Sunday, August 06, 2006

Art and commerce

The last exhibition in the Out of Focus series at Basheers is 'Finding George' by amateur photographer Teo Chee Shern. He kindly invited me to the opening of his exhibition last Thursday but I had to attend Parvathi Nayar's exhibition opening at the Arts House. (Parvathi's exhibition is called Drawing is a Verb and is very good.)

Well, I met up with Chee Shern last Saturday to see his exhibition and talk to him. The exhibition was impressions of George Town, Penang. He has taken images of the less common scenes, capturing a feeling of nostalgia. Very emotive. I saw 4 out of 5 of the Out of Focus exhibitions, and I must say I enjoyed them all. The photographers were young, but made up with guts and intelligence. Well done, Kay Chin, for spotting these less well known photographers and giving them an opportunity to show their work.

I guess that I was flattered by Chee Shern because he liked my exhibition 'Eyes Wide Open' a lot. We talked about an hour and a half about photography. One of the things that got me thinking was that he found my Rajasthan series pretty but not distinctly Ngiap Heng. He felt that the 'Eyes wide Open' series was more about me. And to a certain extent he is right. 'Eyes Wide Open' holds a special place in my heart. And the entire series felt like a gift from the powers that be. Nowadays, I am more technically proficient, but just maybe I am thinking too much. When any artists gets training, their work usually gets worse before getting better. The work gets more technically proficient, but the artists loses the connection to the world. That beginner's luck or childlike vision. At some stage, one has to stop thinking about technique and see with the inner child's eyes again.

The conversation continued to the artistic inhibiting properties of commercial work. Commercial work is about problem solving for a client. And as much artistic styling goes into the project, the problem solving part of earning money usually kills the uninhibited art spirit. And I guess Chee Shern was wondering why I am on a commercial path. The truth is that the images I want to take are big production ones, with sets, assistants, stylists etc. The type of work I want to do is more like David Lachapelle's or Richard Avedon. I cannot do what I want to do by myself, I need a team of people to work with me and people who are willing to pay for the work I do. I simply have to find commercial work to finance the work I want to do. And it is up to me to balance the art and commerce. I need to do some photography to pay the bills, some to keep the art in me alive, and some just to test out ideas and techniques.

Not everything that I will shoot will be high art. But I don't think that is selling out. It is a means to an end. And I also do not sniff at the learning experiences that commercial work offers me. I have solved a lot of technical issues from doing commercial work, which enables me to execute art photography the way I want to.

At the end of the day, the middle path between art and commerce is harder, but I believe that if I succeed, the rewards are greater.

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