AMSTERDAM — This story begins in a tiny photography museum in Amsterdam called the Huis Marseille — really in an even smaller room at the back of the building which houses the collection’s library. The room is decorated with wood and gilded windows, and on one of the shelves is a slim blue book with a front title written in Chinese and “To Sang Fotostudio” on the back.
On one page there is a striking diptych, which, on the right, has a portrait of a teen girl in a blue windbreaker in front of a bright red background. She has a mullet, large glasses, and zits between her eyebrows, like a character straight out of Freaks and Geeks. She also has the unmistakable gaze of a girl who knows she’s being looked at and likes being seen, looking back at the camera with the hint of a timid smile. On the left, a serious looking man stares into the distance in front of a blue backdrop that echoes the color of the girl’s jacket.
In another photo, a middle-aged woman dressed in a bright teal dress and low white heels stares at the camera, jewelry glinting at her wrists. Behind her is a faded, floor-to-ceiling backdrop of the Swiss Alps. In her right hand, almost unnoticeable, is a balled up tissue that she seems to have forgotten to stash in her purse. It looks almost expertly left in — a detail the best screenwriter might have forgotten to include in her script.
There’s an odd element like the tissue in almost every one of Lee To Sang’s pictures — details that betray the careful staging and ground the images in the push and pull between performance and authenticity. The subjects all pose in front of carefully staged sets, and yet they betray details from the outside world (what could be called reality): a man poses in his still wet trenchcoat, a woman’s lipstick is smudged in her close up, another man poses in front of a flower pot and the same backdrop of the Swiss Alps with his coat on his arm. Other photographers (the renowned Martin Parr comes to mind), have photographed “ordinary people” and their flaws before, but in this case, the effect isn’t one that pokes fun at its subjects. Lee’s pictures are earnest.
In the photograph of the woman in the teal dress, her face is impassive — a brief expression caught during what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.” “Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression,” Cartier-Bresson wrote. Except here, the decisive moment is just one moment among many — not the one that gives significance to the person, or even the moment that gives the event its proper expression, but a moment that points to infinite other moments. Sang’s photographs, paradoxically, free his subjects from being defined by the picture, and instead, capture subjects who are vastly more expansive than who they appear to be in front of the camera.
Lee To Sang was born in Guangzhong, China, in 1939, and studied painting in Hong Kong as a young man. At 25, he and his wife, Ho Yuk-Mui, moved to Paramaribo, in Suriname, where one of Sang’s uncles lived. They opened their first portrait studio there, and then moved to Amsterdam in 1979. In Amsterdam, Lee and Ho moved into the De Pijp district, a largely working-class and immigrant neighborhood, and opened To Sang Fotostudio, which they operated until 2002, when Lee retired.
When first researching this story, I could find hardly information about Lee. All I had, it seemed, was the blurb about Sang’s book on his publisher’s website, stating some of the biographical information given above. The site also relayed that Sang had photographed some famous people, including the mayor of Amsterdam and, surprisingly, Martin Parr himself.
“I remember having my photo taken by him,” Parr wrote to me in a short email, “but not much about it, other than him being methodical. It was a long time ago.” When I asked him about how he had met the enigmatic photographer, Parr responded curtly, “He was very well known in Amsterdam, there was nothing secretive about him at all.”
Parr’s answer puzzled me given that so little information about Sang existed online. But when I doubled down on my research, I found that Sang had captivated Amsterdam’s art scene in the ‘90’s. In 1996, the famed, Dutch avant-garde filmmaker Johan Van Der Keuken made a documentary about Sang. Another filmmaker, Ramón Gieling, was simultaneously making a film about Van Der Keuken filming Sang, resulting in a second documentary about Sang that year. A decade later, Dutch photographer Ringel Goslinga created a photo series inspired by Sang’s work called “Circling Around To Sang,” in which he photographed passersby in the De Pijp streets. In 2008, a few of Sang’s photographs were included in Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography, an exhibition at the Tate Modern.
“I met Mr. Lee To Sang in 1992 when I spotted (I was on the bike) his shop window in a lower class neighborhood,” Willem Van Zoetendaal, the publisher of Sang’s only photography book, wrote to me late last year:
The window of his shop was very colorful and the divers [sic] population of that street (where also the biggest street market is) was presented in the window display. Between wedding and jubileum [Christian baptism and communion ceremony] photographs I saw someone I knew on a photograph with his young daughter on his lap who lived nearby.
Excited by the pictures in the window, as well as the unexpected portrait of his friend, Van Zoetendaal parked his bike and entered the shop. Sang was behind the counter, where he always waited for clients to come in, ready to ask if they’d like a portrait, which format they’d like, whether they wanted color pictures or black and white …. But instead of asking for a portrait, Van Zoetendaal excitedly told Sang how much he liked his pictures, and asked if they could work on a project together. Sang declined.
It was hard for the two to communicate — Van Zoetendaal did not speak Cantonese, and Sang wasn’t fluent in English or Dutch. But Van Zoetendaal did not give up. A few days later, after asking a student of his from Amsterdam’s University of the Arts to get her portrait done in Sang’s studio and observe Sang’s methods, Van Zoetendaal went back, introduced himself once more, and again presented the idea of collaborating. Again, Sang refused, and still, Van Zoetendaal did not relent. He would go back to the shop with samples of the other books he had published, and soon, Sang’s son got involved to translate. Van Zoetendaal remembers them both repeating — “But why do you want this?”
“Maybe he was afraid that I wanted money of him,” Van Zoetendaal told me. He tried to make clear to Sang that he was not interested in a commercial venture, but in making a book of photographs: he would print 1000 copies of the book at most.
It was only after about fifteen visits like this with Freddy translating, that Sang grew open to the idea, and gave Van Zoetendaal two large boxes of negatives with which to make a book. Van Zoetendaal, elated, cycled home with the boxes hitched to his bike. Inside, he found hundreds of negatives still carefully wrapped in advertising brochures and coupon paper. Sang had no darkroom in his shop, so developed all his film at the local Hema supermarket near his studio.
Van Zoetendaal found many images that looked like passport or ID pictures for official documents. The negatives revealed the pictures as they would have appeared without any retouching or cropping. Van Zoetendaal left these original images as they were, and made a selection to show Sang. But when Sang saw the pictures, Van Zoetendaal recalls him being surprised. In one photograph of a woman with dark hair visible on her upper lip, Sang exclaimed that Van Zoetendaal should have retouched the portrait and removed the hair. “He wanted to make people more beautiful on the picture, and not show reality,” Van Zoetendaal said. “Nothing to do with reality.”
But Sang’s pictures are compelling precisely because they blur the boundary between reality and performance until it disappears altogether. The photographs had a specific purpose: to satisfy the needs of the customer. And yet, Sang was deliberate, an artist about his arrangements. He designed the sets, directed his subjects, and retouched the photos to “beautify” his clients, but in doing so, captured the the humor, humility, and absurdity of the process too.
We are all what we perform to the outside world, and we are also everything we choose to keep to ourselves, including what we don’t even know about ourselves. Sang’s subjects bare their bizarre and familiar selves in front of the camera — some play with who they want to be, delighting in the pleasure of performance. Others wait impassively for the process to be over and get on with their day.
Lee To Sang has donated his entire photographic archive to the Netherlands Photo Museum. Willem Van Zoetendaal is working on publishing a new book with photographs pulled from Lee’s archive.