Lee Lim



Lee Lim (b. 1931, China–d. 12 January 1989, Singapore),1 was an icon in the field of artistic photography, both locally and internationally. His landscape photography had a distinctive Asian style that strongly resembled Chinese painting. He was also an expert in portraiture photography. For his contributions to the field of photography, Lim was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Photography in 1987.2

Early life and career
Lee was born in China in 1931. When he was eight, Lee left China with his father for Malaya (now Malaysia) and eventually settled down in Muar, Johor. Lee’s interest in an artistic career seemed predestined. When he was six, Lee was asked to pick a birthday present from a number of items. This was a traditional Chinese practice held to foresee what a child would grow up to be in the future. Lim picked a pen, which was a sign of a future career in the arts.3


As a child, Lim liked to go to the local photography studio to look at the portraits on display. When he was 18, Lim became an apprentice at a local studio in Muar. He often borrowed the studio owner’s camera and went out for shoots. The owner was impressed by the photographs that Lim took.4

When he was in his early 20s, Lim arrived in Singapore and started a photography studio in Tiong Bahru with another well-known photographer, Wu Peng Seng. Many people, from ordinary folk to famous personalities, frequented the studio for portrait shots. Notable clients included the first president of Singapore, Inche Yusof bin Ishak, and the three children of the first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. A portrait of Lee Hsien Loong, the third prime minister of Singapore, used to be on display in the studio.5 The studio was closed down in the 1990s.6

Lee was a quiet man who spent weekends exploring the nooks and crannies of Singapore for a good picture. He hardly travelled overseas but one of his wishes was to visit Hainan Island, China, to photograph the scenery there. However, this wish was not fulfilled as he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 58.7

Artistic career
Lim was a self-taught photographer with no formal training. While working as an apprentice at the studio in Muar, he had to learn to do everything from taking to developing photographs. Thus he became adept at using the camera as well as developing photographs in the darkroom.8


A professional photographer, Lim worked full-time in his studio in Tiong Bahru. He was well known for his portraiture photographs, which were based on his philosophy that everyone has unique facial features. Lim believed that in order to take a good picture, the photographer had to have a good understanding of his client’s facial features and be quick to capture that unique moment, a special expression or distinctive movement. This was especially the case for children’s portraiture.9

With a full-time job in the studio, Lee spent his spare time exploring creative landscape photography. Between 1952 and 1979, Lee took part in more than a hundred photographic competitions and won more than a hundred awards and honours. He received the Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society (UK) in 1959 and the Artist Distinction by the International Federation of Photographic Art (FIAP) in 1977. He was also conferred an honorary fellowship by the Photographic Society of Singapore for his achievements in the field of photography.10

Stylistic conventions
Lim had a great interest in Chinese painting even though he did not paint. He saw photography as a kind of painting and sought to bring the qualities of Chinese paintings into his pictures. Thus, his works had a distinctive oriental style exuding the tranquillity, fluidity and ethereal elements found in Chinese shan shui hua (literally, ‘painting of mountains and water’) or landscape painting.11


With his skilful darkroom technique of printing with multiple negatives to produce a single image, Lim created striking pieces of works that resembled Chinese paintings. Following in the style of Chinese paintings, he would also add colophons and seals to his works.12

In Lee’s earlier works, the subjects in his pictures were mostly people, coastlines, beaches and buildings. In the mid-1980s, Lee started to look for a breakthrough in his works.13 While walking on an old street, it dawned on him that the moss on the wall could be a piece of art. Thereafter, broken walls, rotten wood, old wells and tree barks became his subjects. What emerged from his pictures were distant pagodas on mountains, cascading waterfalls and autumn scenes. He manipulated his photographs to create works that resembled Chinese and Japanese landscapes and abstract art.14

Lee believed that the objective of artistic photography is to make pictures of aesthetic value, not to record events. He felt that in order for a picture to be considered a work of art, it had to evoke aesthetic emotions from those who looked at it. This required more than camera and darkroom skills.15

Lee saw beauty in simple things. He felt that the subject was not as important as how that subject was treated by the photographer.16 Lee’s works have inspired a younger generation of photographers, notably fellow Cultural Medallion recipient David Tay Poey Cher.17

Family
18
Wife:
王普兰 [Wang Pu Lan].


Selected awards19
1959: Royal Photographic Society (UK) Fellowship.
1977: Artist Distinction by the International Federation of Photographic Art.
1987: Cultural Medallion for Photography.



Author

Chor Poh Chin




References
1.
Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); 黄玉云 [Huang, Y. Y.]. (1989, January 28). 永别斑驳世界 [Yong bie ban bo shi jie]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 53. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2.
Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
3.
吴新慧 [Wu, X. H.]. (1988, January 5). 艺术无尽头处处有镜头 [Yi shu wu jin tou chu chu you jing tou]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4.
吴新慧 [Wu, X. H.]. (1988, January 5). 艺术无尽头处处有镜头 [Yi shu wu jin tou chu chu you jing tou]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5.
吴启基 [Wu, Q. J.]. (1986, August 18). 专为名人拍照的李林 [Zhuan wei ming ren pai zhao de Li Lin]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6.
Seeing beauty in everyday life. (2008, April 17). The Straits Times, p. 47. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7.
黄玉云 [Huang, Y. Y.] (1989, January 28). 永别斑驳世界 [Yong bie ban bo shi jie]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 53. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8.
吴启基 [Wu, Q. J.]. (1986, August 18). 专为名人拍照的李林 [Zhuan wei ming ren pai zhao de Li Lin]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 20. Retrieved from NwspaperSG.
9.
吴启基 [Wu, Q. J.]. (1986, August 18). 专为名人拍照的李林 [Zhuan wei ming ren pai zhao de Li Lin]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10.
Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, pp. 122–123. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
11.
吴新慧 [Wu, X. H.] (1988, January 5). 艺术无尽头处处有镜头 [Yi shu wu jin tou chu chu you jing tou]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Purushothaman, V. (Ed.) (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 122. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
12.
Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 122. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
13.
吴新慧 [Wu, X. H.]. (1988, January 5). 艺术无尽头处处有镜头 [Yi shu wu jin tou chu chu you jing tou]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14.
Cheong, C. C. (1992, April 2). Three men and a passion. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15.
Tay, D. (1987, July 26). Work of art on back-street walls. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16.
Tay, D. (1987, July 26). Work of art on back-street walls. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17.
David Tay Gives Insights into his Photography Style. [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://myneighbourhoodgems.sg/blog/-/blogs/david-tay-gives-insights-into-his-photography-style
18.
黄玉云 [Huang, Y. Y.]. (1989, January 28). 永别斑驳世界 [Yong bie ban bo shi jie]. 联合早报  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 53. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19.
Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 296. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])



The information in this article is valid as at 5 February 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Arts