Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Poetry of Life: The Work of Long Thanh

During my recent sojourn through Asia, there were many occasions that I wanted to commit my camera to the bin. 

In pursuit of that definitive shot, I was frustrated by technical (and operator) failings, blurred scenes from the back of speeding motos and decapitated subjects whilst trying to surreptitiously shoot from the hip.

However, no greater was the urge to commit my DSLR to a cylindrical disposal device than the day I visited the gallery of one of Vietnam's most celebrated photographers, Long Thanh.

Cliché that it is, it is impossible not to be instantly overwhelmed when first entering the gallery. Hanging in the centre is his most famous photograph, In the Rain. It depicts two girls with an umbrella walking down the street in a downpour, illuminated by an almost improbable shaft of light. It is every photographers dream shot.

But it is just one of many wonderfully stirring images. Taken over 40 years, his work encapsulates the essence of everyday Vietnam - his portraits capture the fears, loneliness, loves, hopes and happiness of its people; his landscapes the back breaking toil in the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside.

Whilst many of Vietnam’s photographers locate themselves in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, Long Thanh has remained in his native town, the beachside resort of Nha Trang. The majority of his photographs are taken whilst walking around the town and its hinterland, finding inspiration in all around him as he seeks to in capture ‘the poetry of life’. 

Whilst surveying these wonderful images, Long Thanh arrives at the gallery. Affable and warm, he takes time to discuss with me his images and even to ask about my own photography. Sighting my camera over my shoulder he asks to see it. With the trepidation a pupil confronting his master I passed it over. ‘Digital!’ He said genially but disapprovingly, snapping a quick portrait shot of me.

Thanh is a true purist. He religiously only uses black and white film, and laments the use of colour film and now even more so the onset of digital. He handprints the results in his makeshift darkroom, a kitchen at the back of the gallery and with quality materials scarce in Vietnam, he relies on supplies of paper brought to him from his associates around the world.

Leaving the gallery enriched by Thanh’s images and two of his prints ready to be Fed Ex’d home, I pondered whether I would ever be able to capture such evocative and beautiful images. After a quick survey of a street devoid of bins, I decided to get back on my moto and give it another go.

More information can be found at www.longthanhart.com.

My photos from Vietnam can be found here .

(This post is a modified post originally published on my old blog in 2009)  

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