PORNSAK SAKDAENPRAIUntitled, 1965, Silver gelatin print, 18.0 × 23.3 cm. 

Courtesy Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Bangkok.

Pornsak Sakdaenprai

Kathmandu photo Gallery
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Exhibitions of art photography have burgeoned in Thailand thanks to Kathmandu Photo Gallery, which has consistently shown curatorial enterprise since opening in Bangkok in 2006 under the directorship of Manit Sriwanichpoom, himself an established photographer. One highlight has been an occasional series of shows titled “Seeking Forgotten Thai Photographers,” which focuses on little-known but remarkable studio and magazine lensmen who worked long before the local emergence of contemporary art some 20 years ago. Manit’s intention is twofold: to demonstrate that Thailand historically has had its own strong photographers and to trace reflections of democracy in local photographic production of years past. 

Perhaps the richest and most unexpected discovery in the series so far has been the work of the 74-year-old self-taught photographer Pornsak Sakdaenprai, who, in 1959, at the age of 21, opened a small portrait studio in the rural Phimai district of Nakhon Ratchasima province, at the site of an ancient Khmer stone-temple complex. Pornsak had begun his practice a year earlier, selling souvenir photos to tourists visiting via the region’s newly opened highway. For many years he used only sunlight to develop his prints and to light his studio, since electricity had yet to reach the area.

The exhibition, his first ever, consisted of some 30 photos from 1965 to 1967, arranged in three groups according to Pornsak’s stylistic responses to how the Phimai villagers wanted to be portrayed. One set featured portraits shot in the style of old album covers of Thai country music, called look thung, which was then in its heyday. In Pornsak’s images, the men emulate their idols, with slicked-back hair, each wearing the same suit jacket, shirt and watch loaned by the studio, an unlit cigarette dangling stylishly from one hand. The women sport bouffant hair and modern dresses. Pornsak retouched all shots to lighten the villagers’ sun-weathered skin and thickened eyebrows and lashes by etching directly onto the glass negatives. (For this show, the negatives were printed in full, revealing the numbered tags pinned to the subjects for identification, normally cropped out in Pornsak’s prints.)

Another set featured group portraits—various combinations of young men, women and boys—taken in front of the studio’s crudely painted backdrop portraying a city street with modern concrete buildings. In one photo, a rakish and hopeful-looking young man gingerly places his arm on the shoulder of a young woman, who stands a chaste distance apart from him as she stares uncertainly into the lens. In the man’s other hand dangles the iconic cigarette. Another photo shows a boy proudly wielding a large transistor radio—a shot to send to his mother working overseas to prove that he had spent her remittance as promised. 

Most remarkable was the third group of photos, which featured paired and seemingly artless headshots of young men who had become Buddhist monks. One shot showed a monk with his hair and eyebrows shaved off, as per monastic rules, while another depicted him in an identical pose wearing the studio’s loaned suit and with a full head of etched-on hair. Yet the apparent “before and after” shots are misleading. Pornsak came to specialize in these portraits after a young monk asked him to retouch his photo to see how he would look as a layman. The monk found the resulting image to be useful in flirting with women, and it became a local fad. 

The show succeeded as a nostalgic window into a nearly lost time and place, revealing the lives of rural Thais in an era when the countryside was transitioning toward greater integration with the capital, through the spread of roads, technology and pop culture. Also compelling was Pornsak’s inventiveness given his limited means. Half a century ago, when a photograph was still a special occasion, it is clear that people were driven by the same impulses underlying today’s Instagram and Photoshop—to commemorate a relationship, to project an idealized self, to emulate popular idols. The show further raised the tantalizing prospect that more unsung Thai artists still await discovery. Pornsak, meanwhile, continues to shoot, and has also recently completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration.