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Photography: Tim Hall's "Golden Faces"

By Stephen Brookes

in Yangon for Asia Times

       Photographs by Tim Hall
The usually placid walls of Yangon's Strand Hotel are home this month to an arresting collection of portraits by Hong Kong photographer Tim Hall, called "Golden Faces -- The People of Myanmar."  From a sleek, almost abstract portrayal of a young monk to the wild-haired head of a Hindu priest, the 35 prints are vivid and intense, and comprise a fascinating, if uneven, look at the people of Myanmar. The result of four trips into various parts of the country over the past two years, the portraits are all shot in natural light against a white backdrop that Hall carried with him -- a technique pioneered by Irving Penn and later Richard Avedon.

"Avedon did it in the American West, and I thought it would work really well in Myanmar," said Hall after the exhibit opened in Yangon last week. "The people are the most fascinating part of this country.  This was a way to get rid of the background, and just focus on them."

And when Hall's portraits work, they work very well. Almost all are powerfully graphic, and a few -- like the portrait of the Hindu holy man -- seem to storm electrically across the frame.

One of the most interesting is a shot of three young Naga men, dressed in the primitive warrior costumes of their ancestors. But it isn't the standard guidebook photo. The men clearly are embarassed to be wearing the outfits; they're smirking and laughing self-consciously, and poking out from behind the bear fur and tiger claws are the clothes they actually wear -- Western-style gym shorts.

But unfortunately, the show is uneven, and perceptive, intelligent photographs like that (there are other gems, like the lyrical shot of a man exhaling a mouthful of smoke, or the clenched fists of a kickboxer against his tattooed legs) are too often overshadowed by the cliches.

hall_women_WEB.jpgFor Hall has trotted out the stone-faced monks, the weatherbeaten farmers, the Padaung "giraffe" women and the smiling flower girls pictured in all the guidebooks. And the photographs from Yangon don't fit with the others; they're all of celebrities, and Hall photographs them that way. Myanmar's top rock 'n roll guitarist is shot as if for an album cover, and the comedian Zha Ganah -- a brilliant, complex character who has spent years in jail as a result of his performances -- is seen mugging for the camera in an embarassing publicity still.

All of the photographs are strikingly composed, and Hall gets in close to his subjects; their character shows in the lined faces and gnarled hands that he captures in intense detail. All too often, though, he seems entranced by his subjects'  surfaces, and the people within remain elusive. And at times, the urbane sophistication of the technique, combined with the salt-of-the-earth subjects, makes the show look uncomfortably like a trendy new ad campaign for Benneton or The Gap.

Nevertheless, the show is well worth seeing; many of the portraits are genuinely beautiful, and all were superbly hand-printed in London by Adrian Ensor. Hall, a young British photographer based in Hong Kong, has shot widely throughout Asia, and plans to bring the show to Bangkok in February and on to the United States after that.

(Asia Times,  January 26, 1996 )

Posted on Thursday, October 19, 2006 at 05:05PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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