Legendary photojournalist Eric Peris’ The Tin Mine Landscape offers a glimpse into Malaysia’s rich past and heritage.
ONLY on closer inspection does Eric Peris’ The Tin Mine Landscape set of black and whites reveal itself not to be shots of the surface of Mars taken from the Mars Rover. Anyone would bet their money on some of them being intricate Hollywood studio shots even. But the life in the photographer’s shots for this exhibition are far too vivid for any kind of fabrication.
These aren’t mere images of piles of tin ore and sand, or the dredges or the environment. There are close-ups of the plants and shots of the animals that inhabit this unique eco-system even. But why would anyone want to capture tin mines? Peris obviously did.
“I just wanted to record this man-made landscape, compared to the natural beauty we have in this country. I doubt families would travel to tin mines as part of their holiday programme. Those people who did were anglers trying their luck at the numerous ponds left behind by the dredges. There were some photographers who were awed by the sunsets and sunrises,” he said in an e-mail interview. Peris’ ongoing exhibition mirrors the book he put together in 1980 of the same title.
Growing up close to a tin mine in Puchong, Selangor, he was consumed by the scenery that greeted him whenever he went for his evening walks.
“My father (O. Don Peris), an accomplished artist, taught me the basic elements of landscape study. When he passed away in 1975, I decided to make a study of tin mine landscapes in his memory and dedicate the work to him,” explained the former New Straits Times (NST) photojournalist.
He would spend many days off work over the next five years travelling to tin mines in Selangor and Perak, with the Kinta Valley being a favourite haunt. And all he carried with him was a basic SLR, a standard lens and a 35mm.
“Walk about light. Do not weigh yourself down with lenses, camera bodies and tripods. I used only one camera with my two lenses. Wear a good pair of walking shoes and wear a hat. Keep your eyes also peeled on the cow-dung trail. It is the safest route to take,” shared the 74-year-old, crediting a wise cowherd for this piece of wisdom where cows can identify soft soil and avoid walking on it. A slip in this rough terrain could be hazardous.
Peris’ approach to taking these pictures is basic enough, but he shares a few pointers like they were extracted from his personal survival guide handbook: “Know the terrain, do some reading about tin mining and the kind of work that is carried out there. You must be prepared to walk in strong sunlight but make sure you get out of the place when it rains. Carry a couple of bottles of water with you.”
Unlike a natural landscape, a tin mine is a man-made one, and that’s a great part of the intrigue for Peris.
“The dredge, as it moves, digs away the ground and slowly moves to new areas, leaving behind tons of sand, mud, ponds ... in short, a very disturbed environment. Nature takes over soon after and within months, Mother Nature would bring back the greens of plant life and you see a new landscape. The fauna and flora changes the whole scene” he explained his fascination for this unique photography subject, noting that Mother Nature always tries to strike a balance.
Peris is recognised as one of the leading photographers in the black and white medium in the region. His career is as illustrious as they come, having had more than 20 solo exhibitions locally and internationally since 1980. He was a photojournalist with NST for 24 years, with many photo essays for the Sunday papers tucked under his belt, and also, a collection of Malay Mail centrespreads. His newspaper career – which included running a weekly column for the New Sunday Times features section, Sundate, from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s – culminated in his appointment as photo editor of NST in 1991 until his retirement in 1994.
But it all began for him as a young boy in Muar, Johor Baru, when his dad, O. Don Peris, the Royal Artist of Johor in the 1920s, introduced Peris junior to the world of art. He studied at the Muar High School all his schooling life before pursuing his interest in photography with NST in the 1970s.
Peris’ passion for photography is undiminished. In fact, prior to this tin mine jaunt, his last exhibition was Earth, Water, Sky, which like its title suggests, featured those elements. “My discipline is to hold one exhibition a year. It takes me between eight and 10 months to work on an idea.”
It’s tragic to think that our younger generation will barely get the chance to see an industry that our nation thrived in, one that earned us top spot.
“Of course, the young of today will not be able to visualise tin mines and its activities of dredging, palong activities, monitor pumps tearing away soil and the mostly women folk doing the dulang washing to gather pieces of tin ore. Hopefully, there were film documentaries made of this and school children can have some idea of the full activity of a tin mine. At one time, Malaysia was the No. 1 producer of tin in the world,” said the former co-chairman of the annual National Productivity Photographic Contest (1986-1991), National and Asean Level.
Looking at the photos of The Tin Mine Landscapes, one gets the sense that there was much more waiting than actual shooting. These pictures are unique moments captured in time. Perhaps, back then, during the film age, every shot really had to count, what with the provision of 36 shots per role of film, and not the hundreds and thousand accorded today with digital technology. And restriction can be a very good teacher indeed.
Peris’ book of the same name is long out of print, but there is light at the end of the tunnel for the 23 (the collection originally comprised 41 pictures) surviving pictures.
“SGFA (Shalini Ganendra Fine Art) is hoping to do a publication with the 23 works from this collection,” Peris revealed.
Legend is a word bandied too easily. In most cases, it’s all but misty-eyed nostalgia, but the reverence in which Peris’ name is uttered in arts circles suggests that he can’t be too far off.
> Catch The Tin Mine Landscape at Shalini Ganendra Fine Art @ Gallery Residence from Tuesday to Sunday (11am-7pm). The exhibition ends on Oct 31. For more info, call 03-7960 4740 or visit www.shaliniganendra.com.