Wednesday, May 2, 2007


MAG-KODAKAN TAMU! A young boy in smart sailor suit pose with an old camera on a wooden tripod with a hand-written sign: “Ligon Studio, Centro Fotografo, Lubao, Pampanga”, 1920s. This must also have been used as an advertising trade card.

My memory of my first official portrait sitting is kind of hazy now, even with a reproduction copy of that close-up picture I still have, taken in some musty Mabalacat studio along Sta. Ines Road. I must have been around 3 or 4 then. What I do remember was the accompanying terror, as I sat alone on a stool in a darkened room, dressed in a smart polo shirt with white collars, embroidered with a sea lion on the left chest. The photographer then started coaxing my body to assume a certain pose, manipulating my shoulders, tilting my shaven head, asking me to hold that smile. I think my Mother was somewhere behind the camera, the large kind with a tripod, reassuring me that all would be well if only I follow the photographer's commands. Suddenly, the photographer’s head disappeared under a black cloth. He continued giving muffled last-minute instructions to look at a certain direction, God knows where. Then came a shock of blinding flashes that added to my horror, but it was too late to react, for in a few seconds, my ordeal with the camera was over.

The world has been fascinated with photography ever since Nicephore Niepce gave us the first photograph in 1827 (Greek word for “light” and “writing”), when he successfully exposed--after 8 long hours--a picture of a building on paper, which unfortunately was temporary. His partner, Louis Daguerre improved on this invention by developing photographic plates, which reduced exposure to 30 minutes and made the image permanent by immersing the paper in salt solution. The “daguerrotype” process however, did not allow for photo reproductions, and it was only in 1835 that William Henry Fox Talbot invented paper negatives.

Our love affair with photography began in the mid-19th century, when the first commercial cameras were introduced to our islands. World traveler Sinibaldo de Mas was supposed to have taken pictures of members of the Spanish community while travelling in Manila in 1841, to supplement his dwindling spending money. The earliest surviving picture of a Filipino was a stereoscopic image (reproduction of images in 3 dimensions) of a Tinguian native, dated 1856.

With the coming of the Americans, new products and technologies reached our shores, and among these were commercial cameras and the latest photographic equipment. This set up a frenzy for photo studios, and early shops like De Berri and International Studio were already taking snaps of people and events in the early 1900s. In pre-war Manila, the Escolta and Avenida districts were lined with photo shops like Sun, Venus, Rialto, Juan de la Cruz (with a Kapampangan proprietor) and Triangulo Studios, which were active in the 1920s-30s.

Pampanga was not to be left out, however, for creative Kapampangans photographers too hitched their cameras to the studio bandwagon. A certain Jose Ma. Piñon had a studio in Pampanga that specialized in “carte-de-visite”—small visiting card portraits that were the rage during the Victorian era. He photographed ilustrado women in baro’t saya, and the thin paper portraits were mounted on cardboards with Fotografia de Jose Ma. Piñon, printed at the back. He also took photos of the historic events in Malolos at the time of the Revolution.

Other photographers include Ramon Nemesio Dizon (1882-1956) and Julio Valenzuela (1883-1940), who both came married into the big Nepomuceno and Henson families. They were especially active in the first 2 decades of the 1900s. Predictably, they became “official” photographers of their relatives and their extended families, documenting their gatherings, reunions, excursions, weddings, funerals and birthday parties. Dizon was especially creative as he also made personalized real photo birthday and Christmas cards. Like Julio, his studio was equipped with different painted sets that served as fanciful backgrounds for his subjects. It is easy to identify their works as these were stamped with their names (R. Dizon and Julio Valenzuela Fotografo). A lot of their commissioned photos survive to this day in old family albums and scrapbooks.

Studios sprouted like mushrooms in Pampanga towns during the 1910s-1930s. San Fernando had its Baluyut Photo Studios and Pampanga Moderna. There was a Stotsenburg Studio which took mostly souvenir shots of Americans stationed at the military camp to be sent back to families in America. Also in operations during these decades were the Santos Studio (Lubao), Angeles Studio, Reymon and White Star Studios (Guagua), Leonor Art Studio (Macabebe). Loanzon Studio in the 1930s had many commissioned photos for elementary school class pictures and graduation. In nearby Tarlac, local folks flocked to the Razon Studio and Tarlac Art Gallery for their photos. After the war, the most renown salon was Bob’s , established in 1946 near the Manila Grand Opera along Avenida by Kapampangan Roberto “Bob” Razon, hailed today as the “Dean of Philippine Portraiture”.

Though trimmed and faded, I am glad I still have my childhood photo, now in a silver frame on top of my living room table. Photos not only served to celebrate moments but also immortalize people at their very best, and boy—do I look cute in my first portrait-- buzz haircut, pudgy cheeks and all—thanks to that one patient photographer in Sta. Ines, who worked his magic with a flash of light, a click of a button and a cheery command to “Smile!!”. I have been holding that smile for over 40 years.
(7 December 2002)

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