Snapshot in time

A famed photography village from days of yore has opened a new museum to honor the trade that made it well-known around Vietnam.

By Le Diem on September 18,2018 10:56 AM

Snapshot in time

photos: LE DIEM

Just 15 km to the west of Hanoi’s city center lies a special museum in Lai Xa village, Kim Chung commune in Hoai Duc district. Different from other museums around the country, it is the first private, hamlet-level museum of a trade village and was built by local residents in an effort to treasure the traditional trade handed down by their ancestors. Capturing moments in time, it tells the story of the country’s first and only photography village; the birthplace of photography in Vietnam about 125 years ago.

The Lai Xa Photography Museum takes you back in time, with a replica of a typical village studio displayed on the first floor. There is an old wooden-box camera on a tripod pointing to a backdrop with wooden tables and chairs and painted landscapes on the wall.

All local photographers used wooden-box cameras and Lumiere glass-plate negatives, which were imported from France, according to Nguyen Van Xuan, a member of the Lai Xa Photography Club. There were artists in the village who specialized in drawing the studio backdrops. Various backdrops were available, to match customer tastes, bearing flowers, landscapes, stairs, or modern buildings. Famous images from Vietnam like Ha Long Bay and Hanoi’s One Pillar Pagoda used to be quite popular. Backgrounds used in days gone by are shown in photos hanging around the “studio”.

On the way upstairs is a collection of photos taken by villagers today who are members of the Lai Xa Photography Club. The photos on display change often, so that regular visitors always have something new to admire. Established in 2012, the club also teaches the younger generation about the history of the village’s photography trade and the techniques used with different cameras.

The main display area on the second floor is divided into different spaces that together showcase the complete village.

It starts with the photos, camera and career of Nguyen Dinh Khanh, regarded as the “father” of the village’s photography trade and who played a key role in the development of photography throughout Vietnam and abroad.

Snapshot in time

In 1890, 16-year-old Khanh went to the center of Hanoi to work as an assistant at a photo studio owned by a Chinese resident. After two years, he opened his own studio in the capital, known as Khanh Ky. The studio soon attracted a lot of customers and became famous, thanks to the fine photos Khanh snapped.

In 1911, he went to France and opened another Khanh Ky in Toulouse. When Raymond Poincare won the French election in 1913, Khanh’s photo of the new President was selected for the front page of several newspapers, including L’Illustration, the first French newspaper to publish photographs. Khanh Ky then appeared in Paris, Frankfurt in Germany, and Guangzhou in China. After returning to Vietnam a few years later, he opened studios in then-Saigon and northern Hai Phong city.

Khanh also returned to Lai Xa to teach villagers photographic techniques and to encourage them to open their own studios. More and more studios from the people of Lai Xa opened around Vietnam and other countries such as France, Germany, China, Laos, and Cambodia. In its halcyon days, about 80 per cent of households in the village pursued the photography trade. There were about 150 studios owned by Lai Xa people nationwide, and they accounted for 70 to 80 per cent of the studios in Hanoi and Saigon, according to Dang Tich, a villager who has a collection of documents and photos of Khanh and other outstanding Lai Xa photographers, which inspired the idea for the museum. “A common feature of these studios was the words ‘Ky’ or ‘Lai’ in their name, such as An Ky, Thinh Ky, Thien Ky, Phuc Lai, and Kim Lai, which aimed to honor Khanh and ‘Khanh Ky’ and promote the village’s reputation,” he said. “These studios were also larger in size and busier than others.”

Information on students who followed Khanh from Lai Xa to Saigon and then opened studios of their own around the country from 1920 to 1975 is provided in the space next to Khanh’s. Together with photos of these studios, a brief biography of the owner and his or her photographic style is also shown.

For example, the studio of one of Khanh’s first students was Phuc Lai Studio, opened in 1924 by Nguyen Van Dinh in Hai Phong, who assisted several Lai Xa people to work and live at his studio. He also opened Central Photo in Hanoi in the 1930s. For a reasonable price, Phuc Lai Studio welcomed all types of customers, from office staff to workers. Another outstanding studio chain was Luminor Photo of Nguyen Van Cham, Dinh’s cousin, in Hanoi, Hai Phong, northern Lang Son province, and Sapa in northern Lao Cai province. Luminor Photo specialized in high quality and customer service. Once a photo was taken, the customer could have it developed at any of the chain’s four locations. Thus, even though prices at Luminor Photo were much higher than that at other studios, it was never short of customers, who were mostly French. Meanwhile, in Saigon, Vien Kinh Studio, opened in the 1950s by Dinh Tien Mau, who began studying photography when he was 13, was a familiar studio among famous movie stars and artists in the early 1970s. My Lai Studio, which was opened in 1936 by Nguyen Van Doan, is still open, at 356 Phan Dinh Phung Street in Ho Chi Minh City’s Phu Nhuan district.

The State-owned cooperative studios of the 1960-1980s, where photographers gathered to work together, are shown in the next space. These cooperatives were dissolved in the early 2000s, when digital cameras became popular, but many descendants of former employees became key photographers at news offices.

The darkroom space demonstrates the old techniques used by Lai Xa villagers, especially during wartime, when materials and equipment for photography were scarce. Using a red light, familiar in darkrooms, it displays equipment for developing film, such as photo cutting tools, a film dryer, a table and tools for hand-tinting, an Axomat photo enlarger (made in Czechoslovakia), and chemicals for developing film.

A collection of different old film cameras is also on display, including ranges of Rolleiflex (the first products produced in the 1920s), Minolta SR-T 101 (1966-1975), Canon QL (1965), Exa-1 (1962-1964), Pentacon Six (1956-1992), and Kiev 4 (1951).

Snapshot in time

Thanks to the great techniques handed down by “father” Khanh, Lai Xa photographers were renowned for taking photos even in unfavorable weather conditions and then developing them through to a finished product. “There was no color film at the time, so ‘color’ photos were created by an artist who brushed the color on to the photos after they were printed,” Xuan explained.

The technique of Lai Xa photographers is also featured in the photo exhibition area, which exhibits different styles, color photography, composite photography, and the art of photographic lighting. Portrait photographs were Lai Xa’s most renowned. Visitors can also see the youth and beauty of many celebrities from old times in black & white photos.

Most items in the museum, including old, rare, and valuable cameras, equipment, photos, and documents were contributed by different generations of photographers in the village after a call for donations by village elders, the Lai Xa Photography Club, and Nguyen Dinh Khanh Photography Club.

Building the museum cost around VND3 billion ($130,000), funded by donations from villagers and Lai Xa people all over the country. Entry is free, and some of the villagers volunteer their time to take care of the museum, so it only opens on Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 4.30pm. “The old cameras of the Lai Xa people may not compare well to modern digital cameras, but we want to show the younger generation the splendid and proud past of our trade village,” said Xuan. ^

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