A prostitute banters with a soldier in Taipei’s Wanhua (萬華) District. A cigarette vendor crouches beside her makeshift stand for a brief rest. A young woman poses outdoors wearing a sleeveless floral dress.
These are some of the scenes captured on film by Lee Ming-tiao (李鳴鵰) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum is currently holding a retrospective of Lee’s photographs, many of which hark back to Taiwan’s Martial Law-era past and serve as a visual narrative of phenomena that no longer exist, such as legal prostitution, and others, such as photographing stylish women in natural settings, that remain.
The museum presents 220 black-and-white and color photographs that Lee snapped from the 1940s through the 1990s and which are arranged in five sections: Outdoor Scenes, Inner Landscapes; The Human Character; The Feminine Form; Explorations in Abstraction; and Travel Pictures. Also on display are a variety of Lee memorabilia including his Rolleiflex twin-lens and Hasselblad cameras.
The exhibit focuses overwhelmingly on Lee’s early black-and-white images of street scenes and country landscapes from half a century ago. In the section titled Outdoor Scenes, Inner Landscapes, one black-and-white photo shows a rickshaw driver ambling along an otherwise vehicle-free, unpaved street as vendors on either side flog their produce and wares. Another image shows ducks running in the enclosed courtyard of a traditional Chinese-style home. A third shows a man walking alongside a water buffalo through rice fields.
Lee’s lens eschewed the famous and powerful. Aside from a few photos of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his wife Soong Mei-ling (宋美齡) — images that are blurry and perhaps thus suggestive of how removed the dictator and his wife were from the ordinary people — his camera captured the anonymous, the rural and the poor.
WHAT: Lee Ming-tiao Photography Retrospective
WHERE: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Gallery 3B, 181 Zhongshan N Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市中山北路三段181號)
WHEN: Until April 5. The museum is open daily from 9:30am to 5:30pm, closed on Mondays
ON THE NET: www.tfam.gov.tw
As the section The Human Character reveals, Lee’s technique was a combination of planning and spontaneity. He would arrange the composition and set the aperture and shutter speed in advance and wait for a subject to appear. He then adjusted the focus and snapped the photograph. In most photos the subject is oblivious of the lens, which permits Lee to depict the innocence of a fisherman at work or children frolicking in the Tamshui River. It is difficult to imagine parents allowing the latter to occur in the polluted river today.
The Feminine Form should be of particular interest for waipai (outside photography, 外拍) photographers because of the similarities between these early photo clubs and those that populate the Internet today. [See story on Page 13 of the May 18, 2008 edition of the Taipei Times.]
In the late 1940s Lee and a group of photographers organized photo sessions using nightclub hostesses as models at scenic areas throughout Taipei or in the jazz clubs that were popular at the time. The tradition of photographing young women outdoors dates back to the Japanese colonial period and here reveals fashion-conscious women wearing form-fitting cheongsam dresses, or qipao (旗袍), with floral motifs. Their gestures and hairstyles demonstrate a uniformity of appearance and contrast with those found on amateur photography Web sites today (no bunny ears or night market fashions here).
Lee’s later travel photography employs color film and dates from the 1990s, a time when his intrepid lens captured the young and old of people in far-flung destinations such as Nepal, India, Kenya, Morocco, Spain and Peru. Although the images are well rendered and retain a focus on people, they don’t possess the same raw power or resonance as his black-and-whites of Taiwan. Indeed, many come off more as picture postcards of exotic locales unlike his earlier studies of Taiwan’s rural landscapes and people.