Burmese Photographers

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The old Secretariat building in Yangon is currently being renovated by the Secretariat Conservation Group into a museum and culture centre.

Last Sunday I attended the exhibition Burmese Photographers (Myanma dat-poun seya mya) hosted by the Goethe Institute at the newly renovated Secretariat building in Yangon. The exhibition is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The photographs have been collected over the past five years by the photographer Lukas Birk, and they span the period 1890-1995, representing nearly the whole of Myanmar’s photographic history. The emphasis of the collection quickly moves away from scenes of Myanmar taken by Europeans in the late 19th-century to focus on the groundswell of Myanmar photographers that emerged around 1910, forging a uniquely Burmese photographic culture.

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The central entrance hall with its grandiose wrought-iron staircase.

What is perhaps most interesting about the collection is how tastes changed over time, while other elements such as genre and the photographic process stayed the same. For instance, the earliest photos in the collection show a propensity for European-style painted backgrounds and hybrid Eastern/Western styles of dress. We see young men in rowing blazers with longyi (the Burmese sarong) and leather Oxford shoes and women wearing htamein (the female version of the longyi), but accessorizing it with American wristwatches and English books. The exhibit includes the postcard collection of the Minus family, whose scion runs the fantastic blog Chasing Chinthes, many of which are hand-colored scenes of village life produced for the European market. These more sensationalist views contrast nicely with the humble and straightforward family portraits and personal mementos found on the other side of the room.

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Two men at the beginning of the 20th-century; the Burmese man wears paso with leather shoes and a cane, while the Indian man has adopted Western business dress.
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A Burmese Beauty. One of a series of hand-colored postcards by T.N. Ahuja and Co., Rangoon.
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A meeting of the Muslim brothers of Twingone Lethmatgane in 1939; note the blazers with longyi and topi, the South Indian muslim cap.

By the 1950s, however, Western dress becomes common for studio portraits, and backgrounds shift from ornate columns and curtains to simple compositions often including some article of the sitter’s trade (such as the pest exterminator pictured below). Outdoor scenes become more popular, it seems, but portraiture remains the norm, spurred on by the need for identification cards in the new Union of Burma. During the period, photography studios are increasingly run by ethnic Burmese, a trend affecting nearly all trades following General Ne Win’s coup d’etat and the expulsion of foreigners in 1963.

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The exterminator.

Moving into the 1960s, the decrease in the cost and ease of the photographic process gives rise to memento cards, stencilled frames, and photo albums that democratize photography, bringing it to a whole new class of Burmese. By the 1970s, according to Birk, the photo studio has become an escape for young people suffering under the weight of the military dictatorship; a place where they can come and don fashionable Western clothes while enacting scenes of a modern lifestyle largely unavailable to them in their present economic state. Strangely enough, the methods of Burmese photography remain constant throughout the period, with black and white or hand-coloring widespread up until the 1990s and the arrival of a few new color photo machines from Singapore.

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70’s styles tailored exclusively for the photo studio.
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Studio shots are superimposed on the crumbling walls of Yangon’s Secretariat.
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A stylish young Burmese man next to his 1970s counterpart. In the 21st century, Western clothing is increasingly the norm in the global metropolis that is Yangon.

The 1980’s bring, on the one hand, the tumultuous events of the 8888 demonstrations and their horrific aftermath (in this case caught in historicizing black and white), and on the other, high-gloss images of famous actors in blue jeans and baseball caps with boomboxes slung over their shoulders. The message is clear: Myanmar photography (and in many ways the country’s history as a whole) has always been a hodge-podge, an inter-meshing of styles and influences, in short, a blurry, ever-moving picture.

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Pictures of democracy demonstrations in 1988 hint at a complex political history running parallel to that of Burmese photography.
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1980s film actors pose for a hip-hop inspired shot during some of the darkest days of the military dictatorship.

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