Lens Romance

The photo exhibition opening Tuesday at the Sofitel hotel in Phnom Penh gives an insight into Cambodia as it appeared to visitors in the late 1920s.

Viewed through these 84 black-and-white photographs taken in 1929, Phnom Penh is a rather sleepy capital, its broad boulevards empty of traffic, while most of the monuments at Angkor in Siem Reap have yet to be rescued from the jungle.

Wat Phnom and the Naga Bridge as seen in 1929 (Georges Portal)
Wat Phnom and the Naga Bridge as seen in 1929 (Georges Portal)

The photographer was Georges Portal, a French actor whose love of photography was much more than a hobby. His extensive photo collection was inherited by his distant relatives, Pierre-Jean Rey and his brother Andre-Claude Rey, who brought them from France to Cambodia this month for the exhibition “Georges Portal, Wonders of 1929.”

“Photography was his passion, although his trade was the theater,” Pierre-Jean said.

In 1928, Portal, who was known as a great director and actor in France, set up a theater company featuring several star actors of the time to tour Indochina—the territories administered by France in what are now Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

So after a monthlong boat trip from France, the company landed in Indochina with its trunks of props and costumes in December 1928.

Although few details of their visit remain, the dates on Portal’s photos show that he and his company were in Cambodia in February and March 1929.

As his photos attest, the Phnom Penh of the time was not the busy, bustling city it is today. According to the 1921 census, its population was just 75,000 in a country of 2.4 million.

Members of Georges Portal’s theater company pose during their 1928-to-1929 tour of Indochina. (Rey Photo Collection)
Members of Georges Portal’s theater company pose during their 1928-to-1929 tour of Indochina. (Rey Photo Collection)

In one of Portal’s photos, the broad boulevard that runs from Wat Phnom is tree-lined and tranquil with the occasional pedestrian, bicyclist and rickshaw passing by—cyclos would only appear in the mid-1930s. In another photo, traffic on the street in front of the Royal Palace compound mainly consists of bicycles.

Portal’s photos of Angkor demonstrate how much work has been done since then not only to preserve monuments and sculptures from vegetation, but also to showcase them.

At the Terrace of the Elephants, stones supporting the elephants’ heads and those forming their trunks seem in imminent danger of collapsing. Odd stones of damaged structures are scattered along the galleries of the Bayon monument, and some statues are resting on the ground among the vegetation as if awaiting rescue.

Portal used a Richard Verascope, which was a camera with two lenses that could capture three-dimensional images, and a process known as stereo photography. The negatives were small glass plates, explained Pierre-Jean, a career photographer and cameraman. “It was the gelatin silver process…The medium on which to put it was glass. Plastic film had not yet been invented,” he said.

This compact but heavy metal camera was equipped with a tray that could carry 12 glass negatives, and therefore allowed the photographer to take 12 photos before reloading, he said.

Terrace of the Elephants in Angkor park in 1929 (Georges Portal)
Terrace of the Elephants in Angkor park in 1929 (Georges Portal)

Both Pierre-Jean and Andre-Claude recall Portal—whom they called “Great Cousin”—developing his negatives at their family home in France in the early 1950s. At the time, the actor was director of the theater company of Radio Alger in Algeria and spent his holidays with their family.

Solutions to develop those plates were not available readymade, explained Andre-Jean, a retired psychoanalyst who as a child would assist Great Cousin in the darkroom. Portal would get the various chemical components and mix them in porcelain basins to develop the glass negatives and then fix the images, he said. Since those negatives were not sensitive to dark red, he and Portal worked under dark red light. “This was rather magical,” he said.

Born in 1887, Portal passed away in 1958. He left the two brothers his camera, all his equipment and about 8,000 glass negatives of photos taken in several countries.

This exhibition, which will run through July at the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, will be the first time that Portal’s photographs have ever been ever shown to the public.

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