In Search of Modern Photography in Singapore: Tan Lip Seng, Lee Lim, Lim Kwong Ling and Lee Sow Lim

Ms  Charmaine  Toh1

1National Gallery Singapore, Singapore, Singapore

This paper presents the work of four Singaporean photographers who were key advocates for the status of photography of an autonomous art form. As active and influential members of several of Singapore’s many dynamic photography clubs in the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Sow Lim, Lee Lim, Lim Kwong Ling and Tan Lip Seng were key to the development of modern photography in Singapore through their roles as educators and mentors, exhibition organisers and salon jurors. Individually, they exhibited widely and developed distinct photographic practices which centred around representations of a rapidly transforming Singapore. Photography has historically struggled to find a place within Singapore’s art history which has been dominated by painting and sculpture. This presentation attempts to write photography back into this history, not only through a close study of the four photographers but also in examining the paintings circulating during the time. Like the painters, these photographers were negotiating individual and cultural self-representation alongside their personal artistic aspirations, one which paralleled Singapore’s search for independence from British colonial rule, and the anxieties of modernity.


Charmaine Toh is a curator at National Gallery Singapore where she worked on exhibitions such as “Siapa Nama Kamu: Art in Singapore since the 19th Century” and “Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia.” She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, researching photography in Singapore.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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