“I believe that the most significant element behind a good photograph is waiting… waiting for the moment to catch the right subject, best lighting and ideal composition.”
– James Chung (1925-2018) –
You may not know the name of James Chung and be less familiar with his photographic work than you are with the pictures from his contemporary and friend Fan Ho (1931-2016) but you will certainly recognise some of his iconic images of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s at the exhibition Waiting for the Moment curated by f22 foto space in their Peninsula gallery.
Originally born in a small farming village in Guangdong province in 1925, James Chung was far from imagining a carrier as a photographer, dropping out of secondary school to work as a carpenter and farmer. Seeking for better job opportunities during the Chinese Civil War, he moved to Hong Kong in 1947 and became an apprentice at Wanchai Oriental Cinema’s visual arts department, designing and producing movie posters by hand. This is where he developed his interest in photography.
In 1955, after saving for years, he acquired his first Rolleicord Vb F3.5, by splitting the cost and sharing the camera with a colleague. After the store clerk had explained to him the basic knowledge of aperture and shutter, Chung went to the Zoological and Botanical Gardens to photograph a shiny lotus flower under the sunlight: this shot became one of his iconic early works and was published in magazines and newspapers, such as the state-owned Ta Kung Pao, the oldest Chinese-language newspaper.
Entirely self-taught, with a low income and a family to feed, James Chung learned the photography techniques with limited resources and equipment, but with patience and perseverance. Not only did he enhance his photographic skills such as subject selection, perfect angles choice and lighting but he also mastered darkroom techniques and developed his own photos and prints in the family bathroom.
Chung’s intention was to witness and document Hong Kong daily life and urban evolution with candid and realistic black-and-white images of people in their environment, housing, post-war livelihoods, markets, ports, transportations, etc. He could wait countless hours in order to choose the right angle and lighting and would never stage a scene or add drama to his shots. Although he was a neophyte in photography, he had a unique sense of light and shadow and artistic visions, certainly benefiting from his painting and woodcarving experience in his early years. In the 1950s and 60s, there were not many skyscrapers in Hong Kong, allowing multiple rays of light and shadows. Thus, Chung’s photographs, while realistic and not staged, perfectly captured the unembellished beauty and aesthetic of the city.
In 1959, with his photo of a woman sitting next to a standpipe waiting for her bucket to be filled, when fresh water was rationed and available only two hours per day, he won the silver prize at the Hong Kong International Salon of Photography, the city’s most prestigious photography competition, judged by the Photographic Society of America.
In 1963, James Chung became a full-time movie still photographer, creating production stills and actors’ portraits, for the promotion of the films but also to preserve visual memories. He later became the chief Editor of New Wave Photography Magazine. In 1968, he created his own studio in North Point focusing on commercial portraits and print enlargement.
Chung’s perseverance and dedication led him to be published in several magazines, to win awards and to be recognised by the Honorary Fellowship from the Photographic Society of Hong Kong and Fellowship from the Photographic Society of Great Britain.
Following the success of Long Shadows, the first ever solo exhibition of James Chung, organised last year, f22 foto space was devoted to contribute further to the late photographer’s legacy. Thus, the gallery is presenting a second exhibition, Waiting for the Moment, comprising over thirty iconic images of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s, chosen among the 12,000 prints and negatives left by the artist to his children.
Wandering in the gallery and discovering James Chung’s photographs is like traveling in time and enjoying, with a certain pinch of nostalgia, the unadorned beauty of the city. It is also like sharing an almost intimate and heart-warming connection with the photographer. Indeed, what makes this exhibition particularly unique and moving is that the silver Gelatin prints are all handcrafted by the son of James Chung, print master Stanley Chung.
A photographer himself, Stanley Chung also runs his late father darkroom in North Point where he prints all his father’s photos, using the films and notebooks he inherited. When he was a child, Stanley would often accompany his father and “wait for the moment” with him. This special bond is beautifully reflected here. In some ways, one could say that this exhibition is not the solo exhibition of James Chung, but a father-and-son duo retrospective. A Hong Kong heirloom.
James Chung: Waiting for the Moment
From 10 April to 30 June, 2021, 10:30 am to 7:30 pm.
All prints are available for purchase.
Exhibition Venue: f22 foto space, Shops BW11 & 13, The Peninsula Arcade, Salisbury Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong, www.f22fotos.com