Where rock photography is concerned, Singaporean Eddie Sung has clicked with the best on the international stage.
Eddie Sung used to dish out corporate advice while dressed in a suit and tie. These days, the Singaporean photographer is frequently dressed in faded jeans, sneakers and black T-shirts even when working.
That sums up the two starkly different lives he has led.
In the first, he gave career advice as a headhunter. At age 44, he retired from the corporate world to indulge in his lifelong hobby – photographing music stars such as
The Beach Boys, Metallica and Lady Gaga.
A self-taught photographer, devoted Beatles fan and collector of rock memorabilia including original outtakes of the Fab Four’s iconic Abbey Road photos signed by the photographer Iain Macmillan, Sung, 55, is going places with his monochromatic images.
Sung’s choice works were on display at a recently concluded solo exhibition at the Soho, New York branch of photo gallery Morrison Hotel Gallery (MHG).
He is the first photographer from Asia represented by the gallery, whose stable includes famous rock photographers such as Joel Brodsky and Sung’s heroes, Bob Gruen and Mick Rock.
MHG co-founder and owner Peter Blachley says: “Eddie has proven to be both a creative and technical photographer of the highest order. Sung’s talent is backed up by the ease he brings to his music subjects.”
The exhibition, A View From Asia: The Photography Of Eddie Sung, is the “apex” of his artistic second life so far, he says in an interview at his studio-cum-gallery in Queenstown.
“When I was young, all the rock photographers were Westerners – Jim Marshall, Bob Gruen, Annie Leibovitz, Mick Rock.
“With this accolade, it’s a dream come true. That’s why I started in rock photography. I wanted to be the first Asian to be known in the rock photography arena. This is a great platform to be recognised for my work,” says the easy-going, bearded photographer who has a business degree from Hawaii and an MBA from Texas.
It is not the first time that his photographs, which are also on display at Hard Rock Cafe branches in Singapore, have made it to the world stage.
His portrait of American new wave/rock veterans Blondie taken in Woodstock is found on the sleeve of their 2011 album, Panic Of Girls.
One of his signature pictures – a shot of metal band Slipknot’s drummer standing on stage, behind him a sea of fans at Fort Canning Park – was one of several he took at the group’s 2005 show in Singapore that the band ended up using in its live album released later that same year.
Sung’s photo of American surf-pop legends The Beach Boys taken at its gig in Singapore in 2012 was also used on the cover and inside sleeves of the group’s Live: The 50th Anniversary Tour live album, released last year.
He got his earliest international break in 2006 when he won all top three prizes at New York photography awards ceremony Lucie Awards in the NonProfessional Music category.
The win raised his profile and led to a deal with MHG to represent him.
“With this exhibition, those veterans are now basically my colleagues, we’re on the same level. When I talk to them, there is a subtle respect shown. They don’t talk down to me, they talk to me like we are on the same level.”
His one regret is that the late American photographer Barry Feinstein, who shot more than 500 album covers including Sung’s favourite, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, is not around to see the exhibition.
Sung is immensely influenced by Feinstein’s works and struck up a friendship with him when they met at MHG. They became so close that Sung flew to New York to visit Feinstein at the hospital just before he died in 2011.
“He was my hero, my mentor, an almost father-like figure to me. When I found out he was sick, I bought many of his prints to help him with his hospitalisation costs.”
In conversations, Sung frequently name-drops celebrities whom he knows personally through his travels as well as his concert photography gigs. He says Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer and guitarist from The Byrds Roger McGuinn are some of his friends who have visited his Bukit Timah semi-detached house when they came to Singapore.
Do not call him a groupie, though.
“I meet these people at shows or when I travel, and we keep in touch and we become friends. We’re on equal footing.”
He also makes friends with the movers and shakers in the live entertainment industry, who give him access to the photo pit at gigs.
Sung traces his love of photography back to when he used to play around with his father’s Yashica camera in primary school.
The youngest of five children born to a civil engineer father and a housewife mother, he also loved music and the arts, and says that his late parents always encouraged him to pursue his love of the arts. His love of rock music came courtesy of an older brother, who was constantly playing The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at the family home.
Sung does not sing or play any instrument but he is an avid music fan whose vinyl and CD collection now numbers more than 6,000.
Still, when it came to his higher education, he chose to study business.
“I like using my brains,” says the man whose siblings are all academic professionals. His parents funded his education at the University of Hawaii, where he graduated with a bachelor of business administration degree with a major in marketing.
“After I got the degree, I told my dad that I’m going to do an MBA. He said, ‘Eh, no more money leh’. But I said, ‘It’s okay’.”
In Hawaii, Sung had built up his savings by working part-time in the school library. He chose to do his MBA in Texas because of its low school fees. He also worked as a tuition assistant and received a state grant and ended up paying only one-tenth of the full fees.
“I always knew how to look after myself. So far, it’s been good, I’ve been quite lucky.”
After graduating, he worked in the management consultancy line, eventually joining international management consultancy firm PA Consulting Group, where he rose to senior partner and eventually headed its regional operations.
He never lost his love of music, though, and also contributed music reviews and drew artwork for now defunct Singapore-based music magazine BigO under the pseudonym The Walrus, inspired by the Beatles classic, I Am The Walrus.
When PA Consulting Group was bought over by headhunting firm Korn/Ferry to start up recruitment firm Futurestep in Singapore, Sung made “a tidy sum” through his share as a senior partner. He stayed on after the buy-over for three years to ensure a smooth transition before he decided to call it a day.
It was never a long-term plan to retire early, insists Sung, who also spends a lot of his post-retirement time as vice- president of children welfare organisation I Love Children.
“I’m just following my heart. My favourite phrase is ‘Water will find its level’ and I am always curious where my level is in the world.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network