Focus
Monday September 24, 2007


Old subjects, new angles

For Chan Bing Fai, life is a thread of fleeting moments and the camera is able to capture that.


Stories by MAJORIE CHIEW

YOU can get a fluke shot once, twice, or even be third time lucky. But if you keep getting fluke shots, it has to do with more than just mere luck. Few people realise that when photographer Chan Bing Fai gets an unusual shot, it is not through luck alone.

“It’s photographic sense,” insists Chan, 77, a former teacher and headmaster. “Luck favours the prepared mind. Good photography requires dedication, patience and an eye for a picture.”

“A photograph is beautiful and lively because the photographer has extracted the essence of the scene,” says Chan, who recently rejoined the Photographic Society of Petaling Jaya as advisor. In the 1990s, he was a member of the society and had also served as its advisor.

Chan Bing Fai: "Good photography requires dedication, patience and an eye for a picture." - Pic by VICTOR K.K. NG / The Star

Chan was a teacher for 11 years before he was promoted as headmaster. After quitting teaching, he became chief medical illustrator with Universiti Malaya’s Medical Faculty in 1970. Four years later, he joined Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia as technical director in educational technology.

Chan retired in 1985, and is a popular speaker at photographic societies, forums and clubs.

Chan’s interest in photography began when he was 18. Then a student of Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur, he followed a classmate home to see his darkroom, and became fascinated with photography.

At 22, Chan bought his first camera. He was then a trainee teacher at the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby, England.

His first photograph was a winter’s scene in Kirkby. “It was a picturesque scene of an old English house covered in snow,” reminisced Chan.

Chan was thankful for the two-year stint overseas because it opened opportunities for him to travel to London, Ireland and other parts of Europe.

At a recent reunion of 25 former college mates, Chan was pleased to show off pictures taken on a photo safari to north Thailand some 18 years ago. It was a nostalgic time for the old boys as they reminisced about the trip where they met the long-necked Karen tribe, the five major hill tribes and visited Maesai which is famous for its jade and precious stones.

Chan has fond memories of a trip to the remote wilderness of Paria Canyon and the Vermillion Cliffs, not far from Page, Arizona, in 2002. Chan took snapshots of the legendary sandstone garden of Coyote Buttes and The Wave.

“Permits are required for backpackers and visitors to Paria Canyon,” says Chan. “Only 10 visitors are allowed to enter the area daily as a precautionary move to protect the environment, and permits had to be applied a year in advance. Unclaimed permits (from visitors who did not turn up) were sold by drawing lots, and I was lucky to get it.”

“The Wave is the work of the forces of nature on the sandstone over millions of years. It is a magnificent sight.”

After dabbling in photography for more than 50 years, Chan wanted to share his wealth of experience, and has written three books.

His first book, The Complete Photographer (1977) published by Tropical Press is out of print. The second, Lighting Up Your Photography (2003), is self-published and distributed by MPH. The third, Photography’s Soft Power, is a limited digital printing edition, which he published this year.

The Wave - Picture courtesy of CHAN BING FAI

All three books have one thing in common; they do not deal with technical matters. Chan emphasises the “what” and “why” of photography and not the “how”. He stresses the importance of content in every picture, rather than the means or technical procedures used in obtaining it.

In his first book, Chan focused on the yin and yang of Zen philosophy.

“While my photographs are poetic, they illustrate the Zen concept of formless essence and minimalism at the same time,” Chan enthuses.

He has the uncanny ability of capturing the essence of the moment and shares his secret. “To do that, I empty out the daily concerns of life and allow myself to feel and vibrate in sync with the subject: oneness, emptiness, nothingness and wu-wei, which means non-interference – concepts which are entrenched in Zen philosophy.

“My books are written in a simple style and my thoughts are clearly stated,” Chan says.

He is a master in looking at old subjects in new ways. His works are creative, innovative and refreshing in their uniqueness.

His photographic skills did not go unnoticed. In 1969, Chan became the first Malaysian to be awarded the Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, United Kingdom, for outstanding achievements in photography.

In 1992, he was awarded the Associateship of India International Photographic Council for dedicated services to photography. A year later, the Photographic Society of Petaling Jaya honoured him with an honorary fellowship.

What began as a hobby has become tonic for the mind and food for the soul for Chan.




When fluke is good

Photographic subjects are everywhere; one just has to be on the lookout for opportune moments to snap them.


Pictures courtesy of CHAN BING FAI

AVID photographer Chan Bing Fai perceives every field trip as “a personal invitation to a visual feast” and every photo he takes as “his personal visual statement”.

Every picture he takes is so unique that it cannot be repeated.

In one of his fluke shots titled Black Cockerel against Black Jar, Chan recalls a photography outing with a friend from Kuala Terengganu. His friend took him to Seberang Takir, a fishing village in Kuala Terengganu, to shoot pictures of kampung life.

“A black cockerel sauntered in and stood in front of a broken black earthen jar which had a white outline. The cockerel stood right in the centre of the white circle. Part of the white circle would have been disrupted had it not been for the white spots on the tail feathers, which reconnected and made the white circle whole again,” says Chan.

As Chan was getting ready to shoot, he gave a cue to his friend, saying: “Subject, subject.” When his friend did not take the hint, he asked him not to move so that he would not scare the cockerel away. After taking the snapshot, he sent one to his friend.

Black cockerel against black jar

“My friend was captivated by the photograph and regretted the missed opportunity. He returned to the same spot where the black jar was but could not find the cockerel. I teased him, saying that he should have sprinkled some rice grains,” Chan muses.

There were many occasions when he asked his friends to click at the opportune moment but they did nothing. “They couldn’t seem to see the beauty of the scene and before they knew it, the moment had passed,” he says.

Some of Chan’s friends complained that he had taken them to places with nothing worth photographing.

“Photographic subjects are everywhere. There is no such thing as places with nothing to offer shutterbugs,” says Chan, adding that photographers should always be on the lookout for opportune moments.

Chan does not believe in staging subjects.

“That is very trite and clichéd. It has severe limitations. You can’t come up with something from the heart. You don’t just rely on a better camera, a better angle or better lighting. You need perception, feeling and connection with whatever you are photographing,” states Chan.

Among the other fluke shots in Chan’s album are Gift of Life, Lenticular Cloud, Triangular Waves, Aircraft and Minarets, Kuching Carpark, Wrapped around Fern Leaf, and Caterpillars. These photographs can be found in his second and third photography books.

On this page are some of Chan’s memorable shots and excerpts from his two books.

Monument Valley: This is a much-photographed landmark in Arizona. It lies within the Tribal land of the Navajo Indians. When I was there, I saw a sand pool with collected water. Fortunately, the pool was wide enough to accommodate the three famous buttes.

Monument Valley

Aircraft and Minarets: I saw this Minangkabau-style roof in Mini Indonesia, a theme park in Jakarta, Indonesia. I heard the roar of an approaching aircraft. I thought it would be a good idea to include it in the composition as the sky was too bare. I pressed the shutter when the aircraft was fairly near the centre minaret.

Aircraft and Minarets

Delayed reflex action enabled the aircraft to “make contact” with the minaret. It gave the appearance that the aircraft got stuck to the minaret and formed a triangle with apexes at the tip of the minaret, the head of the aircraft and where the wing and the fuselage met.

Legendary Pot of Gold: Finding a photogenic subject is like finding the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This can prove to be elusive because when you approach a rainbow, it seems to move further away, making the search even more difficult.

Legendary Pot of Gold

Crocodile Cloud: I caught this crocodile-shaped cloud while trekking in Pokhara, Nepal.

Crocodile Cloud

Lenticular Cloud: Cloud patterns are difficult to photograph because they are in a state of constant change. In New Zealand, at certain times of the year, very beautiful lenticular clouds form. This lenticular cloud looks like a giant bird landing on top of Mount Cook.

Lenticular Cloud

Father’s Love: This young father has an ingenious way of carrying his son around. To counter the weight of his son, he had another weighted basket on the other end of the pole. This shot was taken in Kunming, capital of Yunnan, China.

Father's Love

Caterpillars: A rare sight indeed. The caterpillars were feeding ferociously and soon the leaves were gone. Snapped in Templer’s Park.

Wrapped Round Fern Leaf: Ferns grow in such abundance on the fringes of the jungle that is difficult to find photogenic ones. But this is an exception because the stem encircles the young leaves, turning it into a visual delight.

Wrapped around fern leaf

Mask and Three Windows: This picture was taken at the bird market in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. The zinc roof casts a heavy shadow on the wooden wall of the building. The shadow covers two-thirds of the pictorial space. The partially covered mask of the man guarding the door, adds an element of mystery to the composition. What could be behind the door and the three coloured windows?

Mask and Three Windows