Painful visits to photo studio

Our 1967 family photo taken at
Chau Wah Photo Studio with Peggy in
front row, 2nd from Right
Poke around your parents’ house and you may find family photos taken in a local photo studio at different stages of your life.  In those days it was an annual tradition for families to take formal family photos, probably to chart the children’s growth through the years.  I remember our studio shots were taken once a year, usually around Christmas or Chinese New Year when we were smartly dressed in new clothes. 

Now only a handful of these traditional photo studios which our older generation used to patronize, are still in business in Johor Baru.  The corner shop, No. 25 Jalan Ibrahim, opposite K. Abdul Wahab & Co and Johor Central Store, was once occupied by Chau Wah Photo Studio, a business which is now re-branded as Fotolaju Imaging.  This was where our family went regularly for our formal family photos. 

Among the few established photo studios are royal photographers who are so skilled in their profession that they were hand-picked to take the royal family’s official portraits.  Some rare black-and-white photos of Sultan Ibrahim Al-Masyhur ibni Abu Bakar who was Sultan of Johor from 1895 to 1959 and his wife, Lady Marcella with their daughter, Tunku Miriam, are still displayed in Johor Heng Photo Studio at Jalan Ibrahim.  This first-floor photo studio is now a destination in our city’s Iskandar Puteri Heritage Trail.

Photo studios have always played a vital role in weddings.  Unlike modern couples who complete all their indoor and outdoor photography on a separate date, couples in the olden days would fit a photo studio visit into their day’s itinerary while they were fully decked out in their wedding finery.  Their studio shots would probably be an economical package with a few formal poses and only one photo to be enlarged and framed.

Besides operating their studios, these professional photographers were also engaged to take quality photos for State and official events.  I still remember observing the photographer from Film Star Photo Studio, armed with bulky cameras, sophisticated lens and flash, on various field assignments including our school concerts and sports day.  His studio shifted its premises several times and is now located at Jalan Trus.

Ah kong's family photo with my mum [Back Row 4th from Left]
and Aunty Sylvia holidng a plastic fish [Front Row far Left]
Recently I was fascinated to see a wooden rattle in Johor Heng Photo Studio which the photographer used to attract the attention of babies and young children for that precise moment to capture a perfect picture.  This reminded me of ah kong’s (grandfather) family photo which taken when their youngest daughter, Aunty Sylvia, was a restless toddler and the photographer provided a plastic fish to amuse her.  It appears that these resourceful photographers were also equipped with toys to distract their young clients.

A friend who showed me his studio photo taken at age 11, asked me to spot something unusual in that photo.  At first I did not see anything strange because he was smiling into the camera, dressed in a smart shirt and long trousers but looking closer, I realized that his shoes were a few sizes too big for him.  He confessed that he insisted on wearing those pointed shoes and felt good dressed fashionably for his formal studio pose.

Unlike him, I loathe posing for the camera probably because I was put off by stressful experiences in the photo studio.  When our family stood in front of that ancient wooden box shutter camera, the meticulous photographer would shuffle us around to get us organized in the most symmetrical pose.  He would even show us how to place our feet – one in front of the other with ankles together and feet apart at a 45-degree angle – and tilt our faces a little to the left or right and by that time, I would have lost all patience to hold that smile or pose prettily for him.

“Siew, siew, tey,” meaning, ‘smile a little’ in Cantonese, the photographer would say repeatedly to coax me to force a smile onto my frowning face.  It didn’t help when I had to wear dresses that had sewn-in crinoline can-cans or prickly petticoats that scratched and irritated me.  So when I wore such dresses, I also wore a scowl because I had to fight the temptation to squirm with discomfort in front of the camera. 

Another formal family photo
with me sitting on mum's lap
The studio usually gave us proof-copies to check and would touch-up the final photos to make us look most flattering but at that time there was still not yet any technology to photo-edit in a smile.  Some of us are not naturally photogenic so I always worried that when I tried to force a smile, I would turn out looking hideous.  Thankfully, I managed to cooperate with the photographer and our formal family photos turned out all right. 

It’s seems quite impossible to imagine but there was a time when photography was the domain of the professionals.  With advanced technology in digital cameras and built-in cameras in mobile-phones, almost everyone is an amateur photographer now.  Our visit to the studio these days would likely be only to snap standard passport photos. 

After years of posing for formal studio photos, you may think I have mastered some camera posing techniques but no, not yet.  I’m still uncomfortable in front of a camera and when my friends view our group shots, they will ask, “Eh, where are you?” because I’m seldom in the photos.  And I tell them, “I’m the one behind the camera.”

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 16 May 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment