Quote of the Day 040814

In PORTRAITS I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face… When I find the right person or subject, I may come back once or twice, or half a dozen times, always waiting for that right moment. Unlike the writer, once I pack my bags, there is no chance for another draft – either I have the shot or I don’t. This is what drives and haunts the professional photographer, the gnawing sense that ‘this is it’.

For me, the portraits in this book speak a desire for human connection; a desire so strong that people who know they will never see me again open themselves to the camera, all in the hope that at the other end someone else will be watching – someone who will laugh or suffer with them.

 

~Portraits, Steve McCurry

Quote of the Day 270714

To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.

To take a photograph means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.

It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.

 

~ Henri Cartier-Bresson

Throwback Thursday – My First Dance Performance (1989/1990)

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ME!!! Aren’t I adorable??

 

Waaaay back then, my mom enrolled my sister and me into all sorts of extra-curricular classes – Art, Music, Dance – and the only lessons that I loved were those dance lessons I attended weekly.

Being Singaporeans of South Indian descent, I guess it was only natural that our lessons were in the classical South Indian Dance called Bharata Natyam. This dance form originated in Tamil Nadu, which is the southernmost state of India and its roots go all the way back to the Sangam age (the period between the 3rd century BC and 4th century AD)  which is the classical period in South Indian history.

As you can see from the photograph, my attire consisted of a bright pink sari (very securely tied and pinned so that it wouldn’t unravel during the vigorous dance movements), some costume jewellery and a pair of anklets. My grandfather had purchased the anklets and jewellery specially from Tamil Nadu. You can’t see clearly from the photograph, but my short hair was pinned back into a tiny bun with a jasmine garland wound around it. I’d just performed my first ever dance, called the Alaripu, which is always the first dance performed as it is an invocation to the Gods to bless the ensuing performance. Usually when a dance school showcases its dancers, the youngest/beginners are the ones who do this dance. As you can see by my grin, I’m feeling quite exhilarated after my dance – if I recall that night correctly, I was on a high the rest of the night and well on to the next day!

I am standing on a platform erected specially for the dance performance by my dance school in the assembly hall of a Hindu temple. Temples usually invite such dance schools to perform during Hindu festivals, and the dance program lasts for at least an hour. This is probably a continuation of the tradition of Devdasis who were the original temple dancers and who spent their life in the service of the temples they were tied to. The performances are of course free for the public and temple devotees. This is a hall specifically used for dance and music performances, for you can see the Nataraja relief on the wall behind me. Lord Nataraja (who is a manifestation of Shiva) is worshipped as the Lord of Dance so it is only appropriate that he is present.

Throwback Thursday – Meeting Bronze Bruce Lee (2010)

Bronze Bruce Lee at the waterfront
Bronze Bruce Lee at the waterfront

So, back in 2010 I decided to do my first ever solo trip to Hong Kong. I’m not quite sure why I chose Hong Kong as my first solo destination since before making my decision, I’d never even entertained the idea of travelling there. But there you go.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting. But I enjoyed myself tremendously and absolutely LOVED my trip there.

And since I was there, I knew I HAD TO make a stop at the Avenue of Stars along the Tsim Tsa Tsui waterfront in Hong Kong.

Why? You ask.

Because Bronze Bruce Lee of course! DUH!

Martial arts Legend. Action superstar. Philosopher. Filmmaker. Founder of Jeet Kun Do. Perfect Physical Specimen (le sigh…) All-Around Awesome basically.

So of course I had to make a pilgrimage to his 6ft high bronze statue.

Priceless Treasures and Ancient Art – Weekend at the Asian Civilisations Museum

A couple on months back I’d written about the exhibitions at the Asian Civilisations Museum (incidentally, my favourite museum in Singapore). I’ve seen their permanent collection on display a few times since I ALWAYS make it a point to visit the museum every year (sort of like an annual pilgrimage). More recently though, I went there with the express purpose of viewing the current exhibitions, namely Devotion & Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia and “A Way of Life” Photographs from the Leica Collection. Being a history affectionado as well as a photography enthusiast I was practically salivating at the thought of viewing the works on display.

First up, here’s a look at the Asian Civilisations Museum facade with a bit of history on the museum itself-

Asian Civilisations Museum

The Asian Civilisations Museum is located at the newly restored Empress Place Building situated along the Singapore River just opposite the banks from the Fullerton. For much of its history, the building functioned as a government office – functioning as the Immigration Department and Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in its time. It was re-named the Empress Place Building at the beginning of the 20th century, in honor of Queen Victoria while we were still under colonial rule.

It is a really beautiful example of neo-Palladian architectural style on the outside, and on the inside houses over 1,300 artefacts from civilisations of China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia from the Museum’s permanent collection in its 11 galleries since it was renovated and opened to public in 2003. From time to time, the museum also features temporary or special exhibits in its temporary galleries. I for one have been in love with this museum since I first recall stepping into its gorgeous lobby, and have stayed in love ever since.

When I visited the museum on a Saturday afternoon (waaay back in December), I the first thing I noticed was the lack of visitors there. It was a Saturday afternoon and apart from myself and two other visitors, the lobby was empty (save for the museum receptionists of course!). It was a marked contrast to the almost suffocating crowd at the Art Science Museum I’d visited back in October. So basically, I had the run of the museum with no queue and no jostling to see the exhibits. Which was fine with me (but just a tad disappointing in the lack of interest in this wonderful museum, but I digress). Since the Leica Collection exhibit was on the ground floor, I visited the gallery first.

The exhibition itself was small and the photographs showcased in a modest space. This gave the viewer (myself) the experience of being in an intimate, almost personal gallery with an unimpeded view of the stunning original prints by actual photography legends. The icing on the cake (for me especially) were the 10 Henri-Cartier Bresson original prints that he’d given to Leica Camera, two of which are among my favourite images of his works. As I had the whole room to myself the entire time, I blissfully lost track of the time I spent in that modest room, immersed completely in the works displayed before me. Of course I eventually emerged from my reverie as I still had more to see elsewhere!

So I made my way upstairs to the Permanent Galleries (3rd floor) and made my way to the main exhibition by wandering through the Lacquer Across Asia exhibition first.

I’ve been a fan of lacquer works since I first came across Vietnamese lacquer paintings a few years earlier. So this exhibition was particularly delightful for me as I got the chance to see truly beautiful works from all over Southeast Asia and China. As objects of wealth and prestige, lacquer works have been prized across Asia for centuries.

Table Screen
17th Century Chinese Table Screen with red, green and ochre lacquer depicting a gathering of scholars.

Though the use of lacquer has been documented in China for a few thousand years, the works in this exhibition span from the 15th century onwards, where their use spread across Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, most prized lacquer works were also donated as offerings to the Buddhist temples in this region. Other works would also feature themes from the Ramayana and Jataka tales which had entered into the Southeast Asian collective consciousness by this time.

Betel Box
Betel Box with depiction from a Jataka tale from Myanmar
Vessel
Beautiful lacquer bowl with mother-of-pearl inlay depicting animals

I wound my way around the exhibition, which in turn led me to the main exhibition Devotion and Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia – featuring the new acquisitions of ACM.

Clearly, the folks over at the Asian Civilisations Museum had quite the shopping spree. The exhibition was packed with artifacts from all over Asia, and there were so many of them that I think the curators just gave up trying to have a coherent curatorial approach and so decided on broad themes instead. The overarching curatorial concept was on the subject of trade in terms of religion, ideas and traditions and the artistic results of that. Here’s some of the highlights from each theme –

Cultural Hybrids

Here we see artifacts from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara – present-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The unique location of this ancient kingdom meant that it was right at the crossroads between the East and West. The artifacts all show a beautiful blending of Buddhism ( the religion of the East) with realistically sculptured artforms such as those in Greece and Rome (the aesthetics of the West).

Head of a Bodhisattva
Head of a Bodhisattva from 4th Century Gandhara

Religion

Multi-armed Avalokiteshvara
Multi-armed Avalokiteshvara from Dali Kingdom (China) 10th Century
Qu'ran
Qu’ran in 30 parts – 30 individually leather bound books with gold leaf from China 17th Century

Cabinet of Wonders

When merchants and other travelers from Europe returned from the exotic East, they brought home objects unique to the regions they visited – to be displayed and admired by those not fortunate enough to have gone on these journeys of course!

Game Board
Ebony and Ivory inlaid game board from Gujarat, India 17th Century

Trade

The love for all things from the exotic Orient and mystical South Asia by Renaissance Europe meant that trading of objects from these destinations was a highly profitable enterprise.

Courtly Arts

It is a well-known fact that royal patronage has encouraged many a fine art form. Artists produced their very finest work for the rulers of the realm, who in turn sponsored their creative visions. Some of the exceptional works of art even made their way across land and sea to foreign lands as gifts or tribute – and these fine creations were admired and at times even imitated by the artists in the foreign lands who were inspired by their beauty and skill. Thus we have cultural syncretism of the best kind.

Reclining Vishnu watercolour
Maharaja Gulab Singh revering Vishnu reclining on Sheshanaga, the serpent of eternity – watercolour and gold on paper from 1800s

My journey through the museum ended with Beginning of the Becoming: Batak Sculpture From Northern Sumatra. Viewing the works here brought back nostalgia for my childhood. I’d visited Lake Toba way back… hmm… let me think…almost.. two decades ago! Wow! Ok. That was definitely awhile back. I still remember the trip quite vividly, since that was the first time I had sole possession of the family camera. Well.. for a couple of days at least; until my parents realized to their horror that I was taking ‘artistic’ shots of the Batak cemetery and multiple shots of the Batak sculptures. It was a film camera you see, and they felt I was wasting film (and their hard-earned money) on my so-called artistic shots instead of taking photographs of the family with the beautiful scenery. But that really was the moment I actually caught the photography ‘bug’ and it never left me. I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d decided to pursue a career in photography from that point. I’m hoping it’s not too late to begin my photography career now. Ah well… decisions, decisions.

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So anyway, back to the exhibition. The Batak people are from the region around Lake Toba, an immense volcanic lake (It is the largest lake in Indonesia and the largest volcanic lake in the world) that formed in the volcanic crater after a massive supervolcanic eruption (yes, there is such a thing as a supervolcanic eruption. I know, it’s so cool right?!) tens of thousands of years ago. This eruption was so massive that it had a worldwide impact, changing the global climate and affecting the human population. The flora and fauna in this area is practically endemic and the Batak people are unique in their traditions. Their beliefs are largely influenced by the various Tamil, Arab and Javanese traders as well as the Christian missionaries who settled there – so it’s a whole religious mish-mesh going on in this region, which produces delightful religious sculpture and art such as those exhibited in this gallery.

It was really quite uncanny the sheer volume of memories it dredged up in me when I saw the sculptures – and the precise details I recalled. I’m glad that this was the last gallery I saw before leaving the museum as it left me with a feeling of nostalgia and reflection.

How to get there:

Nearest MRT station – Raffles Place
Exit at Battery Road and walk across the Cavenagh Bridge to the opposite side of the Singapore River.

Museum Hours:

Daily: 10am – 7pm

Fridays: 10am – 9pm*

Admission:

Free for Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents (you’ll have to produce your identity card at the reception counter to enjoy this privilege)

Regular ticket prices are $8 for adults and $4 for students.* On Fridays, tickets are half-price after 7pm

There are also joint tickets for the ACM and the Peranakan Museum which you can enquire about at the reception counter.

My recommendations:

  • A visit to the permanent galleries are a must. Seriously guys, the museum has an AMAZING collection of artifacts from across Asia
  • There are currently 2 special exhibitions that I’d highly recommend
  1. Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda: Treasures from Famen Temple and the Tang Court (until 4 May 2014)
  2. Lacquer Across Asia (extended until 29 June 2014)
  • The ACM is a family-friendly museum, so go ahead and bring your kids. They do offer a number of educational guides and activities to keep the little ones interested. There are also special museum activities during museum open-house days that fall during the public holidays – you get free entries + fun activities which is great!

Of Mummies and Incredible Journeys – Sunday afternoon at the ArtScience Museum

This Sunday I decided that instead of lazing around at home, I shall embark on an intellectual pursuit. And since it was the final day of the 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic exhibition in the ArtScience Museum I knew that’s where I needed to be. So I happily made my way to the Marina Bay Sands (‘coz that’s where the museum is) in the afternoon where I was greeted with this –

Art Science Museum reception
Note to self – NEVER go to an exhibition on its final day.

Yea, that was smart of me – to wait until the very last day of the exhibition to check it out. That queue stretched through the entire interior of the reception area and it took me 30 minutes to finally get to the counter.

In all fairness though, the queue there was not just for the National Geographic exhibition. The exhibition on Mummies from the British Museum collection was in its final week so visitors wanted to catch that as well ( I was one of them)

Current Exhibitions from L to R – Essential Eames: A Herman Miller Exhibition, Mummy Secrets of the Tomb & 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic

Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb is a behind-the-scenes look at the ancient Egyptian mummification process and rituals associated with death. There are over 100 artifacts on loan from the British Museum, including some actual mummies and their sarcophagi. For a history nerd like me, this was absolute heaven!

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Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb

Since entry into the exhibit required visitors to sit through a 21-minute introductory 3D video played at every 30-minute interval, that’s where I went to first. The video (narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart himself you guys!) was pretty informative and (for me at least) seemed like it should belong on a Bones episode. Seriously. It was a full virtual forensic analysis of a 3,000 year old remains of an ancient Egyptian temple priest Nesperennub – without unwrapping the mummy. We were taken through the full process of identification of the occupant, and the ritual behind the mummification process – in 3D!! We even got to keep the 3D glasses as souvenirs 🙂

Inside the exhibition, we were taken through the mythology behind the rituals of life and death in ancient Egyptian society, with even a chamber dedicated to the embalming and mummification ritual – it was educational and not at all creepy. Really. The kids were having a good time running around, trying to identify the various ingredients and implements used during the process.

The only part of the exhibition that made me just a little uncomfortable was looking at the actual mummies. Don’t get me wrong – i wasn’t creeped out or anything – I just had a vaguely uncomfortable feeling from knowing that these were actual living, breathing people who are now being used as exhibits. I felt especially so when knowing about the tremendous energy and time taken to embalm and preserve these bodies, and the fact that this process was done to provide the soul of the person a vessel to return to after judgement in the underworld. It felt intrusive and just a little rude.

Perhaps that was why I felt more than a little upset when I saw a couple of disobedient visitors taking photographs of the dead and the various artifacts with FLASH! (and this was after all of us were told specifically to take no photographs in the exhibition!) I usually try to ignore them, but this time I made my disapproval more vocal; in fact several of us did, since it was more than just a violation of museum protocol.

Sigh.. douchebags. They are EVERYWHERE!

Ok moving on.

Next up – 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic.

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50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic

As a photography enthusiast, I am pretty much obsessed with the National Geographic. They do have the most amazing photographs in their issues; photographs taken by some of the best photographers on this planet. So when I got to know about this exhibition, you can just imagine the sort of excitement and level of anticipation I felt even before I went there. To see those groundbreaking, timeless and awe-inspiring images up close (and waaay bigger than the size of the magazine covers) is really something else. What made it better were the accompanying write-ups about the photographs and the pains, the planning and the sheer inspiration behind those images in the words of the photographers themselves.

It was amazing!

We all know that it takes much more than luck and skill to produce those images. But the amount of thought and work that went into creating those photographs, not to mention the research that went into the planning was quite staggering. Some photographs took months of planning, some even years, and yet others were due to sheer luck (plus the extraordinary skill of the artist).

The exhibition itself was grouped in sections for us to view the principle reasoning behind the photographs. There were also sub-sections which were sort-of educational hubs that explained the different aspects of photography such as light, colour, composition, the darkroom and digital darkroom etc. So even for amateurs like myself, and for complete beginners the sections helped us to enjoy the exhibition on yet another level. At each section as well, there were video interviews with the photographers behind some of the images, describing in greater detail about their assignments that led to the results we see in the magazine.

Unlike the earlier exhibition, visitors here were allowed to take photographs. So there were a few who took the opportunity to take pictorial mementos of their favourite images in the gallery. Mostly though, we were quietly engrossed in the exhibits themselves. Visitors in this exhibition were somehow far more well-behaved than those in the Mummy exhibition, which I found to be interesting since there were far more visitors here (owing to the fact that this was the final day to catch it). Everyone was mindful of personal space and respectful of the other visitors interested in the same exhibit. Perhaps it was because study of the photographs needed a far more contemplative mood? I’m not sure, but I’m certainly not complaining 🙂

As we progressed further, the sections changed and images gradually moved into bleaker subjects – of war, famine, pollution, death and disaster (both natural and man-made). I became more profoundly affected by them than I’d expected, especially by those in which nature was threatened by us. By the time I’d reached (almost) the end of my journey, I was ready to weep at the image of hell captured by Steve McCurry –  when Saddam Hussein’s soldiers set fire to the oil fields in Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1991. It was the penultimate photograph of the exhibition, and a particularly devastating one. Thankfully for us, the curators of this amazing exhibition decided to leave us with a message of hope in the final image of Jou Jou the chimpanzee reaching out to touch Jane Goodall’s hair taken by Michael Nichols. It was the perfect way to end our journey through the vaults of National Geographic’s 125 year history of amazing images and stories.

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I knew I’d love the exhibition; what I did not expect was to be profoundly moved by it.

By this time, it was almost closing time for the museum. I had just enough time to check out the gallery featuring Naoko Tosa’s Sound of Ikebana: Four Seasons. I had no clue what this was about but since it was included in the price of my ticket I thought I’d check it out anyway.

The exhibition features 4 video artworks ‘created by vibrating sound beneath paint’. I’m still not entirely sure what it was I was listening to, but the images of the splashing multi-coloured paint onscreen were strangely mesmerizing to watch. So I sat in the darkened theatre and watched the video for the next 10 minutes until the music got on my nerves enough to make me leave – it was quite jarring to the senses.

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So.. that’s the end! Well, except for the part where some random cute guy decided to flirt with me while I was trying to take a photograph of the gallery entrance. That was fun 😉

Museum Tips

  • You can buy tickets online here or get them directly at the counter. It is more convenient to buy tickets online as the ticket collection for online bookings is at a much shorter queue.

Point to note : Singaporean citizens get a discount for the ticket price, but this is ONLY applicable when you buy the tickets directly at the counter as you need to display your Identity Card.

  • Queues are MUCH longer in the afternoons, thus if you want to beat the crowd, get there before noon. (Museum opening hours are from 10am – 7pm daily)

Point to note: Tickets can only be used for single entry. Once you’ve entered the museum and any of its paid-for galleries, you CANNOT RE-ENTER the galleries. So if you need to exit the museum for any reason, it’s really too bad but you’ll need to purchase another ticket to re-enter.

  • There is only one refreshment stand in the museum, so if you are in desperate need of eats, I suggest you have your meal BEFORE you enter the museum, since you can’t just leave for a bite and return to the museum (see point above).
  • Unlike the other museums under the National Heritage Board , the ArtScience Museum is a separate entity. Therefore, your NHB museum pass is not applicable here.
  • Tickets are pretty expensive for the ArtScience Museum exhibitions, so it’s more value-for-money if you buy combination tickets to 2 or more exhibitions since the price is reduced for combinations. At the moment, the National Geographic exhibition is over, so the two ongoing exhibitions are Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb (until 4 November 2013) and Essential Eames: A Herman Miller exhibition (until 5 January 2014).
  • The ArtScience Museum is very kid friendly so it’s a great place to bring your children. The exhibitions, such as Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb usually have educational and fun activities as well as interactive exhibits just for children so your little munchkins will not be bored.
  • Last but not least, this is a museum so DO NOT take flash photography in the galleries. It is highly disruptive to the other patrons, and if the exhibits are of precious artifacts such as those from the Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb exhibition, the flash will likely cause some damage. Be a responsible patron and try not to ruin the experience for others.
Art Science Museum entrance
Welcome to the ArtScience Museum!

Have a great trip! 🙂

Photography Challenges – Part 2

Awhile ago, I posted my first attempts at developing my photography skills. This is my next installment of continuing attempts at improvement.

Enjoy!

Zone Ruler

One of the things most emphasised in most tutorials is the need to understand your camera’s dynamic range. This exercise is meant to get you more in-tune with your camera settings as well, and to understand the differences in light and exposure for every change in a full f-stop.

It was quite a challenge to maintain an even exposure with natural light, so I had to experiment with the placement of the 18% grey card and the time of day a few times to get the exposure consistently correct. Eventually, I managed to record values for 11-stops in my camera and combined the results into a zone ruler for my reference.

I now know that I can overexpose an image up to 3 full f-stops or under expose an image up to 3 f-stops and still retain an appreciable details in the image

My camera's dynamic range plotted in a Zone Ruler
My camera’s dynamic range plotted in a Zone Ruler

The other assignment I had was to photograph 2 different subjects to produce 2 different sets of images – one in high key; one in low key. And then, to ‘save’ the details in the images that were lost to highlights and/or shadows.

Overexposed Image

For this set, I took several photographs of the inside of my washing machine drum. To product a high key image with was pretty simple, as the inside of the drum is evenly shadowed. I only had to take a correctly exposed image and then overexpose it by 2 full f-stops. I then ‘saved’ some of the details lost to highlights by shifting the histogram just a little to the left.

The inside of a washing machine
The inside of a washing machine

Underexposed Image

This was a little more challenging because I just couldn’t find the right subject for the experiment. After hours of hunting all around the neighbourhood I finally found the subject in my own home! Talk about luck.

It was the billowing curtains that gave me the idea actually. I then thought of incorporating the light/shadows of that scene with an inanimate object in shadows. But I felt that the composition lacked something until I spotted my cat sniffing at the bicycle tyre. So I picked him up, placed him in the basket and voila!

Since I focused on my cat, the bicycle itself was much too shadowed. So I had to pull the histogram to the right just a tad. Then I cropped the image to get rid of unwanted distractions and details.

Pensive Cat
Pensive Cat