and taken a moment for more careful reflection. So many things convince me that time passes so much more quickly today than it did in the past. And the more we turn our attention to the future – the more we worry about what’s to come – the greater the difference in our feelings about the past.
Most of us treasure our own past because our image of it doesn’t change. It’s fixed. Time and its relation to how we conceive of the past is identical to time and its relation to the world of painting. In both cases it’s constant and slow and moves in big, endless cycles. Painting at its best can function as a bridge – as an emotional harbor. It can take us out of the relentless passage of time and offer us a place where we feel safe and still.
These twelve family portraits have all been repainted in the hope of capturing the common ground between the nature of recording, reproducing, recollecting, and the discourse of time in painting. More importantly, they are also an homage to the artistic sensitivities of Kong, an amateur Chinese photographer who managed to turn ordinary picture taking into something precious and beautiful.