Photos are so much a part of our lives nowadays that we all too easily take for granted the technical mastery behind one click of a button, and how the very innovation behind capturing that image itself was the result of our desire to mimic the hand of an artist. The last time I checked I had 47,707 photos on my smartphone — so many in fact that I rarely ever truly look back over them. Do any of us do so, beyond the need to create the content for social media posts, or unless prompted to reminisce by Facebook’s ‘On this Day’ reminder? I can’t really remember the last photo I had printed out, but I am old enough to recall painstakingly assembling photo albums by hand and the emotional value I used to attach to portraits of people. Perhaps that’s why I find the story of one family’s century-long dedication to the craft of hand painted portrait miniatures at a shop called Nang Loeng Art, particularly compelling. Opened in 1916, it remains the oldest continuously operating photography studio in Thailand — where a heritage that began with a camera lens, lives on through the tip of a sable brush. Likenesses captured by lenses and finished with fire.
On most days, under the intense and unrelenting heat of Bangkok’s tropical sun, most people could be forgiven for looking down and not noticing certain shopfront windows — the goal of reaching the next air-conditioned destination usually being a far too pressing matter to allow for such distractions. I am not like most people. And so it was that one day while leaving the shade of Bangkok’s historic foodie destination, Nang Loeng Market, I crossed Nakhon Sawan Road to check out the facade of a shop with incredibly bold but dated signage written in Thai ‘นางเลิ้งอ๊าร์ต or Nang Loeng Art), which my overactive imagination thought might be a vintage art supply store — the kind with rare pigments in apothecary jars like those at L. Cornelissen & Sons in London. I wasn’t entirely wrong. In one rather elegant street-side display window made of wood and glass, there were indeed a couple of jars containing mineral pigments poking out from the drawers of period jewellery cabinets, along with a brush artfully resting on a porcelain palette with daubs of paint — a work in progress frozen in time. Scattered around, resting inside more opened drawers as well as displayed on various trays made of silver, brass and even iridescent white mother of pearl were many dozens of tiny faces staring back at me — miniature portraits, the kind often seen on lockets or brooches. To any Thai person the sight of these immediately triggers recollections of similar objects from their own lives. Tiny mementos often portraying members of the royal family, revered religious figures and respected teachers or ancestors. Like many other Thais, I grew up with these diminutive images, but the presence of the pigments and the fine brush suggested the hand of an artist, and so I was intrigued.
It turns out, the Art mentioned in the signage refers to Khun (Mr.) Art Silvanich, the Thai name of the studio’s founder, a Chinese man originally named Moiyun Suea-Sa-nga, born in Mauritius who later immigrated to Thailand in the early part of the last century — bringing along his love of photography and eventually opening Nang Loeng Art with his wife Puangpetch. Together, along with his brother, the couple ran a successful business with a reputation amongst civil servants for fine portrait photography which was in high demand then. At the time of the studio’s opening, the Nang Loeng area from which the studio also derives its name was at the height of fashion. Located on Nakhon Sawan Road, one of Thailand’s oldest paved thoroughfares, this was once one of the capital’s earliest modern shopping streets during a time when rickshaws still coexisted with automobiles on Bangkok’s dusty and flood prone roads.
“We started with photographs, which we will still do, but now what makes us unique are our hand painted porcelain images used for lockets. We were the first. Now we’re the last.” Khun (Mr.) Prasad Suea-Sa-nga, the nephew and current owner of Nang Loeng Art, tells me.
“Not long after my uncle opened the shop, he saw that porcelain lockets were becoming very popular within palace and government circles, originally being imported from Europe. My uncle was a resourceful and artistic man, he immediately saw the potential link between photography and porcelain images for lockets. At the time, you had to send a photo to places like Italy and have a locket image hand painted from those printed images. These lockets were highly prized because once painted and fired, porcelain was much more durable than photographs. They can’t be easily damaged by humidity or water, and their colour never fades, they were and are still seen today as prized heirlooms because of the memories attached to their imagery. He studied how porcelain painting was done and eventually began to make these lockets himself, the business became quite successful. As technology developed, images could be screened onto ceramics using computers, — at one point businesses mass producing lockets where sprouting up like mushrooms. But we always stayed true to our original hand painted process. In fact, we’ve survived because of that.”
Although the demand for such locket images have greatly diminished, there remains a market — some might argue a passionate following for them even. From start to finish, each porcelain portrait miniature is crafted by hand. Khun Prasad manually cuts each piece from sheets of copper, which also means any shape can be requested (mass produced ones are limited to whatever pattern a particular machine allows for). Each one is then polished using a self-winding, desk mounted grinder. From there, using a mortar and pestle, he hand crushes chunks of white clay into powder which is mixed with water to form a paste which is then painted onto the copper pieces and then fired to form the chalky base onto which a black and white outline of the image is transferred. Each image is then meticulously hand painted and fired being finally finished with one last layer of enamel again, kissed by fire. The entire process involves multiple skills Khun Prasad learned from his uncle and father.
“Thankfully now, we have a large table-mounted magnifying glass to help! Look how tiny each locket image is. Very small!” Prasad points to the wooden desk bathed in natural light in one corner of the studio where all the work is done, from cutting, to polishing, to painting and even to firing using a hand-held blow torch.
Each piece is very labour intensive and on average, an order takes between one to two months depending on the complexity involved.
“We are a handmade business. We are only able to do about 20 pieces a month, which accounts for the high price in comparison to mass produced lockets. It’s difficult to expand because of the skills involved. My daughter, who graduated in the arts from Silapakorn University has been taught how to do every step, but she’s a modern woman and works for an adverting firm. Perhaps one day she may want to take over the business. But this is a labour of love. It’s not work that suits everyone, but she does have the skills and know-how to continue the business if she wants.”
Nang Loeng Art remains a family business specialising in making old school items that preserve precious memories. Standing inside the shop, faces of past customers stare out at you from all around the dusty premises, shelf after shelf of aging frames and discoloured photo posters from every decade of the last century, whether they be in colour, black and while, sepia tone or handed painted. Faces preserved representing countless lives, sightly hauntingly, but also somehow comfortingly reassuring. Like a lineup of all your aunties and uncles — ancestors still present in visual form, if no longer in the physical.
Khun Prasad tells me he keeps going because he loves what he does, and he feels the weight of the legacy left to him by his uncle and his father.
“Some people walk into the shop with an old photograph saying this is the only surviving photo they have left of a parent or a respected elder, that’s why they want the image preserved in locket form. Some people request many pieces to be made, to give out to other family members, its a very traditional thing to do.”
“Our customers come to us because they want it hand painted. Asking us to hand paint the image is a sign of respect for their memory and also for us.” Prasad says wistfully with a tone of pride.
Since that day at Nang Loeng Art, I look at my own photos differently now. Thousands upon thousands of them in digital form in my hand, and yet perhaps because there are so many, preserved also in an online ‘cloud’, that intangibleness also makes them feel less special, no matter how wonderfully cropped or perfectly filtered they may be. Standing there in the faded ambience of Nang Loeng Art, amongst the ageing camera equipment and countless outdated tools of the trade, I realise the act of holding a hand crafted image, perhaps one of my mother or my grandmother — even one as tiny as those porcelain portraits sprinkled on the shop’s numerous shelves — a physical piece of memory of a singularly important person, is something that I think cannot be replicated by any smartphone. Touching a locket isn’t the same as touching a touchscreen.
“Each one is unique, like a person.” Khun Prasad says, referring to his lockets.
I thought I was walking into an art store that day, I didn’t so much find art supplies, as I did a nostalgic repository full of art on a scale that demanded that I lean in to take a closer look. The founder of Nang Loeng Art opened his studio in order to provide one service — portrait photography. What he leaves behind is a legacy in another form of portraiture, and that legacy continues in a family of artisans who have played their part in forging memories for others. Their art may not be hanging in galleries, but you can be sure they are hanging in pride of place around someone’s neck or pinned on someone’s lapel — priceless fragments of lives lived, respected and ultimately remembered.
“By the way, we still do passport photos, and we have a photocopier too.’ Khun Prasad said to me, smiling as I said goodbye to him.
In the end, I left thinking how appropriate the name of the shop was. Named after a man, whose legacy continues to live up to his self-styled name.
Nang Loeng Art
333 Nakhon Sawan Rd, Wat Sommanat, Pom Prap Sattru Phai, Bangkok 10100
The shop is located across the street from the main entrance to Nang Loeng Market on Nakhon Sawan Road.
The Footpath Files
Stories from the Streets of Bangkok
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