Pictorialism in the 50s: Loke Wan Tho Collection


Born in Kuala Lumpur, Loke Wan Tho (1915-1964) was the ninth child of the tin magnate Loke Yew. Apart from his accomplishments as a businessman, Loke was an exceptional bird photographer and an accomplished ornithologist.

Collected in the 50s, Loke’s photographic collection comprises of 539 pictures by 173 photographers from over 25 countries, making it the biggest collection of Pictorialism in the region and possibly the world. While most of the pictures were bought, some of the photographers donated their works, excited by the opportunity to be part of the progressive initiative by Loke. Many of the photographers are considered pioneers of the genre. The list includes Ansel Adams (USA), Yousof Karsh (Canada), Yip Cheong Fun (Singapore) and Francis Wu (HK). The entire collection was only shown in 2005 more than 40 years after Loke had donated it to the National Art Gallery of Malaysia.

Today, Pictorialism – or Salon photography – continues to be widely practised in Southeast Asia, even though it has become passé in the west. By showing Loke’s collection, co-curators Li-En Chong and Alex Moh are not trying to encourage young photographers to follow this genre mindlessly. Instead, both of them stress the need to situate Pictorialism within the history of Malaysian photography.

“First of all, younger viewers need to have an idea of Pictorialism, which places so much emphasis in creativity and craft. In the digital world, with the help of Photoshop, young photographers can cut and paste their images until they are perfect. In a way, they are copying what the Pictorialists had experimented with hand-painting or double exposure, but without the help of digital preview,” says Moh. “The older audiences need to see the collection because it relates to the times in which they have shot most of their images, when opportunities to see exhibitions from HK or England were very limited.”

[Fancy / Lim Seah Kee (Singapore) / Courtesy of National Art Gallery, Malaysia]