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Memory Makers: The man who shoots 19th century style photos

Nicholas Yong
·Assistant News Editor
·6-min read
Ryan Lee, 40, the founder of Hip Xiong Photo Studio, located along Geylang Road. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore, Ryan Lee)
Ryan Lee, 40, the founder of Hip Xiong Photo Studio, located along Geylang Road. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore, Ryan Lee)

Are you nostalgic for the old days? In Memory Makers, Yahoo News Singapore takes a trip down memory lane with people and places, and revisits oft-forgotten parts of Singapore’s history.

SINGAPORE — In an age where camera phones have long been ubiquitous, Ryan Lee still prefers to do things the old-fashioned way. He even discovered his current vocation in a manner that is almost unheard of in the 21st century: thumbing through books at the library.

“I got really intrigued by the look of wet plate photography,” recalled the 40-year-old. “It gives your skin tone a look which cannot be produced on film or digital shots.”

Lee, the founder of Hip Xiong Photo Studio, is likely Singapore’s only wet plate photographer. The 150-year-old process involves exposing and developing light-sensitive silver halides on tin or glass plates. These silver halides are formed by silver nitrate reacting to the salted collodion that has been coated on the plate.

The result: images with more than a hint of glamour and mystery, reminiscent of Hollywood stars of the silent era, or portraits from the US Civil War. Think of it as a really old school Instagram filter.

Wet plate photography was invented in 1851 and pre-dates film. Sometimes called the collodion process, it was introduced to Singapore in 1858 by American lawyer Edward A. Edgerton.

According to librarian Janice Loo of the National Library Board, the clientele for early-era photography services came from the more well-to-do segments of the population, as it would not have been cheap to get one’s portrait taken. “Apart from studio portraiture, a significant part of the business lay in producing and selling images of the peoples and landscapes of Singapore and the region, which European residents and visitors bought as souvenirs.”

Photographers used Singapore as a base from which they visited other places such as Malaya and Siam to build their stock of images, added Loo.

The dry plate technique, which was invented in 1871, replaced the wet plate by the 1880s.

This 1863 photograph shows a view of the Singapore River taken from Fort Canning Hill. Kampong Saigon can be seen in the middle of the photograph. In the distance can be seen Pearl’s Hill with the hospital already built. (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009.)
This 1863 photograph shows a view of the Singapore River taken from Fort Canning Hill. Kampong Saigon can be seen in the middle of the photograph. In the distance can be seen Pearl’s Hill with the hospital already built. (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009.)

Just like the relationship between photographer and subject, the chemistry is vital. Lee explained that the sensitive chemicals on the plate are silver halides - mainly, silver bromide and silver iodide. “Those are the same silver halides in black and white film. So when silver halides get hit by light, they convert into metallic silver, which is what the image of the subject will be formed by.”

The chemicals used must be handled with care as they are corrosive and even potentially explosive, while the development process also has to be managed properly. “If you develop it too short or too long, you either underexpose it or overexpose it. So every second is actually quite critical,” said Lee.

“With tintype, I am creating my own ‘film’. It is very satisfying to create everything from scratch.”

Memories of yesteryear

Inside the darkroom of Hip Xiong Photo Studio (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)
Inside the darkroom of Hip Xiong Photo Studio (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)

It all started when Lee, who previously worked in video production and the advertising industry, got married in 2013 and wanted to recreate his parents’ wedding photo on film. Memories of family portraits that the Lees took in the 1980s were also on his mind.

“It was the backdrop and the experience that I wanted,” recalled the father of three. “We prepared even before we left the house. We had to get our hair done and be on our best behaviour. We had to sit a certain way, and Mom would pick the props and the backdrop.

“It was a very personalised experience, and you got full dedicated service. Versus nowadays, where you just go out and pose. It’s very cookie cutter.”

However, despite going as far as Malaysia, Lee could not find the appropriate studio for his wedding photos. But the idea stayed with him, and he eventually considered setting up a film studio - till he came across wet plate photography. Through trial and error, Lee taught himself the process, importing materials from the United States and China.

Since opening in June last year – an event delayed by several months due to factors such as the time needed for renovation and Singapore’s partial lockdown from April – Hip Xiong has shot about 300 customers, mostly young professionals. The cost ranges from $200 for an individual portrait to $400 for a group shot.

Julia Teng and her boyfriend Adam Kaveri took wet plate photographs at Hip Xiong Photo Studio (Photo courtesy of Julia Teng and Adam Kaveri).
Julia Teng and her boyfriend Adam Kaveri took wet plate photographs at Hip Xiong Photo Studio (Photo courtesy of Julia Teng and Adam Kaveri).

Each shoot typically lasts 45 minutes to an hour, with buffer time included in case the shot needs to be redone. Customers are asked to come in with their hair done and to avoid wearing sunscreen as it will make the image appear darker. Those with a darker skin tone are also advised to avoid wearing white. The plates can be collected the following day once they are varnished.

Among Lee’s customers are flight attendants Julia Teng, 24, and Adam Kaveri, 31, who took individual and couple shots in a three-hour session last September. The couple wanted something special to commemorate Kaveri’s 30th birthday, as well as her flying career.

“It made me think of my grandparents’ old school portraits in their bedrooms,” said Teng. “I definitely practised in the mirror to be as prepared as I could be. It’s like doing school photos all over again, or taking a polaroid on a grander scale. I love the surprise you get when the photo is taken.”

Kaveri added, Most of the time was actually spent setting up the actual shot – positions, angles, and lighting. We also got to see how the photos were developed.We really like the vintage look and feel.”

A wet plate photograph of Yahoo News Singapore journalist Nicholas (PHOTO: Ryan Lee)
A wet plate photograph of Yahoo News Singapore journalist Nicholas (PHOTO: Ryan Lee)

While serving as Lee’s subject, this reporter was first framed in camera while the lights were adjusted. Lee explained that I would have to remain in my pose while he sensitised the plate, as he would only have five to 10 minutes to expose the shot once he had done so.

“We only get one chance,” said Lee, adding that the shot would have to be redone if I blinked or moved. And so I sat there beneath the scorching lights, resisting the urge to move.

Then before I knew it, the plate had been loaded into the camera and the shot taken in a blinding flash of light. I was able to observe the process as the image developed in minutes amid the red light of the darkroom.

My resulting image might well have been that of a distant ancestor. Upon seeing the plate, a friend later remarked, “You look like a POW from World War II.”

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