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Hip Xiong Photo Studio Ryan Lee
Photograph: Fabian Loo

A new studio rekindling an old photographic process

Hip Xiong Photo Studio specialises in wet-plate photography, a historical image-making technique that dates back to the 1850s

Fabian Loo
Written by
Fabian Loo
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In his line of work, Ryan Lee has to exercise extra caution. He uses dangerous chemicals like silver nitrate, which can stain the skin and cause burns when handled incorrectly. He also operates light sources so powerful, they can inflict serious damage if he isn't careful.

But Ryan remains unfazed at these conditions, and even looks forward to his job as a photographer. Clearly, he isn’t a regular shutterbug – to capture his subjects, Ryan eschews digital for an analogue method, and shoots using one the world’s oldest image-making techniques: wet-plate photography.

Popular in the 1850s, the process involves pouring chemicals onto a blackened plate. Once wet, these light-sensitive panels need to be quickly exposed to an image and processed. The result: a rustic, 19th century-style tintype.

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In the modern age of digital photography, this arduous, time-consuming image-making method is fast losing relevance. Ryan believes that his newly opened space, Hip Xiong Photo Studio, could well be the only one left in Singapore that dabbles in the wet-plate process. 

“It’s like the Polaroid of the 1850s,” says Ryan. Only these images can weather the test of time, and last hundreds of years. “People get to see the picture develop right before their eyes … and I kind of liked that idea.”

Old-school appeal
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

Old-school appeal

His affinity for analogue photography began when Ryan was growing up in the 1980s. Film was a common medium then, and his earliest memory of the process was looking through the negatives of travel images taken by his grandfather. It provided entertainment for a young Ryan, who grew up without the Internet. “It sort of rubbed off on me,” he says. 

His fascination with the medium led him to pursue film studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. When he got engaged, he wanted to recreate his parents’ wedding photo, complete with the same nostalgic setting and usage of old-school photography. “I was looking for a photo studio in Singapore, and realised I couldn’t find any,” notes Ryan. “They all sort of died out, or changed their business,” says Ryan.

He even tried sourcing for studios in Malaysia and around the region. “Most of them have progressed to digital photography,” he says. “It's kind of sad.” But it also sparked an idea in him: that he could open his own studio and recreate a photography experience from his parents' time. 

“I have always liked to go back to how things were before, like the roots of photography,” adds Ryan. From there, venturing into the wet-plate process was simply a “natural progression”.

“It’s like the Polaroid of the 1850s.”

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Once upon a time
Photograph: Hip Xiong Photo Studio/ Facebook

Once upon a time

Everything about Hip Xiong’s two-storey space in Geylang – from the location, interior, to the studio’s name – is designed to evoke nostalgia. The reception area, in particular, has been remodelled to emulate the photo studios of bygone days. Wood panel walls and mid-century furniture pieces help lend a familiar, old-world charm. 

Even the studio’s name, Hip Xiong, which translates to ‘taking a picture’ in Hokkien, is a cheeky homage to traditional photo studios that were typically named in dialect.

But reviving this time-honoured practise in our modern age is a challenging task. 

For one, silver nitrate and other chemicals required to develop the images are hard to come by. Supplies are often transacted in bulk – a reason why the wet-plate process fell out of favour. Ryan adds: “I just want this experience to be more accessible to people.” 

The specialised equipment required can be elusive and difficult to source as well; most are dated, outdated even. So finding replacement parts for these vintage cameras can be tricky, especially when manufacturers have stopped production for years.

Lighting, however, is the most complicated issue. “The lights that we use are very high-powered,” Ryan shares. “No modern-day photographer will need that much power. But for the wet-plate process, we need a lot of power to get proper exposure.” He adds: “Distributors or suppliers don’t sell these lights anymore.”

To complicate matters, there’s only one 70-year-old man in Singapore, to Ryan’s knowledge, that has the expertise to fix these special light sources if they become faulty. “It’s stressful. It’s challenging,” he says. “But I’ve also met a lot of interesting people along the way.”

“I like that uncertainty and unpredictability when the shots come out.”

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Staying focused
Photograph: Hip Xiong Photo Studio/ Facebook

Staying focused

Tintype image-making is also a painstaking process, one that requires patience from both the photographer and the subject. Ryan has to first frame the subject, plan the shot, then tinker with the light source. The subject, in turn, has to hold the same position for some two minutes, and fight through the powerful flash to keep their eyes open. 

“With digital photography, you have unlimited shots. You have the luxury of taking 10,000 shots and picking the best one or two,” he says. “Wet-plate photography is more deliberate. If you screw up, you have to redo the whole process again.” 

The former creative director also appreciates the hands-on aspect of this traditional method. He says: “I found myself spending a lot of time behind the computer rather than behind the camera, and I didn't find joy in that."

With Hip Xiong, Ryan is involved at every step of the creative process – from mixing the chemicals, snapping the shot, and varnishing the final product to ensure it lasts a lifetime. 

“There are a lot of steps, and at every step of the way there’s an opportunity to screw up,” he shares on the challenges of the tintype process.  

But therein lies the appeal of this age-old method: it’s a slow, measured process that allows for truly unique pieces that cannot be recreated. “Every picture I take is not the same, even though I can do the same thing, and the temperature and chemicals remain the same,” says Ryan. “I like that uncertainty and unpredictability when the shots come out.” 

It’s this very anticipation and rush of seeing the image come alive before your very eyes that Ryan hopes to provide with Hip Xiong Photo Studio. “I wanted to package the same feeling I felt when I made my first wet-plate image,” he says. “Even after 20 years in the industry using digital and even film photography, I still don’t get the same excitement of when I saw my first picture develop from scratch. It's very magical.”

In the darkroom, an image is slowly forming on a piece of metal. Once it’s fully developed, Ryan would have created another photograph – a piece of art suspended in silver, and time.

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A snapshot

  • Art
  • Photography
  • Geylang

Each session takes roughly an hour, and comes with a behind-the-scenes peek into the studio’s darkroom. If you’re getting dolled up before heading down, avoid putting on make-up with SPF protection. The compound, which absorbs UV light, may affect how your image turns out. You’ll also need to hold a pose for a few seconds, so it’s best to get comfy. Prices start from $200 for an individual portrait session, along with a timeless keepsake that’ll last for centuries. Bookings can be made at hipxiong.com

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