Panoramic Singapore (2001) / Tay Kay Chin

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After spending the early part of his career working atThe Straits Timesin Singapore, photographer Tay Kay Chin received an offer in 2001 to be the Presentation Editor of “The Sun”in Bremerton, Washington. While waiting for his visa from February to May, Tay shot “Panoramic Singapore”using the Hasselblad XPan and a 45mm lens. The serieswon him international acclaim when he was named a Hasselblad Master in 2003.

On http://www.singlish.org where the serieswas originally hosted, Tay explains that the series is an “attempt to document a side of Singapore which is vanishing and is seldom presented to the outside world”. He writes: “The truth is, I have never really liked my country. I felt that things were too controlled, and there were not enough opportunities for artists like myself. The truth also is, that I have never tried to understand the whole idea of living in Singapore.”

It is also not wrong to say that the images that we now see published in Tay’s first book are part of his attempt to preserve memories of his homeland, as he thought he would be leaving Singapore “for good”. But a mere four months into his appointment, Tay quitted his job and returned to Singapore. He tried to resume his work on “Panoramic Singapore” but the rush was no longer there.

“When the original set of Panoramic Singapore came out, the images were all gutsy – bad light, ugly expressions, messy, chaotic. People reacted positively because they saw something they were familiar but had never quite seen in pictures. Most of them loved it and sent me encouraging notes,” says the photographer. “When I resumed, I felt very pressurized to make pictures of the same vein, so I went out searching for them. I refused to shoot in many instances because they were not ‘as perfect’. I ended up with images that were aesthetically more complex but less truthful.”

Tay is an important icon in the history of Singaporean photography for his persistence over the years in using the medium to engage his homeland while most of his peers have either veered into commercial stardom or dismissed the country as a subject matter. In this sense, it is really surprising to learn of his omission from PEEK!, a show curated by Singaporean printmaker Chris Yap for the 2008 Month of Photography in Tokyo. As an overview of Singaporean photography in recent years, the omission of Tay is totally inexplicable but perhaps underlines the petty politics that continue to plague the photographic community.

[“Bus #7, Orchard Road” from “Panoramic Singapore”, used with permission from Tay Kay Chin.]

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