In Hong Kong, hobbyist photography can be broadly classified into two main categories: the salon photography and the contemporary fine arts photography, mainly differentiated by their styles.
Salon photography is practised by serious amateurs, although some commercial photographers are also engaged in it. It has a long history in Hong Kong, about 50 years or more, from the age of black and white photography. Some people call it the "Shatin Morning Fog" school of photography. There is a story behind this. Before Shatin became a cosmopolitan town after a chain of real estate development projects followed by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, building their newer and bigger race course there, it was a serene and scenic village. The morning fog added subtle beauty to the already poetic environment, with the traditional Chinese fishing junks gliding gracefully across the placid waters amidst the hazy sunlight through the misty skyline.
Shatin had helped many serious amateurs, mainly medical doctors, lawyers, accountants and merchants who have both the leisure time and money, winning time and again trophies from the international salon photography competitions, such as the Galaxy Exhibitors, the Five Star Exhibitors from U.S.A., and ARPS/FRPS (Associate and Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society) from Great Britain, and numerous prizes from other countries.
Salon photography focuses on the basics, such as the golden rules, the rule of one third (proportion of water or land against the skyline), contrasts created by colours, textures, lighting and the nature of the subject matter. Composition and technical skills are important elements. Photographers put much emphasis on beauty and atmosphere. And a title is very important to tell the viewers the intention of the photographers.
The contemporary fine arts photography does not wish to follow the style of the salon photography. It goes along with the contemporary trend in the international fine arts development and tries to make some personal breakthroughs for self-expressions, through experimental exercises. Some of them make use of other media for presentation of their works. Creativity and originality are the important elements. Some photographers even don't mind that members of the public do not understand their works. The participants are mainly visual artists, designers, art directors, design school students and lovers of visual arts, including advertising photographers and professionals.
Naturally they do not see beauty and atmosphere as the prime elements, and do not care too much about the golden rules, contrasts and composition. A title is not important. Most photographs are entitled "Untitled". They do not wish to influence the viewers and block their imagination with a title. They belief that different viewers of different cultural background and perception should be allowed to interact freely with the images to make their own interpretation, which is entirely personal. Hence they strongly object the common practice of some salon photographers to add Chinese poetic verses, water brush paintings and personal seals onto their works to imitate the ancient Chinese hand paintings scrolls. To them they don't look too natural.
My response to this is that all artists should be given the perfect freedom to express themselves. We should extend a little patience when we see something not quite meeting our expectations. We have to give others time to develop themselves because all experimental works cannot be perfected in one day. Negative comments given too early may kill their courage to try out new things. Creativity is not always heading towards the "right" direction, and there should not be "right" and "wrong" in fine arts because values may change with the time.
They think the message is important. Good photographs need not be beautiful. And photographers as artists should reflect their true feelings of the environment and the confronting issues, other than dwelling on beauty and atmosphere alone and become blind to the turmoil of the world we are living.
The salon photographers occasionally comment that some of the works from the contemporary fine arts school are too surrealistic. They don't understand why they can be classified as photographs, let alone the message they try to convey. They use their own salon yardstick to measure the works of another school and of course cannot get the underlying messages which the photographers wish to express.
As I know a lot of friends from these two schools of photography, I often heard a lot of these comments. Here are my personal opinions to the hot issues.
Both salon photography and contemporary fine arts photography have their own values. Salon photography definitely has a place in the history of development of photography in Hong Kong and amongst Chinese community around the world. Nobody can deny this.
The contemporary fine arts photographers should understand that salon photography is good for the beginners to learn and practise the basics. And these beautiful images can often attract more amateurs to embrace photography as a hobby. The popularity of photography in Hong Kong is mainly due to the hard works of the salon photographers in organizing photo competitions in Hong Kong and participating in international competitions. Salon photo clubs are everywhere in Hong Kong. That is why they are well supported by the photographic equipment importers. They help them sell more cameras, lenses, accessories and films.
Having said that, salon photographers should try to broaden their horizon by trying to understand the contemporary fine arts photography so that they may look at the works of others from a different perspective than confined themselves to only salon perspective. We agree that art is a subjective matter but if we can open ourselves, we may see more lights and broaden our vision.
Young hobbyists should not jump towards contemporary fine arts photography without gaining solid competence with the basics, taking the step by step approach other than the "quick results for material rewards" approach, which is not uncommon today amongst studio apprentices. They should look at the total dedication and commitment the salon photographers have given to their works. For instance, Miss Chow Chung Ling, the elder sister of Chow Yun Fat, the famous "Mark Goh" film star of Hong Kong, (who, like Yam Tat Wah and Jacky Chan, is also a serious amateur) could sit on top of a mountain for the whole day just to wait for the right kind of lighting to appear.
I have grown up as a salon photographer in my early twenties and now become a lover of photography, appreciating works from both schools. To me, there is no such demarcation as salon photography or contemporary fine arts photography. There are only good photos and bad photos. This mind set is important to cast away my perception and free my mind to accept "aliens" works from other schools.
In judging student photo competition, my criteria are simple. If there is a lot of creativity in a photo work, I would give it more marks, even though the work has technical faults such as imperfect printing techniques. Images with a very popular themes or style, such as "motorcycles jumping over the rings of fire", "a young lady shaking her long hairs along the beach", "kids blowing soap bubbles", "a young lady opening a red umbrella amongst the mountains" and the like, though technically perfect, I see them all as copycats and give them relatively lower ratings.
The contemporary fine arts photographers should spend more efforts in introducing the art itself to the public so that more people know how to appreciate this form of visual arts, which is quite new to them. Lee Ka-sing, Holly Lee and Lau Ching Ping are working along this line by spending their personal resources in publishing the "NuNaHeDuo" and the "digi". "NuNaHeDuo" (Dislocation) is a documenta on the contemporary photographic art by photographers and artists of different media. "digi" is a publication focused on digital imaging (global base) and conceptual thinking on digital culture level from local and overseas artists. However, in order to have greater impacts, financial support from the business community is necessary. I think Kodak, Fuji, Agfa, Canon, Nikon and Minolta should consider this worthwhile project. I do understand the difficulty in allocating their advertising and promotional budgets in a soft market today, but working together to pull in their resources is one thing that they may try.
I am giving my general observation as impartial as possible to create awareness amongst photographers in ASEAN countries the need to break the barrier between the two schools for healthy growth of the art. I have no intention to point my fingers to anyone. I request our readers not to make any conjectures. Feedbacks are always welcome.