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Visual Arts

Foo Tee Jun

One of Singapore's most acclaimed veteran photographers

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


Time taken : >15mins

In this digital age, a lot of things can be done and amended on the computer after you take your photograph. However, I still feel that it is important to try to strive for perfection when you take a photograph.

Foo Tee Jun is one of Singapore’s most acclaimed veteran photographers who has been dedicated to his art for more than five decades. A former full-time photographer with the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and a lifelong member of the Photographic Society of Singapore, he has built an impressive body of work over the years. Foo’s works reveal a master photographer of tremendous versatility and technical skill with an ability to interpret everyday scenes with a painterly vision. Spanning diverse styles from pictorial photography to avant-garde approaches, and featuring varied subjects including landscapes, portraiture and wildlife, Foo is well known for the rich colouring and creative manipulation of his photos in the darkroom. In 1989, Foo received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to photography in Singapore.

Born in 1935 in Singapore, Foo Tee Jun came from a Chinese immigrant family and attended The Chinese High School. On his 15th birthday, he received a second-hand camera from his father and, despite not knowing how to use it properly, found that he enjoyed taking photographs nonetheless. That feeling stayed with him until the early ’60s, when as a young technician at a dental clinic, his boss generously lent him a Rolleiflex 120 camera. Foo fell in love with photography and took photographs at many scenic spots including the Botanic Gardens and the beach, even roping in female friends his neighbourhood to act as models.

Subsequently, he borrowed a friend’s camera and went with some colleagues to West Malaysia for a holiday. Travelling through Malacca and Kuala Lumpur to the Batu Caves, he took many photographs, but after developing the photos when he returned to Singapore, he was disappointed to discover that many came out too dark because of the lack of light. Due to this failure, Foo was determined to improve and learn the techniques of photography. In 1962, he enrolled in photography classes at the Adult Education Board, learning both basic photography and darkroom skills. His first time developing photos in a darkroom was a magical experience for him, and sparked a lifelong fascination with photographic development and processing.

Foo then enrolled in a beginners’ class at the Photographic Society of Singapore and also became a member of the society. Together with fellow photography enthusiasts, he went on excursions to many locations in Singapore, including Pasir Panjang, a kampong in Woodlands, Geylang, Changi Beach, Mata Ikan beach (where Changi Business Park is now located), and Kallang River to take pictures of fishermen at work, capturing the play of sunlight and shadow at certain times of the day, and enjoying not only his hobby but the camaraderie with his peers.

In the ’70s, Foo had the opportunity to work on colour photography with Chen Ruoxi, an expert in making colour enlargements from colour negatives. From then on, he expanded his range of darkroom skills and began to explore colour printing techniques. During this period, he also joined the Life Record Company, on a recommendation by a friend from the Photographic Society of Singapore, and had the opportunity to photograph many celebrity singers. He subsequently applied to be a photographer with the Ministry of Culture but was appointed as a full-time photographer at the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources instead in 1974. He would remain working there for almost 20 years until his retirement in 1995.

At the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, Foo found many opportunities to work in the cultural sector, and his exposure to the arts and culture widened his horizons. In the beginning, his style of photography had been largely influenced the Photographic Society of Singapore, which, back then, did not focus much on documentary photography or photojournalism but highlighted salon photography for competitions whose jury had certain aesthetic requirements. With his exposure to the arts, he began to explore other approaches to photography and became interested also in creating images that were more loosely framed to give a sense of history, place and narrative, and contain more meaning and depth.

Over the decades, Foo built an impressive body of work that was acclaimed for its diversity, depth, rich colouring, artistic composition, interesting tonality and—most notably—creative manipulation during darkroom print processing. One of his earliest photographs, a black and white image of an old Indian man won first prize in a Photographic Society of Singapore competition as well as merit prizes at the 11th Malaysia Photographic Exhibition and the 13th New Zealand International Photography Competition. He went on over the years to win many other competitions, most of which were locally based as, constrained by a limited income, he often refrained from the expense of participating in overseas competitions.

Among the honours Foo has received are the 1975 Excellence Distinction of the International Federation of Photographic Art and a Gold Medal from the Photographic Society of America for the best entry in the 1988 Singapore International Salon. In 2008, he was voted Photographer of the Year by the Ngee Ann Cultural Centre and had two of his photographs featured on commemorative stamps for Singapore’s National Day. In 1989, Foo received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to photography in Singapore.

Through the years, he also conducted numerous photographic and darkroom courses at various community centres and the SAFRA Photography Club among other places. He also helped to organise numerous exhibitions including the 1975 ASEAN Salon of Photography and the 1983 Asia Salon of Photography. Additionally, he took part in many exhibitions, many of which were organised by the Photographic Society of Singapore, the South East Asia Photographic Society and the Photo Art Association of Singapore.

In 2010, he held his largest-ever solo exhibition, Photographic Stories of Foo Tee Jun, at the Teochew Building, Singapore, showcasing 200 of his works spanning nearly 50 years of photography. Spanning diverse styles from pictorial photography to modern, avant-garde approaches, and featuring varied subjects from landscapes to portraiture, streetscapes to wildlife and nature photography, the exhibition revealed not only a veteran photographer of great versatility, but one of tremendous technical skill, artistic integrity and the ability to interpret everyday objects and scenes with painterly vision.

Today, Foo continues to serve as advisor to photographic clubs such as the Singapore Colour Photographic Society. Still a member of the Photographic Society of Singapore, he is also an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society which he joined in 1973. Although reluctant to make the switch from manual to digital photography at first, he has since embraced the change and swapped his beloved SLR for a DSLR camera, as well as left behind the photographic manipulation and printing processes for which he is renowned and started exploring digital manipulation.

Timeline

1935

Born in Singapore.

1952

Attended The Chinese High School.

1962

Attended photography course at Adult Education Board.

1963

Attended beginners’ photography class, Photographic Society of Singapore.

1963 to Present

Member, Photographic Society of Singapore.

1965

Merit prize, 13th New Zealand International Photography Exhibition.

1967

Photographer, Life Record Company.

1973

Associate, Royal Photographic Society.

1974

Photography instructor at SAFRA Photography Club and various photographic clubs and community centres.

1974 to 2000

Honorary Secretary, Singapore Art Society.

1974 to 1995

Photographer, Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

1975

Received Excellence distinction award, International Federation of Photographic Art.

Helped organise ASEAN Salon of Photography.

1983

Helped organise Asia Salon of Photography.

1986 to Present

Techniques advisor, Singapore Colour Photography Society.

1988

Gold medal by Photographic Society of America for best entry at Singapore International Salon 1988.

1989

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to photography.

2008

Received Photographer of the Year award by Ngee Ann Cultural Centre.

Two photographs featured on commemorative stamps for Singapore’s National Day.

2010

Photographic Stories of Foo Tee Jun, Teochew Building, Singapore.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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