Photos courtesy of Manit Sriwanichpoom
BANGKOK — A prolific photographer who shot beauties to stardom with his iconic snaps during Thailand’s Golden Age of Cinema – while challenging morals instilled by military regimes and influencing generations of Thai women – died earlier this month, his family announced Friday.
S.H. Lim, known in Thailand as Vivat Pitayaviriyakul, died on Nov. 4 at 90 years old in Bangkok after being hospitalized due to a fall. His death was confirmed by Manit Sriwanichpoom, contemporary artist and the curator of Kathmandu Gallery who last exhibited Lim’s works in 2011.
“His photos showed how Thai society was changing into an industrialized country from an agricultural one,” Manit said. “He was able to understand the coming world and the changing status of women.”
The son of a worker at Shell company, Lim was born in 1930 to an ethnic Chinese family and went on to study abroad in Singapore. Rather than finishing school, he pursued photography – a field seen as an unstable profession at the time – without any formal training. He taught himself to take photos with his father’s Agfa camera.
But Lim’s photos of the joyful, modern woman made the covers of increasingly popular fashion and lifestyle magazines. Sometimes he would ask women on the street if they could be his models, then ask tailor shops to sponsor their clothing.
If she got on a cover, she could have a chance of a career in the silver screen, since directors and film crews would rifle through these magazines to scout for their next star.
“Women liked to buy these because they gave advice on how to live life and how to dress in the modern world,” Manit said. “If a woman was photographed for the cover, then she was more likely to become a star in fashion or reach stardom in movies.”
Lim told Manit that while he was starting out, he was paid around 150 baht for each magazine cover.
To be on Lim’s lens soon became a rite of passage for any aspiring actress or model. During his work from 1962 until his retirement in 1987, Lim photographed most of the era’s actresses, starlets, and beauty queens.
“They all passed through his lens,” Manit said.
For instance, Lim was the first to photograph Petchara “Miss Honey Eyes” Chaowarat, who would go on to become the most sought after actress in Thailand’s version of Hollywood. Also photographed were Thailand’s first Miss Universe Apasra Hongsakul in 1965, and Miss Thailand 1967 Apuntree Prayuthsenee.
He mostly published his photographs in women’s magazines such as Bangkok Weekly, Phloenjit, Sakul Thai, Or Sor Tor (owned by the Tourism Authority of Thailand), Saensuk, and so on.
In 1963, Lim won both the silver and bronze medals at the New York Kodak Expo Photography Contest. In 2005, almost two decades after his retirement, The Federation of Photographic Associations of Thailand named him their photographer of the year.
‘The Brash Woman’
One of Manit’s favorite photos by Lim is of Orasa Israngkura na Ayutthaya, an actress and dancer leaping into the air with palm fronds fringing the edges.
“You can see the freedom, the cheerfulness. Her feet are not touching the ground; she has the freedom to fly,” Manit said. “You can see here that the modern woman isn’t a proper housewife. He took photos of the brash woman, not just the usual Thai women in traditional dress.”
Lim’s photos are even more striking when seen in the context that the conservative powers-at-be at the time explicitly condemned trending clothing such as miniskirts for causing “degeneration,” “audaciousness and sin.”
“Society had the idea about who women’s role models should be: she has to be a demure housewife, and act as the elephant’s back legs,” Manit said, referring to a traditional proverb that attributes men as the “front legs,” or leadership positions.
“But S.H. Lim’s photos changed that. He showed that women should be modern and confident, changing that ideal.”
An exemplary example of one of Lim’s daringly modern photos is of the truly groovy Pussadee Wongkamhang in a plastic dress with a cocked pistol, an ode to James Bond films at the time.
However, pushing the envelope the way he did did result in some scandal – for the models.
At the time, published nude or semi-nude photos would often feature foreign models in an attempt to offset some criticism that would be leveraged at a Thai woman. For this reason, Lim’s nude of a woman dressed only in a piece of cloth leaning against a tree featured a Hong Kong model.
One of the biggest scandals his photo caused was the photoshoot with screen siren Priya Rungruang in 1987 taken in a private photoshoot with just the two at Koh Larn.
“There was a lot of hubbub over the photo of her back turned to the camera and her bikini top in the foreground,” Manit said. “Compared to nowadays, that photo is quite tame, but people were saying all over town that she was a bad woman.”
Oftentimes, even negative press would help promote a star’s movie if it was coming into theaters soon.
Still, after some saucy photos were published, some gossip rags would speculate that sugar daddies were looking to take care of so-and-so, Manit said.
Happy, Beautiful, and Free
Lim, a slight man even smaller than many of his models, was very serious with his craft and had a talent where he was able to earn their trust.
“He was very respectful towards women. The relationship between him and the models were of mutual respect. He would never say things or push them to sell sexiness or anything like that. He positioned the women in his photos as beautiful,” Manit said.
To 2020 eyes who have seen their share of oversaturated social media influencer, Lim’s models startlingly real in their proudly voluptuous bodies, in the pre-Photoshop, pre-filters era.
“The models he chose are not according to today’s standards: some are quite full and curvy, rather than picking skinny, even weak-looking ones. Priya was even a bit meaty. Nowadays Thai look like they have to have anorexia,” Manit said.
Perhaps what Vivat will be best remembered for is capturing moments of women at their happiest for eternal viewing.
“When I saw his work, the women in his photographs looked so happy. They looked more empowered than sexualized,” New York-based museum curator Faith Cooper said.
Cooper had recently posted some of Lim’s photographs on her Asian Fashion Archive Instagram page.
“You can tell they felt comfortable with him, so his photographs really spoke to me,” she said.