NANCY SHEUNGCross Pattern, c. 1969, silver gelatin print. Courtesy of Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres and the Pong Family.

NANCY SHEUNGThe Pigtail, 1966, silver gelatin print. Courtesy of Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres and the Pong Family.

NANCY SHEUNG, The Long Haired Girl, c. 1960s, silver gelatin print. Courtesy of Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres and the Pong Family.

Rare Encounters: Nancy Sheung’s Portraits of Hong Kong Women in the 1960s

Hong Kong China

Every so often an exhibition comes along that reignites the love of an old, forgotten art form. At Lumenvisum, in Hong Kong’s Shek Kip Mei, classic darkroom photography is making a revival. “Rare Encounters” presents a selection of 25 monochromatic photographs by the late Nancy Sheung (1914–1979), a renowned pictorialist photographer who, over time, has become almost unheard of to younger generations. The poetic and visually stunning photographs of women and architectural aesthetics capture the female spirit, as well as the essence of 1960s Hong Kong—an iconic period that saw the city’s population boom and its economy emerge from the recession of the previous decade, allowing it to grow into the financial giant it is today. Truly vintage, all of the exhibited photographs are original copies that were hand processed and printed by Sheung herself.

A latecomer to photography, Sheung was already in her 40s when she purchased her first camera. Nevertheless, in the years in which she was active, from the late 1950s to the early ’70s, her passion led to thousands of photographs taken across East Asia and Hong Kong. The imagery in these works are t once eloquent, perceptive and scrupulous in their composition. Sheung’s talented eye and familiarity with landscape and form is expressed through photos such at Zigzag (c. 1960s), Cross Pattern (c. 1969) and Untitled (c. 1960s) whose play on architectural elements and shapes, shadows and lines, make for intriguing photographs that embody drama and a feminine sensibility. A woman that appears in these photographs, however, is not the intended heroine. The titles suggest the emphasis is on landscape and form. Yet her presence is sharp, engaged and difficult to surpass. Regardless of whether the focus is on landscape photography or portraiture, the feminine sensibility is the pictorial quintessence of Sheung’s idyllic photographs.

The mastermind behind “Rare Encounters” is Sheung’s granddaughter, Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres, a curator who is classically trained in Asian art and antiquities. The story goes, as told by Beres (who never met her grandmother but grew up hearing anecdotes from uncles and aunts), is that Sheung—born in 1914 in Suzhou, China—was unlike the other women of her generation. The vivacious and strong-willed Sheung, determined not to be just a simple housewife, as was the cultural expectation of the time, paid her way through a high school education by working at an opium den, where she prepared pipes for customers. Described as somewhat of a tomboy, Sheung rode the family horse everyday to school, carrying a gun for protection. She eventually met her husband-to-be, Pong Kuan-Wah, an affluent merchant by trade, while in the province of Canton. Together, in the mid-1930s, they moved to Hong Kong where she would become a mother of six. Nonetheless, unwilling to be limited to housewife and childrearing duties, Sheung operated her own construction company. It was in 1958, during Hong Kong’s deep economic recession, when construction projects were ground to a halt, that Sheung found her artistic calling after viewing an exhibit of European photography.

Her portraits of women are meticulously staged and composed with precision. It is clear when encountering her works that Sheung had a natural talent for patterns and artistic composition, such as with the portraits Figure Study (c. 1960s) and The Pigtail (1966). The latter is a particularly arresting image for its overwhelming use of stripes. It is also a tenderly sweet portrayal of a young teenage girl, who is in fact Beres’s mother. In other works, women are rendered as strong and willful figures. The protagonist of The Long Haired Girl (c. 1960s) stands with resolve and vision—with her hands on her hips and giving a concentrated, sideways glance. Standing out from the rest of Sheung’s works is Gaze (c. 1960s), a close-up of a woman’s face partially obscured by her hair. Only one of her eyes is exposed; yet her gaze is piercing. She stares unabashedly at the viewer with determination and vigor.

Photography in 1950s and ’60s Hong Kong was still an underappreciated art form, but Sheung’s passionate drive led her to quickly learn how to use her newly acquired Rolleiflex camera and to process and print the images. Sheung was also experimental in her craft, developing skills in creative photographic printing processes, such as masking and cross processing. It is particularly pertinent to remember these photographs were created in a pre-digital age, before the convenience of digital enhancement and computerized printing was available. Reflecting on the fine skills and mastery required to manipulate the darkroom printing process, as was practiced by Sheung, leaves one to wonder if we really have advanced in the art form, or simply taken one too many shortcuts.

Nancy Sheung’s oeuvre is astounding and a real pleasure to experience. It is rare to come across hand-processed silver gelatin prints—with its fragility and luxuriously glossy surfaces—in our technologically reliant era where the digital print prevails. Sheung’s photographs provide an intimate glimpse into the culture and aesthetics of a time past and cherished—a period when life in Hong Kong was vastly different from that of today.

“Rare Encounters: Nancy Sheung’s Portraits of Hong Kong Women in the 1960s” is on view at Lumenvisum, Hong Kong, until April 12, 2015.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.