Bangkok is famous for its temples, its markets, its food and other pleasures. However architectural notice is usually given only to its palatial shopping malls and towers of glass and steel. Reverent attention for architecture from the city’s past is bestowed upon royal palaces and the mansions that had been influenced by European stately homes and housed the kingdom’s aristocracy. It takes real effort to discover the beauty of Bangkok’s old vernacular architecture, threatened as it is by the rapid rate of development that rages through this sprawling metropolis.
Photographer Ben Davies spent decades in Southeast Asia before he became captivated by the abandoned and crumbling buildings from Bangkok’s early history. In 2014, he bought a camera that bordered on the antique, one that used film, many lenses, a tall tripod, and the sort of black cloth that shelters the heads of photographers in old movies. “Just to set up this unwieldy camera on a tripod could take 10 minutes,” Davies says, and the act of taking a photograph could last as long as half an hour.
“Why don’t you take nice pictures of the city?” a security guard once asked while watching this elaborate process of photography. But Davies was enthralled by the different architectural styles that he saw in the old buildings: Indian, Khmer, Burmese, Chinese, Portuguese, all blended into a form that was completely Thai. He spent five years tracking down these places and preserving them in photographs before they could disappear from sight and memory.
The pictures in Vanishing Bangkok: The Changing Face of the City are in black and white, with knife-sharp detail and clarity. Each one of them fills an entire page in a book that itself is a work of art as well as a compelling cry for historical preservation.
His images are haunting. A house surrounded by trees teeters perilously toward a nearby canal. A turreted balconied mansion, surrounded by debris, sinks into the earth as it slowly deteriorates. A house that has stood for two centuries is devoured by vines and the roots of banyan trees, looking like a ruined jungle temple. Yet even more poignant are the shophouses, still doing business, still inhabited by families who know full well that they will be among the final generation to live there.
These utilitarian wooden buildings are graced with Palladian windows and ornamented with elaborate wood carvings. They are house grinding machines for traditional medicines, barber chairs that have been in use for 100 years, coffee shops that bear no resemblance to Starbucks, and shrines to Chinese deities that are still frequented by worshippers. Humble and doomed, these places hold a living history that deserves to be honored.
In the heart of Bangkok, beneath one of the city’s busiest Skytrain stations, lie two wooden buildings that are framed by a wild ganglia of utility wires, their doors open to the street. Surrounded by gleaming shopping centers that sell imported luxuries 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 bring strength to the battle for preservation that has recently emerged in Bangkok while the artistry of his work is certain to delight and inspire photography aficionados all over the world.
A companion volume of sorts from Davies’ publisher, Unseen Siam: Early Photography 1860-1910, has been given the same unstinting care and artful production that characterize offerings from Bangkok boutique publisher, River Books. An encyclopedic work that encompasses almost 400 pages, this is a history of photography, not a history of Siam, and gives testimony to how far the art of the camera has progressed in a little over a century.
Art historian Joachim K. Bautze has assembled 50 years of work from 15 photographers, all from the West except for Kaishu Isonaga from Japan, who is given a few pages of society photographs at the end of the book.
Bautze provides a wealth of detail for almost every photograph: when it was taken, where it can be seen, who donated it, its dimensions, inventory number and management number. Unfortunately any information about the subject of the photograph is limited to its caption, which can most charitably be described as scanty.
The largest amount of space is given to Siamese royalty, with landscapes and the occasional photo of ordinary life frequently squeezed together on a page. Because the book is organized by photographer rather than by subject, the repetition is somewhat annoying and rather dull. It quickly becomes obvious that King Mongkut was a surly-looking monarch and his son King Chulalongkorn was most definitely hot. Royal offspring and wives peer from the pages somewhat timidly at intervals and there are posed pictures of girls who provide fledgling examples of what used to be called cheesecake photography.
Far too much attention is given to “visiting cards,” postcard-sized portraits of European residents of Southeast Asia, their families, and their Victorian parlors. Although the book’s title promises a view of Siam, there are few photographs that stray from Bangkok’s borders and many that do go farther afield are taken in Singapore, Burma and Cambodia. A handful show views of Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai but these feel almost like an afterthought.
Occasionally a page will hold a single landscape, usually of the banks of the river that was Bangkok’s chief thoroughfare, or a shot 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 history of pioneering photographers will be interesting as a resource for academic researchers and a source of disappointment to almost anyone else.