Bangkok’s two most pre-eminent photo galleries turn out to be “same same, but completely different”
As Bangkok continues to grow apace, so does its arts scene. I recently visited two local photo galleries—one relatively new, and one established more than 10 years ago—and came away both excited and amazed at the diversity this city has to offer, and enthused by the respective owners’ differing, yet ultimately shared, vision.
Vibrant cities attract vibrant people and Hossein Farwani is a prime example of a passionate individual contributing to the ongoing upsurge in Bangkok’s cultural landscape. This personable, Iranian-born philanthropist—who in 2003 founded The Lucie Awards, the Oscars of the photography world—is on a mission to share his love and passion for all things photographic with his adopted home city and its residents.
Make your way to Ekkamai BTS station and walk up Sukhumvit Soi 63 until you reach Alley 8, where you will easily spot the gold nameplate and sliding door entrance to The House of Lucie: Center for Photography, Mr. Farwani’s recently opened photo gallery. A flight of stairs takes you up to a veritable ‘Hall of Fame’, as framed prints of many of the 140 recipients of previous Lucie Awards adorn the walls of the first floor hallway that leads up to the gallery proper.
Many of the most famous names of 20th century photography are to be found here, including Henry Cartier-Bresson and, perhaps surprisingly for the uninitiated, Jessica Lange (yes, that Jessica Lange).
Here lies the non-profit organization’s major role as the “keeper of the flame” of the world’s true photography greats, honouring them and their achievements in changing the world through their collective lenses over the past century. But that’s only part of Mr. Farwani’s goal.
“Having fallen in love with Bangkok and its people, I sensed a thirst for knowledge in all its forms and wanted to bring some of my own knowledge and passion here,” he explains. “And in the process, help focus some attention on Bangkok itself.”
Another facet of that vision is to make The House of Lucie a true centre for all things photographic, providing a meeting place for people to hang out, exchange ideas, share and gain knowledge (and look at some of the best the photography world has to offer as well).
“Photography changes lives,” he enthuses, “it opens your eyes and nurtures a creative mind.”
As he warms to his subject it is difficult not to be caught up in his passion, enthusiasm and positivity. He also believes we are on the cusp of a new wave, one that will integrate East and West.
“Thais are coming to the gallery, eager to learn,” he continues, adding that it’s not just tourists and expats who are flocking to see the gallery’s current exhibition of renowned photographer Steve McCurry (an exhibit which has been extended till the end of April). McCurry is best known for the now-iconic National Geographic cover shot of the ‘Afghan Girl’ with the piercing green eyes, and the 2nd floor of the gallery is given over to his work. After viewing it I defy anybody with a beating heart to remain impassive to the images on display. I literally had shivers down my spine as I looked at the stunning, dramatic array, and I challenge anybody to spend 5 minutes in the company of these masterworks and not be moved—possibly even changed—as a result.
“We’ve had so many requests from schools in particular,” he beams, rightly proud of the impact this first show at his new gallery is having on the local populace. “Photography is more relevant than ever. Boundaries are broken with photographs.”
And while The House of Lucie and its passionate, committed owner are certainly helping to break boundaries along the Sukhumvit line, a trip to the Surasak BTS station, followed by a short walk up Pan Road—towards the heart of Bangkok’s colourful, bustling ‘little India’ area—leads to the Sri Mariamman Temple, where you can also find the aptly named Kathmandu Photo Gallery.
This little gem of a ‘shop’ has been here since 2006 and is owned and operated by Manit Sriwanichpoom, one of Thailand’s pre-eminent photo-artists (best known for his legendary ‘Pink Man’ series). However, we actually owe Manit’s wife a debt of gratitude for this oasis of creation and contemplation.
According to the softly spoken welcoming owner/curator, it was his wife’s vision and drive that saw them purchase the building shortly after a trip to Nepal over 10 years ago, thus combining their jointly-shared passions for photography and spirituality. He’d never had a desire to open a gallery himself, as he was happy to concentrate on creating rather than curating.
“If I was going to have a gallery, I wanted somewhere with a homey feel,” he reveals, unwittingly reflecting his own persona. And Kathmandu is certainly homey. The eye-catching pastel green coloured narrow façade, with its carousel of postcards next to the doorway, draws the eye and positively encourages investigation. Once inside, the welcoming ambience invites further enquiry.
An antique table and bookcase occupy the majority of the right-hand side of the room—displaying spiritual books and binders of Manit’s photos—while the wall on the left is crammed with different sized shots of his work artfully arranged to contrast black and white with vivid coloured prints to provide maximum visual impact. Toward the back of the room is a couch where one can lounge and flick through books or the files of photos with titles that include: Nepal 2007, Italy 1999; Bangladesh; Bangkok; and Chiang Mai.
A steep narrow staircase at the back of the shop requires the divesting of shoes, and leads to the 2nd floor which is a delightfully airy loft space. Like the downstairs, the room positively encourages loitering, which is handy as it’s used exclusively for exhibitions, each of which runs for two months. Currently on display is ‘In Nowhere Land’ by Nepali resident Didier Mayhew (running until April 29th). His show is a first for the gallery, as they don’t normally exhibit documentary photography.
“I felt that Didier’s bond with the children of the nomadic families from the ‘Terai’ region showed total empathy,” Manit explains. “They are outcasts living on the edge of Nepalese society—shunned but still proud.”
As co–founder of the Photo Bangkok Festival, first held in 2015, Manit is now busy planning next year’s 2nd Festival, working closely with BACC. Their mutual aim is to promote creative thinking through photography, an idea which echoes his own mind-set, as well as demonstrating his optimism about the future of photography.
When pressed for one piece of advice for aspiring photographers he had more than a few pointers.
“Look around, take photographs, find your own way, develop your own style,” he begins, pausing thoughtfully while warming to his theme. “That’s how the world progresses, by people doing something different. Make your own footprint, don’t just follow in others. See the world, change the world… create! More than ever, people communicate through photographs and they help promote understanding between cultures.”
Two galleries, two owners. Same philosophy, different delivery. Both galleries are treasures Bangkokians can be proud of and share in, and both are testament to the passion, drive and creativity currently coursing through our effervescent city’s artistic veins.
By Trevor William Scott