Thirty Pieces of Silver @ Wei-Ling Gallery

Walking past antique furniture then ascending a flight of stairs into the gallery, one is greeted by 45 glass plate photographs made with early photographic processes. Encased in black frames and leather folders, these pictures are relatively tiny as compared to contemporary art photography, yet the images’ shiny surface and dark-on-dark presentation evoke an irresistible aura. The exhibition wall text describes K. Azril Ismail’s creations and salutes historical figures, “(t)hese pictures are hand-crafted, one of a kind, image-objects, with the lending hands of the great giants of photographic pioneers: Louis Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Frederick Scott Archer, alongside with (John) Herschel, (Thomas) Wedgwood, (Carl Wilhelm) Scheele, (Humphry) Davy, (Nicéphore) Niépce, and (Hippolyte) Bayard.”

Skull, Warrior, Bird and Guide Book (Table Study) (2012) [picture from]

With reference to the four photographic processes employed here, Wikipedia informs that daguerreotypes and salt prints were commonly produced between the 1840s and the 1850s, ambrotypes were dominant in the following decade, then superseded by tintypes in the 1870s, before film photography was introduced in 1885. In the gallery, exhibits are not grouped by processes, leaving the visitor to fully appreciate the captured images and tactile features of each individual plate. The first photograph – a daguerreotype titled ‘Skull, Warrior, Bird and Guide Book (Table Study)’ – projects a clear image with deep contrasts and faded edges, its brilliant surface emitting a bluish-grey tint. Shown next to it is a contemplative self-portrait, which together represents the artist’s reverence towards early photography modes, bathed in personal events and metaphoric presentations.

Handful of Coriander (2015) [picture from]

Displayed in between a couple tintypes for a ‘Strand of Green Grapes’ and a ‘Handful of Coriander’, are creations that celebrate the handmade craft and time-consuming effort behind Azril’s image objects. Three pictures refer to Gabriel Orozco’s ‘My Hands Are My Heart’ with an emphasis on the moulding hands, while ‘When the Day Turns Dark’ seemingly describes a yearning to return to the darkroom for image-making. The viewer is then provided an opportunity to peruse salt prints as a medium, with one set of three images showing an indoor portrait, a potted plant on a table, and an outdoor portrait. Traditional poses aside, its matte presentation is significantly different from the other exhibits, which I find appealing because of the lack of reflective glare (or the whiff of lavender oil as beeswax solvent?). 

Exhibition snapshot of: [from l to r] (2017) Morne; Wilted Chillies; Teaching Hands (Sitter; Arif)

Looking at the tintype ‘Red and Green Lettuce’, one is struck by its incredible high-contrast differential textures, that I imagine to be less apparent if the vegetables were captured via high-resolution colour photography. This explains my visual ambivalence towards contemporary lightbox advertisements, or perhaps highlights a certain truth about human vision when hue is an isolated characteristic. Like when a friend rings the doorbell when one is engrossed in reading, 8 pictures depicting ‘The UK Collodion Practitioners’ are shown next. Assuming these persons are the artist’s friends, this metaphorical jaunt recalls the joy of belonging, also drawing viewers’ curiosity towards the collodion process (as if the difference between ambrotype or tintype is not new knowledge!) 

Lacock Abbey, Fox Talbot Mansion (2014) [picture from]

The next three photographs follow Azril on a trip down history lane. The gleaming ‘Lacock Abbey, the Fox Talbot Mansion’ is captured via a daguerreotype, the object effectively crediting both Talbot and Daguerre as photography’s joint inventors. Its golden frame corners recall the gold toning approach, that significantly improved the quality and appeal of these pioneers’ products. A tintype of ‘The Oriel Window’ refers to one of the earliest photographic negative in existence, while ‘Tree on a hill’ alludes to plants, a favoured subject matter for Talbot the amateur botanist. That Azril insisted on visiting these places and taking pictures of it using early photographic processes, triggers a thought – how interested are painters in investigating the origins of paint, as a picture-making medium? Is historical understanding not an urgent pursuit, if effort-intensive activities such as painting and early/film photography have now evolved into digital modes with mass appeal?

Candle (Diptych) (2017) 

Light, and figurative depiction, are topics of contemplation in the following exhibits. ‘Candle (Diptych)’ shows a lone melting candle, together with its glass negative and its wonderful built-up of salt on the surface. After straining my eyes at ‘Bloom in the Dark’, I do a double take at the blurred face of ‘The Painter’, which cracked black spectrum stained glass (?) suggests the disruptive impact photographic technology had on art and portraiture. Despite the strong visual appeal of individual plates, viewing the remaining third of the exhibition feels less coherent and overfull thematically. Classical memento mori tropes such as skulls, fruits, and flowers, are utilized, to present observations about a dying medium, monochromatic images, and a personal passion. A hand tinted capture of ‘Pink Orchids’ projects a watercolour flourish, while the wonderful textures in the ambrotype ‘Wrapped Pineapple’ cannot veil the obscurity of its subject matter.

The Painter (2014)

Judging from recent exhibitions featuring photographs – black-and-white, high-resolution pictures of street scenes and natural landscapes are the norm; For a competition open to international participants, alienating portraits with descriptive wall texts make the cut. Visual engagement with its audience, is anchored upon familiar nostalgia or highlighting the other, which follows a journalistic mode of presenting images. Azril’s pair of skulls – one wrapped, presented as a salt print, the other photographed and developed as an ambrotype – draw immediate attention to the medium and its craft, beyond its immediate aesthetic attraction. Such multi-layered image making, deserves more than just thirty pieces of silver.  

Exhibition snapshot of: (2017) [l] Wrapped Skull (Table Studies); [r] Skull (Table Studies)