Bangkok is famous for its temples, markets, food and other pleasures. However, architectural advice is usually only given to its lavish shopping malls and glass and steel towers. Respectful attention to the architecture of the city’s past is given to the royal palaces and mansions that had been influenced by European stately homes and housed the aristocracy of the kingdom. It takes real effort to experience the beauty of Bangkok’s ancient vernacular architecture, threatened as it is by the rapid pace of development raging in this sprawling metropolis.
Photographer Ben Davies spent decades in Southeast Asia before being captivated by the abandoned and crumbling buildings of Bangkok’s early history. In 2014, he bought a camera that bordered on antiquity, a camera that used film, lots of lenses, a large tripod, and the kind of black cloth that houses the heads of photographers in old movies. “Just putting that bulky camera on a tripod can take 10 minutes,” says Davies, and the act of taking a picture can take up to half an hour.
“Why don’t you take some nice pictures of the city?” A security guard once asked, watching this elaborate photography process. But Davies was fascinated by the different architectural styles he saw in old buildings: Indian, Khmer, Burmese, Chinese, Portuguese, all mixed into an all-Thai form. He spent five years tracking down these places and preserving them in photographs before they faded from sight and memory.
The images in Vanishing Bangkok: the changing face of the city are in black and white, with crisp detail and clarity. Each of them fills an entire page in a book which is itself a work of art as well as a compelling call for historical preservation.
His images are haunting. A house surrounded by trees teetered dangerously towards a nearby canal. A mansion with turreted balconies, surrounded by debris, sinks into the earth as it slowly deteriorates. A house that has stood for two centuries is devoured by vines and banyan roots, resembling a ruined jungle temple. Even more poignant are the shophouses, still active, still inhabited by families who know full well that they will be part of the last generation to live there.
These utilitarian wooden buildings are adorned with Palladian windows and adorned with elaborate wood carvings. These are home-crushing machines for traditional medicines, barber chairs that have been used for 100 years, cafes that look nothing like Starbucks, and shrines to Chinese deities still frequented by devotees. Humble and doomed, these places hold a living history that deserves to be honored.
In the heart of Bangkok, under one of the city’s busiest skytrain stations, are two wooden buildings that are framed by a wild ganglion of electric wires, their doors open onto the street. Surrounded by glittering malls that sell luxury goods imported from Porsches to haute couture, they somehow survive, giving hope to similar structures in a city where “the ordinary has little cultural value”. Perhaps the beauty of Davies’ photographs will heighten the battle for preservation that has recently emerged in Bangkok, while the artistry of his work is sure to delight and inspire photography enthusiasts around the world.
A sort of accompanying volume from Davies’ editor, Invisible Siam: the first photograph 1860-1910, has received the same unwavering care and clever production that characterizes the offerings of Bangkok boutique publisher, River Books. Encyclopedic work of nearly 400 pages, it is a history of photography, not a history of Siam, and testifies to the road traveled by the art of the camera in a little over a century. .
Art historian Joachim K. Bautze has collected 50 years of work by 15 photographers, all of Western origin with the exception of Kaishu Isonaga of Japan, who is given a few pages of company photographs at the end of the book.
Bautze provides a plethora of details for almost every photograph: when it was taken, where it can be seen, who gave it, its dimensions, inventory number and management number. Unfortunately, all information on the subject of the photograph is limited to its caption, which can very charitably be described as rare.
The greatest place is given to Siamese royalty, with landscapes and the occasional photo of ordinary life frequently grouped together on one page. Because the book is organized by photographer rather than subject, the rehearsal is somewhat boring and rather boring. It quickly becomes apparent that King Mongkut was a brooding-looking monarch and that his son, King Chulalongkorn, was most certainly sexy. The royal offspring and brides glance at the pages a bit shyly at intervals and there are posed photos of girls that provide budding examples of what was once called cheesecake photography.
Far too much attention is paid to “visiting cards,” postcard-sized portraits of European residents in Southeast Asia, their families, and their Victorian living rooms. Although the title of the book promises a view of Siam, there are few photographs that stray from Bangkok’s borders and many that go further are taken in Singapore, Burma and Cambodia. A handful of views of Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai, but it almost feels like an afterthought.
Sometimes a page will contain a single landscape, usually of the banks of the river which was Bangkok’s main artery, or a photo of elephant hunters in the countryside, but for the most part these photographs are of people who could afford to hire the services of a photographer.
This story of pioneering photographers will be an interesting resource for academic researchers and a source of disappointment for almost anyone.