The ariticle from Bangkok Post Newspaper on March 20th, 2001 by Suthon Sukphisit on March 20, 2001

The camera never lies
Or does it? Photographs of Bangkok and surrounding provinces taken almost 150 years ago were assumed to be the work of a western artist-but recent examination has found them to belong to a Thai and so history must be rewritten

Suthon Sukphisit

The Bangkok of an earlier era can still be seen in a number of old photographs of the city that have become familiar over the years.
Most of them show famous, much-visited places like Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Po, and Wat Arun, and evidence in them has led us to deduce that they were taken during the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868) or King Rama V (1868-1910). It has also been assumed that the photographer was a foreigner.
But more recently the real story of these images and their history has come to light, and we now know that those assumptions are false. In their original state, the photographs were intended to be attached to each other to form panoramas.
A panoramic of Bangkok taken during the reign of King Rama IV
There are some taken from Wat Arun in Thon Buri that show Wat Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace, Wat Po, and Tha Tien. Others, taken from the Bangkok side, show the bend in the Chao Phraya River with Wat Arun and the area where Siriraj Hospital stands today.
The most amazing thing about these photographs is that they were taken from a high angle. The point of perspective is elevated to exactly right level to show the landscape and buildings to best effect, and it would be impossible to achieve the same effect today.
We also know definitely now that the pictures were taken during the reign of King Rama IV and, importantly, that they are the work of a Thai photographer.
Francis Chit Court photographer during the reign of King Rama IV
The reason we know them today as separate images rather than panoramas is that they were stolen by a foreigner who cut them apart and retained only the parts that he wanted. Once it was discovered that the images were segments of panoramic views, and their date was determined, it was found that they clearly documented information contained in the historical records of the period.
As a result, existing ideas as to the dates of certain events and the ages of certain people had to be corrected. For example, the assumed ages of the moral artist Khrua Inkhong and of Sunthon Phu, Thailand's greatest poet, were adjusted.
The credit for unearthing the secret story of the photographs and for all the exciting discoveries that followed goes to Pipat Pongrapeeporn, the director of the Art and Culture Foundation of Bangkok.
"I collect old books and act as a consultant to Christie's Auction House," he explained. "A few years ago some old drawings were being auctioned, and I became acquainted with a foreigner who was one of the world's greatest book collectors. As a collector he used the name J.G.S.
"He had a file of old photographs of Bangkok that contained 27 photos of which it was written that they were the work of a western photographer named Wilhelm Burger, who had arrived in Thailand aboard an Austrian ship, the S.M. Frigate Donau, in 1869.
"The collector wanted to sell the photographs, but wanted to determine first whether the captions on them were accurate, when they were taken, and how much they were worth at their current value. I was very interested in the pictures myself, so I agreed to check the data for him.
"One reason was that I had seen some of the old photographs in the National Archives in Bangkok. Most had no captions identifying the photographer or giving dates, but there were some that had explanations stating that they were the work of a Thai photographer whose Christian name was Francis Chit and whose Thai name was Khunsunthonsathitlak, or "Khoonsoondradislacks" as it is spelled in the captions.
"Francis Chit was a court photographer during the reign of King Rama IV, and some of the pictures in the National Archives that were attributed to him were the same as the ones in J.G.S.'s file. I began wondering what the real story was.
"Firstly, it is important to know something about Francis Chit. He had studied photography with foreigners beginning in the reign of King Rama III and acquired a high degree of skill. He entered the civil service as a photographer associated with Somdej Phra Pin Klao, King Rama IV's modern-thinking younger brother.
"He attained a high position and used very modern photographic equipment. Besides working for the court, he also accepted photography work from outside. We don't know when Francis Chit began taking pictures, but we do have an advertisement that he placed in the Bangkok Recorder newspaper on January 14, 1865 stating his availability for any kind of photographic work, and also offering for sale views of Bangkok.
"This advertisement indicates that he had a complete set of photographic equipment of the kind that would be needed to offer his services to the society of the time, the last years of King Rama IV's reign. We also know that he died in 1891, which means that he was taking pictures for more than 20 years.
Ratchavoradis Pier as seen from the Thon Buri side of the Chao Phraya River.
"When checking photographs, it is necessary to examine them closely and make comparisons with contemporary documents like letters and daily records. We have a complete selection of such documents from this period. In the old days the photographs had to be gone over with a magnifying glass, but today it's much easier, because we can use computers. After they are scanned, they can be enlarged to any size.
"It really starts to get interesting when you find a detail that arouses suspicion. The first thing about the photos in J.G.S.'s file that you notice is that they show sites that are close to each other, and that are photographed from the same high angle. When I tried placing them next to each other, they formed what looked like a panoramic view. The pictures in that file were from two panoramas.
"Once I had those, I tried combining the Francis Chit photographs that we already had, and these turned out to comprise five additional sets, adding up to seven in all. Looking at the first set, taken from the Bangkok side of the river, you can see the Chao Phraya and Wat Arun. I was very surprised to see that the river was full of western commercial vessels. Almost 300 ship masts are visible. Since each ship has three masts, there must have been almost 100 of them.
"Contemporary records show that in November 1864 commercial ships were coming to buy rice to sell in China, as at the time there was a famine there. Almost 100 of them came at once. This was a major event, very unusual, because usually only about 100 ships arrived in the course of an entire year, and here they were in a single month. I looked at the November 7, 1864 issue of the Bangkok Calendar newspaper, which also reported that there were almost 100 boats on the Chao Phraya River.
"One panorama of Bangkok shows the Grand Palace and Wat Po when it was being extended. You can see Wat Rachapradit under construction-the structures of the ubosot [prayer hall] and the chedi are visible. Contemporary records state clearly that King Rama IV ordered the construction of this temple in 1864, and that it was completed very quickly. It only took about 10 months.
"At this point I began to suspect that the photographs couldn't have been taken by Wilhelm Burger, because the records showed that the S.M. Frigate Donau arrived in Thailand in May 1869, and only remained here for 20 days. Other pictures in the folder of photos allegedly taken by him showed Hin Phimai Palace and photographs taken in Phitsanulok and Phetchaburi, with the information that they were taken at the same time.
"In addition to the fact that the times indicated were five years apart, it would have been impossible to have taken pictures in three provinces and at various places in Bangkok, in only 20 days. In those days you had to travel by ox and cart!
"Also, to take photographs from such a high angle it would have been necessary to build a special raised platform. This would have had to have been ordered by someone prominent. And a lot of time and manpower would have been necessary to take the pictures.
"So we can nail a crime here: the foreign photographer stole these pictures from the Thai photographer. And the thief wasn't aware that they formed a panorama. The reason he could claim them for his own was probably because they were of such high quality that it would appear that only a famous western photographer would have been able to take them.
"There are many other factors that prove that the pictures were brazenly stolen. But these sets of pictures are interesting for other reasons, and are valuable for the new information that they give us. There are photos taken inside the ubosot of Wat Bowon Nives. Today they are covered with murals painted by one of Thailand's greatest mural artists, Khrua Inkhong. He painted Thai murals in a western style.
"It was originally thought that he was active during the reign of King Rama III. But in these pictures there are no murals on the walls or pillars. Since we know that these photographs were taken toward the end of the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868), we have to revise our knowledge of Khrua Inkhong's dates. There had already been some disagreement about the dates, but these photos prove that he worked during the reign of King Rama IV, and once we know this, it also has an impact on our knowledge of the poet Sunthon Phu.
"There is a book by S. Thammayot, the author of Phra Chao Krung Siam, that was banned in Thailand back in about 1947. It attacks King Rama IV. In the book it says that Khrua Inkhong painted two portraits, one of King Rama IV, the other of Sunthon Phu. The king became angry. He wanted to know why it was necessary to paint Sunthon Phu, too.
"We believe that Sunthon Phu was a poet who was born during the reign of King Rama II but who lived into the reign of King Rama IV. We also believe that poems and books were written in response to events that transpired at the time. If something noteworthy took place, it was taken up and incorporated into a poem or book.
"Sunthon Phu, it has been claimed, was an artist whose work came from his imagination. He foresaw things that later turned out to be true. I don't believe this. For example, in his long poem, Phra Aphaimanee, the scene is the same as the area next to the Royal Palace. Then there is the character Nang Laweng. I think she is based on Anna Leonowens. All of these influences belong to the reign of King Rama IV.
"I think we will have to revise our ideas about Sunthon Phu and his dates if we compare real locations in Bangkok and the versions of them contained in his work. As for other details, specialists will have to help analyse them.
Pipat will display the panoramic views of Bangkok at the Thailand Cultural Centre around the end of April. "It will be a major exhibit of the city's historical past," he said.
In addition to the historical information the photographs contain, they show that the Bangkok of almost a century and a half ago was already a beautiful place. They also make it clear that the artistic aspects of photography had already been mastered by a gifted Thai.

on April 21st-May 13th, 2001
at Thailand Cultural Centre

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2001 Exhibitions