Sly paparazzi snapshots and airbrushed spreads may fill Thai glamour magazines today, but back in the uncomplicated 1960s and 1970s the industry was a lot more innocent, free-spirited and fun.
At least, that’s the impression you get when admiring the iconic –- and often deliriously camp –- work of S.H. Lim, the subject of a mini-retrospective now on at Silom’s Kathmandu Photo Gallery until March 27.
Born in 1930, this Thai snapper of Chinese descent worked to become one of the era’s most prolific commercial photographers -- the glamour industry’s go-to guy for playfully choreographed shots of immaculately coiffed pinups. This in spite of the fact that he had no formal training.
From 1962 until his retirement in 1987 he photographed hundreds of them for the covers and centerfolds of Thai magazines like Sakul Thai, Bangkok Weekly, Ploenjit, Or Sor Tor and Seansu.
And we’re not just talking no-name hotties he’d plucked off the street.
S.H. Lim, or Vivat Pitayaviriyakul, as he’s known in Thai, worked with the vast majority of the era’s most dynamically sexy and hero-worshipped actresses, beauty queens and sex kittens -- “About 80 percent of them”, he estimates.
In spite in of this, S.H. Lim, now in his eighties, has had little acclaim here at home (though he did win medals at the New York Kodak Expo back in 1963).
Kathmandu owner Manit Sriwanichpoom -– one of Thailand’s best known and most caustic art photographers –- hopes to change this with the exhibition, which features mostly black and white prints from Lim’s days as a contributor for Bangkok Weekly.
“Besides his excellent technique he had a gift for dealing with the stars," says Manit. "His work also reflects the spirit of the age, especially the role of woman then. His models seem joyful, as if celebrating their freedom and modernity,” he says.
Below we pair S.H. Lim’s recollections of his career with a selection lifted from the kitsch timewarp that is his backcatalogue.
“It was a very different time,” recalls S.H. Lim, who taught himself to shoot using his father’s Agfa camera. “Back then there were no paparazzi, no agencies to deal with and not much competition … it was fun. A photographer could approach the models to arrange a shoot directly and, if an agreement could be reached, we had a deal. Money was not a big concern.”
“It took years before I became well established”, recalls Lim. “In my 20s I began submitting photographs of female models to Sakulthai magazine, and was paid 150 baht for each one they ran on the cover.”
“Eventually, when I was nearly 30, I started working on a regular basis for Bangkok Weekly magazine,” he says. “I took photographs for their cover and centerfold and mainly used two cameras: a Kodak Speed Graphic and a Linhof.”
Aranya Namwong posing at a Bangkok boutique. “Back then it wasn’t difficult to get permission from hotels, shops, museums and other establishments to use their premises for location shoots,” recalls Lim.
Asked who came up with the quirky themes, compositions and choreography, S. H Lim replies: “I did, usually. The costumes were either borrowed in advance or brought in by the models themselves.”
Model Yaowaret Nisakorn. “Most of my subjects already had some idea how to pose, so I just offered suggestions where appropriate," says Lim.
Lim goes for a chiaroscuros-style light and shade effect in this avant-garde nude taken at his now defunct Smart Photo Studio on Silom Road. “I had friends who came to help with the setup and lighting sometimes. A typical studio setup would require three to four flashes and we set them as we shot.”
Not all his work was meticulously staged. Some of his most iconic images document the arrival of Thailand’s first Miss Universe, Apasara Hongsakul, back in Bangkok after winning her title in Miami – “an angelic visitation to earthlings” as the press release puts it.
Lim regularly photographed Petchara Chaowarat, the beehived beauty queen who rose to become the doe-eyed doyenne of Thai Cinema. “I met her before she became famous, when she was participating in the Hawaiian April Beauty Contest at Lumpini Park. I approached her, asked if I could photograph her and she said yes. Eventually we became friends,” he says.Petchara Chaowarat holds a Thai film award on the cover of Satri Thai. Magazines, calendars and posters featuring Lim’s work are traded by a small network of dealers; most of them can be found spread scattershot along the fringes of Chatuchak Weekend Market every Saturday and Sunday.
Austin Powers would surely tiger-growl with approval on seeing this camp exhibition highlight: a smolderingly sexy Pussadee Wongkamhang posing as a James Bond-inspired femme fatale, complete with revolver in hand and coquettishly raised eyebrow.
To see these photos and more of S.H. Lim's work, visit the Kathmandu Photo Gallery, 87 Soi Pan, Silom Rd. The exhibition is on until March 27. Tel: +66 (0)2 234 6700. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. www.kathmandu-bkk.com. BTS: Chong Nonsi