At its very onset, one suspects, photography was meant to be a scientist’s way of portraying the world. It was not meant to be a less-expensive medium than painting; although it circumvented the years of academic training and costly pigments and canvas, it was still a thoroughly aristocratic pursuit. The democratization of the camera was still to come, several decades later. Kodak would give the world the first photogenic battle scenes, captured in the Philippine-American War, since they outfitted each regiment sent to Manila with a Brownie 101 for free.
The beginning of the age of photography before then was just as mysterious as the age of painting and even more phantasmagorical, depending on the weird alchemy of silver salts, egg whites and paper.
It was, in the Philippines, pursued by the Ilustrados; and we find their lenses in the archives of the Madrid museums: Enrique Barreto who founded San Miguel brewery, the Perreiras who set up the country’s first cinema on the golden mile of the Escolta; but also names such as Francisco Van Camp, described as “the most famous photographer in the Philippines of the 19th century.” Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo was also a first mover of the device known as the camera and would use it as an adjunct to the composition of his portraits — as would his spiritual heir, Fernando Amorsolo, several generations later.
Not surprisingly, records were made and broken by avid collectors at the auction of the León Gallery “Ilustrado Trove” for photographs which came from the personal collection of Don Pedro Paterno, the Philippines’ tireless cultural ambassador and the first Filipino director of the National Museum and Library, whose talents had been recognized by the Queen of Spain in one fell swoop.
A wonderful portrait of Paterno’s sister, the Señorita Maria Jacoba, turned out in embroidered lace and diamonds and precious stones that covered every inch of her from head to toe, made a world record for a single 19th-century photograph sold in the Philippines, coming close to half a million pesos. (A 21st-century photograph, this time by Mark Nicdao, was recently sold for P1 million, also at León Gallery.)
Photography in this millennium comes perilously close to being less, both as art and science, as it falls into the hands of the social media specialist. As predicted, by the age of the throwaway camera and Japanese technology, photographs could be made by the average man with a higher and higher degree of technical excellence.
It now belongs to a new generation of young aficionados, such as Vernon Agnelli Huibonhoa, to liberate photography once again; his works are featured in a first one-man show titled “Excursion,” from Sept. 16 to 23 at León Gallery International, one that favors the avant-garde artist.
As his artist statement puts it, “Vernon wanders the world with his camera and creates artistically inspiring works of art through photography. He captures breathtaking photographs of art pieces and picturesque sceneries with a very unique and distinctive style. From his leisure trips abroad, he effortlessly captures fleeting moments that resonate with the viewers and transports them to a different reality.
“Vernon earned his degree in political science from the Ateneo De Manila University. His fondness for photography allows him to explore the people, places and the world around him through his camera lens.
“As an artist, Vernon is keen on transcending his photographs and the images he creates in order to (capture) its presence. In most of his scenic photographs, the images intently imply a world outside the limits of his lens and engage the viewer in the sheer beauty of the natural world.
“His works communicate his personal haven through the images of tranquility, stillness and peace he creates with skillful hands. What others may perceive as mundane and dreary, (through Vernon’s works) speaks to celebrating the richness of life, inviting his viewers to feel that shared emotion and experience.”
Two works in particular, titled “Tsinelas” and “Beach Vendor,” have the freshness and originality that a young Van Camp sought to document in the world around him.