Faces of Humanity: in black and white – An Exhibition by David Bong

I notice a brand new exhibition being hung yesterday while I was downtown, so I decided to take a look at it during my lunch hour today. I had noticed that it seemed to be a lot of portraiture work going up so I was quite interested. The exhibition was at the Pendulum Gallery in the HSBC Building on West Georgia Street in Vancouver and features work by David Bong. David Bong is based in Vancouver and is a fine art photographer. He is originally from the island of Borneo and spent his early childhood years in a small village in the rainforest where his father traded with the local natives. He was very influenced by their unpretentious and happy way of life.

In Faces of Humanity Bong sets out to photograph people from all walks of life, concentrating on exposing their ‘essence, or spiritualness’1. The images can be seen on Bong’s website and I will comment on the first four photographs in the series. All the portraits are head and shoulders images. Interestingly the first image in the series is of a well dressed woman with a wide brimmed hat. Bong shoots with a very wide aperture in the majority of his portraits, but in this photograph, his obvious focal point is on the hat. The rest of the woman – her facial features and clothing – are softly blurred and begin to blur into the beautiful bokeh of the background. She almost looks like a shop’s mannequin. Her eyes are averted and she is looking down, disconnected from the viewer, in her own world.  Bong follows this image with another image of a beautiful, young girl who is also looking off camera. However, her face is more open to us as there is no hat obscuring our vision of her. Even though there is no eye contact, we can see she is deep in thought or rather sad. She also appears larger in the frame than the previous subject, thereby emphasizing the contrast between the two.  She is also not as elegantly dressed as the first lady. Her hair is untidy and we can’t really see the detail of her clothing.

The next pair of photographs are of two men. The first is a young man, sitting on a chair. We see that he is dressed in a vest to show off his muscles and are left to imagine the black jeans with the studded leather belt and chain and the Doc Martin type boots lower down. His arms and neck are covered in tattoos of images that look like a conglomeration of bones and teeth to me. Possibly his way of showing the world what a ‘hard’ character he is. His hair is extremely close cropped and he is looking defiantly at the camera. His alter ego in the following photograph is that of a man about twice his age. He has scruffy, long hair and a grey beard and is wearing a crocheted cap which is beginning to unravel along the brim. He is warmly dressed in a lumberman’s jacket which is open in front revealing a checked shirt. Homeless? Maybe, but under that rather earnest expression on his face, there seems to be a bit of a twinkle to his (camera) right eye, so I would say no. Suffered a few hard knocks in life? Most definitely.

Bong places all his subjects squarely in the middle of the frame and they all face the camera straight on. The backgrounds are all blurred out and it is this lack of background information that lends a sense of mystery to his images. His subjects come from across the gamut of social classes. They are male and female, young, old and middle aged. His focus is on their eyes (with the exception of the first in the series) and the gradual fall off of focus away from the eyes and his use of black and white underscores the emotions that we see from the expressions on his subjects’ faces. One might compare Bong’s Faces of Humanity series to Richard Avedon’s Portfolio: In the American West, although personally I find some of the characters in Avedon’s Portfolio rather unsettling; most of them a stark contrast with the purity of the background they are standing in front of. With David Bong’s work, there is a softness that draws me in, inviting me to make the acquaintance of his subjects. These are the people I might bump into on the streets of my city. While on the one hand they are ordinary, at the same time they are extraordinary – they all have a unique story to tell. I find myself echoing John Berger’s sentiments in The Suit and the Photograph when he asked ‘What did August Sander tell his sitters before he took their pictures? And how did he say it so that they all believed him in the same way?’ (Berger, 2013, p36). I might ask what did David Bong tell his subjects …?

 

References

Berger, John. (2013). Understanding a Photograph. 1st ed. New York: Aperture Foundation

1. Bong, David. David Bong Photography [online]. Available from: http://www.davidbong.com/new-page/ [Accessed 12 June, 2014]

Richard Avedon [online]. The Richard Avedon Foundation. Available from: http://www.richardavedon.com/ [Accessed 13 June, 2014]

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