Photo Studios Softly Fading Away

loading Photos in front of Ming Sing Digital Studio.

Photography became popular – along with printing machines and gramophones – at the end of the nineteenth century.

By the 1920s, photography had become an essential part of the printing and publishing industry. A decade later, it had become indispensable to any periodical that wished to thrive.

For periodicals in Malaya during that time, the story was the same. They relied heavily on photography, especially in news reports and in advertisements. This was the time when pictorial newspapers and magazines covering celebrities, film, music, and luxury and leisure goods mushroomed.

It also marked the rise of the photo studio. Photo studios were initially portrait studios catering to affluent people with high stature in society, such as the Peranakan in Penang. Established photo studios emphasised craftsmanship, and photographers used their artistic skills to add finishing touches to the photos.

It was not until after the Second World War that photography became cheaper and more affordable for the masses. Taking family portraits at photo studios became the norm in the 1950s; families would put on their Sunday best and stand or sit – if rather rigidly – for the camera.

Then, almost overnight, new technological advances in photography swept through the landscape.

On the Hunt for Photo Studios

When I was asked to write about old and surviving photo studios around Penang, I accepted without any second thought. Then, I realised that the “old” part required a bit more clarification: how old?

My first stop was Wah Fong Photographer on Lebuh Chulia, said to be established in the 1940s. Sadly, it had closed down with the passing of its last owner; the place is now a bar named Fidalgo, though it retains the studio’s sign on the façade as a tribute.

What used to be Wah Fong Photographer.

King Sun.

Kong Beng.

Wah Fong used to be the number one choice of photo studio in George Town. In the 1960s Wah Fong was popular for its “colour photo” service. Colour photography was a rare thing in those days, and the quality was often less than satisfactory. The studio provided manual finishing touches to its photos, especially on features such as the lips and facial tone, as well as outfits. Because such artistic and craftsmanship skills were hard to come by, the studio quickly gained fame and became a favourite of celebrities such as Connie Chan and Lily Chao.

My next stop was Jalan Penang, which had a number of photo studios. Among the oldest ones were Siew Seong and Kong Beng; the former had already closed down after the lady who managed it passed away (her children did not want to continue the business, as was the case for Wah Fong); the latter, Kong Beng, while still retaining its name, has turned into a frame-making business that at the same time provides passport photography services under its new owner, Tan Lay Khim.

Tan had been in the business for almost 10 years when she took over from the previous owner. According to her, the studio has been there since before the war, between the late 1920s to the early 1930s. The decision to go into the frame-making business was a strategic one made to survive in today’s electronic age – there are still a lot of requests for photo frames, and not that many suppliers out there.

Apart from George Town, several other old – and still surviving – studios can be found along Jalan Dato Keramat, such as Kok Wah and King Sun; Say Tek Digital Photo in Air Itam; Kedai Gambar JC in Balik Pulau; and Ming Sing and Merlin Colour in Butterworth.

Most of these studios only offer basic photography services such as passport photos, family portraits, and printing and photocopying services. They also sell basic analogue and digital camera accessories.

They continue to survive because of their rapport with the local community. Wei Leong of Kok Wah Photo Studio testifies to this: “Most of our customers are locals, or people who used to live around here. This studio has been around for more than 50 years and there are regulars who still continue to use our service even though they have moved away from here,” says the second-generation studio operator who inherited the business from his father.

This is also the case for every old photo studio in the area: Ming Sing and Merlin Color still have their regulars – the culture of taking family portraits especially during festivities and special occasions still persists among the locals in the area.

Additionally, according to Wei Leong, photo studios and freelance photographers worked closely together in the old days, and rather surprisingly, still do. In the 1940s there were many Malay freelance photographers who provided wedding photography. These photographers did not own a shop, so they would come to the studio to develop the photos.

In the mid-1990s analogue cameras were so cheap that almost everyone owned one. Photo-developing services were popular and became the primary source of income for contemporary photo studios.

After digital cameras entered the market, many studios began providing photo printing and editing services. It came at a huge cost – electronic devices as well as skills were needed to do this. Studios also started selling digital cameras and accessories, greatly adding to costs.

Closed photo studio at Komtar.

What has made photo studios almost obsolete is the smartphone. Cheaper smartphones, better phone cameras as well as social media have made physical photos – and even digital cameras – almost irrelevant.

The Digital Age

According to Michelle Yap of Merlin Colour, “When digital cameras became popular, many camera shops sprouted around here. And then came the smartphones – that changed everything. Camera shops could not survive; we are barely surviving ourselves.”

Like other photo studios, Merlin Colour has had to diversify its business to include wedding and graduation photography, and printing and photocopying services.

Add another obstacle: government offices began taking and printing passport photos themselves, ending an important source of income for photo studios.

But what has made photo studios almost obsolete is the smartphone. Cheaper smartphones, better phone cameras as well as social media have made physical photos – and even digital cameras – almost irrelevant.

Photos can be instantaneously uploaded to Facebook or whatever trending social media platform there is today, while photos by the thousands can easily and cheaply be stored in Cloud.

“There are customers who come and print their photos, but they are very few. People do not see the need to keep physical albums anymore. Most who come for passport photos also took the photos themselves and only come to print it. As you can see, there is not much business that we can do here,” says Yap.

The future is bleak. Many old studios did not survive the rising cost of rent, diminishing demand and lack of interest in the business among the young. They could not catch up with technology either. Those that have endured only run it as a side business.

Speaking truthfully, Wei Leong says that he will not allow his children to follow in his footsteps, even if it is at the expense of his father’s legacy. “It’s hard to do this kind of business nowadays. There is not much business to do, actually.”

Razan Rose' writes to put food on his table. He can be reached at razanrose92@gmail.com.



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