Fifty-eight unseen photographs by Almarhum Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, who is regarded as a pioneer of modern Malaysian photography, are on display at the Almarhum Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah: Unveiling The Unseen (1937-1971) photography exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur.
Sultan Ismail, who was the Sultan of Terengganu, between 1946 and 1979, and the fourth Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia, from 1965 to 1970, was also a man who had a keen eye for photography. Beyond formal functions and royal life, Sultan Ismail, when he had the time to indulge in a hobby, was most often going on walkabout adventures with his camera, experimenting in his photo studio and steadily developing his own style of photography.
“It’s an understatement to say that photography was Sultan Ismail’s obsession. He received his first camera, presumably a Kodak Brownie, when he was 16 in 1923. That was the start of his hobby, and he never looked back,” says Raja Ihsan Shah, who is his grandson, and the custodian of Sultan Ismail’s vast photography archive.
“This Unveiling The Unseen exhibition, which features many new discoveries from Sultan Ismail’s archives, has been designed to capture a wide range of his work, from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. For those new to his photos, it’s a compact yet eye-opening show, exploring his portraits, street photography, landscapes, hand-tinted photographs, studio work and state visit series, while photography enthusiasts can have a better understanding of the Sultan’s technical abilities and individual identity as a photographer,” he adds.
In the 1920s, Sultan Ismail was guided by a retired Japanese photographer, who opened the Yamada Studio in Kuala Terengganu, while general supplies store Fernandez Brothers, in his hometown, was a favourite destination for the young royal to purchase his camera supplies.
“It seemed like the stars were aligned for him to take up photography. On the same street in Kuala Terengganu, you could get all you needed.”
Unveiling The Unseen, which goes back to Sultan Ismail’s early photographs taken during the coronation of King George VI in May 1937 in London, charts his progress as an avid amateur and student of the medium. However, Sultan Ismail’s most expressive works, says Raja Ihsan, can be found throughout the 1950s, and there are a fair number of snapshots from this era.
“His capacity to observe people, his unrelenting curiosity and his compositional sense made these street scene photographs refreshing for their time,” says Raja Ihsan.
Rural and less glamorous areas in Terengganu were his favourite places to explore, especially places like Kuala Ibai, Pasar Tepoh, Chendering, Rusila and Pantai Batu Buruk, which are all present in this exhibition.
“Sultan Ismail never really shot much of Kuala Terengganu’s town centre. Instead, he preferred to head out, most of the time getting into a boat and visiting a remote area. He wanted to photograph the common man, daily life and everyday scenes. Even during the Malayan Emergency, he would visit ‘red areas’, which were near communist territory, just to capture, what some might call, the mundane,” says Raja Ihsan, 56.
From the banana vendors at the market in Tepoh Market to picnic scenes and speedboat rides down the rivers in Terengganu, Sultan Ismail always found beauty in his surroundings. On the flipside, his eerie photos of empty Kuala Lumpur streets during the May 13 racial riots in 1969 add another spine-chilling dimension to his documentation work.
Raja Ihsan, as a one-man curatorial and research team, planned this show in 2015, with the support of the Islamic Arts Museum, which has dedicated its Open Space Gallery for contemporary content. In 2013, Raja Ihsan also published the monograph HRH Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah: Pioneering Malaysian Photography 1923-1971, which recounted Sultan Ismail’s contributions to modern Malaysian photography.
“Sultan Ismail’s photography story spans nearly 50 years. Yet, it’s like a forgotten legacy. Most people still don’t know about him and his contributions to the Malaysian, or even, South-East Asian photography narrative. He is rarely talked about in contemporary circles. However, I do feel that when people visit this show, they will be pleasantly surprised with his body of work … and if that sparks a conversation, or adds more curiosity about Sultan Ismail, the photographer, then we are on the right path,” says Raja Ihsan with a hopeful smile.
Almarhum Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah: Unveiling The Unseen (1937-1971) is on at the Open Space Gallery, Islamic Arts Museum, Jalan Lembah Perdana in Kuala Lumpur till March 31. Open daily, 10am to 6pm. Free admission to the Open Space Gallery. Visit: www.iamm.org.my. For more info on Sultan Ismail, check out www.sultanismailphotographs.com.