With the passing of Chitt Chongmankhong on 7 April 2009, Thailand lost one of her first art photographers in the post-WWII era.
Born in Bangkok in 1922 to Cantonese migrants from China, Chongmankhong was 16 when he started working as a radio repairman in a shop that doubled as a photo lab. He quickly gravitated towards darkroom work.
His knowledge of photography was by and large self-taught: “On Sundays, we didn’t have to work. I would spend the entire day at the theatres in Chinatown watching movies and learning about composition. Sometimes I would watch five movies at one go. Most of the movies then were from the USA, with very few from Europe. If I were not at the movies, I would be out shooting.”
After the end of WWII, Chongmankhong established his own photo lab in Siphraya, Bangkok. Despite his hectic schedule, he continued to take pictures on the streets of Bangkok and Thailand. He didn’t drink, smoke or visit the nightclubs in his free time. Photography was his only passion. It was not even a conscious attempt to keep a documentation of Thailand. He took pictures as a hobby, focusing on the scenery and daily life of his beloved country. And this is what makes his work remarkable. He retired some 20 years back.
“Until the 1970s, photography was in the hands of the aristocracy, which made many family portraits. It is not easy to find images of the ‘native’ Thai people, except in the work of Chitt, who was quite poor then,” explains Thai curator Ark Fongsmut. “Before Manit Sriwanichpoom, Chitt Chongmankhong was the first Thai artist to use photography – playing with camera techniques and cutting up his negatives.”
In 1995, he was conferred Thailand’s National Artist in Visual Arts (Photographic Art) by the Office of the National Culture Commission.
[Shelter from the Rains / 1955 / Courtesy of Chitt Chongmankhong]