Today's post features Leo K.K. Wong (1932- ), the last of the three masters of photography for this masters series.
Much like Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), the American modern photography reformist who pioneered straight photography in the 1920s and devoted to establishing photography as an independent art form like painting and sculpture, Leo K. K. Wong, a seasoned photographer of Hong Kong, was already a breath of fresh air in the local pictorial photography scene in his early years. Wong pursued typical pictorial aesthetics during earlier days but later became deeply influenced by the spirit of Chinese calligraphy and painting. This resulted in an evolution from the representational to the abstract as he began studying the intrinsic qualities of photography. He was the first to show a new way to further explore Hong Kong pictorial photography that has gradually evolved into a new standard.
Wong has lots of insights in photography under his belts. First, let's see what he has to say about photography
In His Own Words
The world of artistic photography has traditionally always been divided into two conflicting camps: pictorial and realistic representation. Many people hold the opinion that salon photography is a form of aestheticism that focuses on gaieties with no regard for society and life. This is not true. We amateur photographers have increasingly taken inspiration from Hong Kong's urban development and social changes over the years. Indeed, there are many excellent photos that stand witness. Unlike press and documentary photography, our photos have a more subjective perspective. Greater attention is given to composition and artistic conception. For years, these works have earned high acclaim and recognition at international salons.
A sharpened sensitivity is an essential attribute for the photographer. This sense can locate beauty. The subjects in many of my works are common to others. However I can sense their beauty. Unlike technology, this "responding to beauty" can only be perceived spontaneously and never put in words. And it takes time to cultivate. In my 40 years of photographic pursuits, I have often put down my camera to enjoy music, Chinese painting and western arts. These arts are rich sources of inspiration which I can blend into photography.
In the ten years between 1984 and 1994, I barely took any photographs and dedicated most of my time to studying Chinese painting and Chinese literary classics. Such artistic cultivation helped me establish my own theory of aesthetics, and contributed immensely to my future artistic creation. During that decade, I was most attracted and influenced by a Chinese master whose works are characterized by consummate use of colour and light, as well as personal expressiveness through the combination of individual, powerful brushwork and simple concepts.
In recent years, I have taken pleasure in connecting with nature. Using various photographic techniques, I endeavour to portray fleeing impressions of nature and my personal feelings. My aim is to communicate the ever revolving contrasts of nature: movement and stillness, prosperity and decline, fullness and emptiness. As for whether I can successfully transform fleeting impulsive movements of nature into enduring photos that are as beautiful as poetry, and to transform materials forms into spiritual ones, both artistic cultivation and a creative mind are decisive.
Early Street Shots
In 1966, Wong studied photography under master photographer S. F. Dan (1906-1987) where he came to understand the importance of composition and innovative ideas. He was greatly inspired by Tchan Fou-li's artistic view on juxtaposing documentary and pictorial elements. In the early years, Wong insisted upon presenting social life subjects within pictorial compositions. Works from that period depict the bustling Wong Tai Sin (a Hong Kong district; literally Yellow Big Deity) market in Market Place the life of Lau Fau Shan (a Hong Kong place; literally Flowing Floating Mountain) fishermen in Burden of Life and the Tai Po (a Hong Kong place) street scene in Monkey Show.
< Tearful 1969
All these photos successfully record glimpses of life in Hong Kong from the 1960s and 1970s. Although Wong often gives up signature landmarks for more elegant compositions, these monochrome works are precious images that bear witness to the social changes and remain outstanding examples of pictorial photographs of the time. In 1975, Wong won the gold award (human emotions) at the Mental Health Week exhibition with Tearful of 1969. This photo captures the grievance of his little daughter replete with teardrops and pursed lips. The innocent facial expression and inner feelings of the child are vividly portrayed.
Black-and-white photography is discerning about light and shadow, and tonal gradation, whereas colour photography demands colour contrast and matching. It is not easy for photographers to satisfy both sets of requirements. Wong is nevertheless capable of creating black-and-white photos with moving tones and rich details, as well as brilliant colour works. Early Spring taken in China exemplify the masterly effect wrought by harmonious colours. Autumn Fantasy (the first photo in this post) in 1983 is his first work achieved by means of multiple exposures. The same objects were captured with different focal lengths; the light, colour and objects blend perfectly as one. It creates an overall illusive effect of fleeting light. This photo transcends the prevailing stereotype of salon photography execution.
Wong believes that photographers must appreciate painting, calligraphy and music to sharpen their aesthetic perception. His Lotus series contains blooming summer lotus blossoms as well as withered winter ones. Whatever form the blossoms may take, they always express his personal response to beauty. Multiple exposures lead to a series of optical effects in the lotus pond. Delicate nuances of light and colour, coupled with harmonious and coordinated tonal gradation, piece together a unique artistic conception. Wong successfully expresses the beauty of nature's light, colours, lines and form with photographic qualities.
In the late 1990s, Wong infused his photography with a strong passion for nature. Using different photographic techniques, he hoped to eternalise the momentary beauty of nature and express his emotions with vistas of various seasons and times of day. His finds depicting hazy beauty a viable mode of expression to take the work from representational to abstract art and that multiple exposure is the best technique for this purpose. It is quite common for pictorial photographers to do multiple exposures yet Wong is bold enough to do so up to 9 times in one photo. Such skill is truly incredible. Multiple exposures create overlapping images creating the illusion that objects are full of movement. Viewers can sense the energy of life in a serene and natural scene.
In addition, Wong also loves to create hazy and illusive conceptions with reflex lens. His favourite 250mm reflex lenses have very short depths of field. When light falls on objects outside the depth of field, small light rings are formed. Dreaming of Spring is one such example. The flowering peaches in the background are diffused into a series of hazy red halos, whereas the blossoms in the foreground are vague and sometimes half concealed.
In recent years, Wong has been fond of photographing flowering plum and cotton trees. These subjects are captured with long focal length lenses so that scenic details are enlarged and trivial elements omitted. Resonance of Plum Blossom is a fine example in which the simple and clean composition is offset by dazzling and mystical light and arrangements of colour. Flowers captured with the telephoto lens are like adorning red ink strokes in Chinese ink paintings, while twisted branches resemble the unrestrained effect of ink splashing. These photographic works are bursting with the abstract tone of modern Chinese ink painting.
Wong conducts dialogues with landscapes through his photography. He experiences the ever-changing life force of nature. His works echo the messages conveyed by Japanese landscape photographer Shinzo Maeda (1922-1998) whose poetic natural landscapes deeply touch the hearts of viewers. While the works of both photographers bear witness to the harmonious encounter between the self and the natural environment, Wong's photos particularly resonate with a rich charm found in Chinese paintings. His landscape photographs are simplistically composed while interpreting abstract beauty with photographic qualities. He has opened up a creative path full of individualistic style.
(Published with photos and info from Hong Kong Heritage Museum; with info rearranged)