Finding The Last Hand-Tinting Photograph Artisan In North Vietnam

The word “post-processing” nowadays is almost synonymous with softwares like Photoshop or Lightroom. It is not widely known that such advanced techniques were once done manually during the last two centuries. Started in Switzerland in the 1930s, the art of hand-tinting photographs gradually spread out globally and even became a refined art form in Japan.

In the golden time of Vietnamese studio photography in the 1950s, hand-tinting was a popular profession practiced by many, among whom the well-known remain only a few. Through Lai Xa Photography Museum, Matca has had the opportunity to meet with the most reputable artisan in the North, Mr. Pham Dang Hung, in the same room where he used to transform thousands of photographs through many decades. Well into his 80s, Mr. Hung is probably one of the last witnesses of hand-tinting photographs, a complex process that revives pictures existing only in black and white.

© Ha Dao

He began the story naturally without us asking:
I have quitted the job for 15 years, ever since I turned 70, but in those days my house was stacked with photos. Once in a while reporters do come and ask me to re-enact for their filmings.

Hand-coloring is the family business. Mr. Khanh Ky, the founding father of Lai Xa photography village is related to my maternal grandfather. Both sides are close. My father later handed down the job to me, which made me the third generation to practice photography.

Can you share in more details the hand-coloring process?
At first I followed the predecessors, as they all used Chinese ink for writing characters. That sort of ink did not look nice to me. Though the color appeared black, spots like hair or black clothes needed much darker shades. You painted Chinese ink on and it felt mouldy; tilted the picture and it looked as if there was mud on the faces.

Then they tried to reduce the mould by spraying pine resin on the photograph. First grind the resin crystal, then soak with about half a litre of either avgas or mogas. Spraying the liquid onto the photo reduced half of the mould, but the brownish pine resin together with the yellowish gasoline made up a smear that customers was not satisfied with.

© Ha Dao

Then I spent time researching my own method with the Chinese palette consisting of 12 colors. In order to create the dreg-free black color, I synthesised different dreg-free colors within the palette. It gave a smooth application. Looked straight and you could not see the paint; tilted the picture and it shone like a mirror. Nobody has discovered my technique since; no one has ever looked and found out that I have retouched.

For instance, if the person closed their eye I would ‘open’ the eyes. Or single eyelids I would turn to double. Whoever had an unfavorable nose I would retouch into a straight-edged. Whose face not yet oval I would cut the sides. A thin one I would make less thin, while a fat less fat. If a girl had a man-like flat chest, she would go to a beauty salon, but I only needed 5 mins to blow it up (laugh). Whoever had belly fat I would minimize, so that their measurements popped up. Therefore the girls in artistic pictures for calendars all looked stunning. Service photography requires similarity, while artistic one only demands beauty; I could retouch however I wanted.

"There are large and small brushes; some only as small as the grain. I have two brushes each kind, in order not to mix the colors." © Ha Dao
"The balloon palette is really cheap, only about 30,000 - 40,000 VND. These three I could use for three years. I only use little by little not to waste, but some who do not know how to use only need a year to squander." © Ha Dao
"I always handle with care; these I have to fully cover to prevent dust. When coloring, I cut a small piece from the palette and soak into water until the color drains out and dry." © Ha Dao
"Depending on the demand for concentrated or diluted color, I then add more water. In the high peak season, I may have over ten plates simultaneously." © Ha Dao

During your career, do you have any memory you would like to share?
A lot that favored me would fly to Hanoi to have me retouch; their pictures must have filled baskets. An image that might take half a day was delayed for about half a month. Therefore, those who did not want to wait tried to play tricks to get the pictures sooner. For example, they knew in advance I would appoint half a month so they first send in a dummy. Then near the due date they would bring in the real one and tell me “Please swap this for me.” Then of course I had to work on that one right away. Some customers were not satisfied with this; lots of them got mad at me. They kept spreading rumors but I was never biased; even relatives and close friends had to queue.

I would pull an all-nighter to work out of respect for my customers, although I was 60 at the time. In the morning I worked from 7 to 12 before standing up for lunch, after which I worked ceaselessly until dinner. I would then finish dinner to work from 7PM to 7AM the day after. Tired as I was, yet customers would still blame me for the delay.

Every year for a calendar I would be given about 200 artistic images. Besides, for every showcase at the end of the year, both nationally and globally it would take me roughly a month to prepare. Nobody can manage with such workload.

© Ha Dao

In such huge demand you must have lived quite comfortably, right?
The process was complex and time-consuming but the pay was really low. When I was doing service photography, the price was only 20,000 VND per one. Thus when moving on to artistic photography, they paid me 25,000 VND and I thought “This guy is so generous.” At the time I did not know how the artistic photography community worked; if they gave me 25,000 VND I would just take it.

Then a year after the photographer himself told me that “The picture you retouched last year was so good I did not sell.” If they sold for printing calendar they would get half an ounce of gold. “I did not sell, I asked the publisher to print on my own and publish a couple of millions nationally. I gained 15 ounces of gold.” Among 15 ounces they had to spend around 5 ounces on production; the profit was 10 ounces yet they paid me 25,000 VND.

Later on I would follow how much the Saigonese charge and they said around 50,000 to 60,000 VND. It was still too low a price, but higher than mine anyway. Here they only paid 30,000 VND in maximum; charge them 40,000 VND and they refused. But some customers who understood art would willingly gave me 150,000 or 200,000 VND. If I had said 500,000 or 700,000 VND they would have given me that much too.

© Ha Dao
© Ha Dao
Ông Hưng khoe những tấm hình của bản thân mình hồi trẻ. © Ha Dao

So in your opinion, what is the prime time of photography in Vietnam?
The prime time was the 1940s and 1950s. At that time our Lai Xa villagers opened more than 30 studios in Hanoi, and some dozens in Saigon. There are also three to five studios in each region. Artistic images emerged around the 80s, but before that period the majority was service portraits.

Upon liberation, my studio was forced into cooperatives. My co-op had 150 members in its first year, but the number dropped to about 50 when it disbanded. It was the Phuong Dong cooperative in Hoan Kiem district. At that time each district had one co-op. In Hoan Kiem there was Phuong Dong, in Hai Ba Trung there was Nang Xuan, in Ba Dinh there was Thang Tam, and in Dong Da there was Mua Xuan.

Ever since color photography came into existence I haven’t colored that much. In my 70s I came down with a cold that lasted several months. Together with customers’ complains and low pay, I decided to quit and depend on my children. Materials were more difficult to purchase, apprentices were fewer, while the old gradually passed away.

Since I quitted, they started developing digital photography with the Photoshop machine. I myself have not seen the Photoshop machine yet!

© Ha Dao
Không gian trưng bày kỹ thuật chấm sửa, tô màu ảnh đen trắng tại Bảo tàng Nhiếp ảnh Lai Xá với một số tác phẩm của ông Hưng. © Ha Dao

[Matca] The carefully hand-colored photos by Mr. Hung are now displayed in the museums rather than printed on calendars or hung on customers’ walls. Following the natural progress of any profession, hand-tinting technique is on the verge of oblivion with artisan Pham Dang Hung being one of the few last witnesses. Fully aware of such inevitable change, he eagerly told the story of his work life without resentment because he had been dedicated to it for decades.

*Get to know about Lai Xa Photography Museum.

Hà Trang is a student majoring in English literature and Chinese at Washington and Lee University.
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