Cover The developing process of the wet plate in the darkroom under red light

Everyone is a photographer these days, or so we think. But the true talents are the ones putting their innovative spins to visual culture as we know it. In the last of a three-part series titled Behind the Lens, Ryan Lee talks about reviving interest in analogue photography with Hip Xiong Photo Studio

Five minutes before the start of our interview, I receive a text message from Ryan Lee: “I’m signing up for Zoom.” The irony is not lost on me: I was introducing a digital tool to the man who is reviving interest in analogue photography in Singapore—with an age-old technique even before film—at Hip Xiong Photo Studio, the only one here making wet plate tintype portraits. Lee tells me later that he never needed to use the video communications app, but was impressed that there were no lags during our conversation.

The question begs to be asked: “Are you a bit of an old soul?” Lee lets out a small sigh, and then a quick smile. “I actually embrace technology. When I graduated from poly, it was the start of the digital revolution for photography [more than 20 years ago]—and I’ve never looked back since. My first digital camera recorded images on a 3.5-inch floppy disk, and I didn’t need to develop my own film anymore.”

That is, until now when the instant gratification of digital photography no longer cuts it for him. “I want to go back to analogue photography. With a finite number of shots, it forces me to put more thought and deliberation before I press the shutter. It slows down time to a point of stopping it and I feel more in the moment. And when I finally see my shots develop the way I imagined them to be, I feel rewarded.”

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In this digital age, when filters can change the look of a photograph fairly quickly, why did the former creative director in advertising see the need to revive wet plate photography? “The image is formed by exposing light-sensitive silver halides on a metal plate. I like the tangibility and archival quality. So if the internet of the world crashes, at least my picture would still survive. It’s a physical reminder of the moment that was captured.”

Lee opened the doors to Hip Xiong Photo Studio last March, after signing the lease for the two-storey space in Geylang the year before, but only a few weeks later Singapore went into circuit breaker mode to curb the spread of Covid-19. It was in June, when restrictions were lifted, that he saw his first customers—mostly couples who were commemorating an anniversary or a birthday. “The pandemic sort of helped us because people can’t travel and they are looking for unique experiences—and this form of photography is something that our generation has never experienced before.”

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The idea to start his own portrait studio germinated when he got married in 2013. He was looking to take his wedding portraits on film, but couldn’t find a studio in Singapore. “My family, especially my late mum, loved going to the studio to take pictures. When I was younger, it was something that we looked forward to. The excitement of waiting to see the pictures made it more enjoyable. My grandfather loved photography too. I guess this rubbed off on me because I used to spend my weekends at my grandparents’ place, looking through family albums.”

He started doing research on photo studios back then, and “I think I went too far back to the 19th century when I stumbled upon wet plate photography. It became something that I was so engrossed in and felt that I could actually do it myself”. In fact, the name Hip Xiong, which is Hokkien for “taking a photo”, is in tribute to the photo studios of old. While photography is a form of expression for Lee, creating an image is a collaborative process with his subjects. “When we first meet, I try to get to know them, make them feel relaxed and extract any information that might help me capture their characters on the plate. Sometimes when I capture them in a way they didn’t expect, they would say, ‘I’ve never seen myself this way before’—and suddenly that physical image becomes an interesting talking piece.”

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He only has one shot to get it right, but if the subjects blink or move out of focus and their faces are blurred, Lee would do another one. “I want them to leave with a good shot—it’s my pride in my work that I want to do a good job for them.” The customer can also see the whole developing process in the darkroom under red light, unlike film photography which requires total darkness. He offers two sizes of plates: four by five inches and five by seven inches, for individual or group shots of up to six people, and the whole process takes no more than 45 minutes for a solo shot.

Lee also conducts workshops at his studio. “I want to debunk the myth that wet plate photography is difficult. After doing a lot of research, I sort of devised my own methods to simplify the process and I hope this would make it more accessible to people who are interested.”

While he is bringing the analogue back to the digital world, it is through social media platforms such as Instagram that people come to know about his work. “I feel that it’s important to provide a platform where your customers can connect the dots so they connect with the business and what you do.”

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Also featured in the Behind the Lens series: Street Photographer Lee Yik Keat | Fashion Photographer Shavonne Wong