Tuesday, February 05, 2008

George Tapan: Capturing the Cordilleran Chiaroscuro

In some primitive cultures, people believe that being photographed steals their souls. I am not sure how this belief sprang up. Perhaps looking at one's likeness so real on paper can be startling for a first-timer, a testament that photographs can indeed capture not only the physical image, but also the soul.

This power is being harnessed anew by George Tapan, who is widely recognized in the Philippines for his photographs of tourist destinations. In his forthcoming exhibit of photographs called “Silew: Light and Life of Cordillera,” which is slated to open for Feb. 23 and will run for about a month at the art space Tam-Awan Village in Baguio City, Tapan will revisit territories, literally and figuratively, that he have not given attention to in the course of everyday work and veer from his usual work in several ways.

The fifty-ish photographer, bespectacled and with salt-and-pepper hair, gathers together his images of the Cordillera region in northern Luzon, where the lush mountains profoundly shape the lives of several ethnic groups living there, predominantly the Ifugao, Kalinga, Bontoc and Isneg. Having mounted several exhibits in the past, this is the first time Tapan is focusing on Cordillera.

“I have been taking photographs of the Cordillera as early as the late '60s,” he relates. “It was a very different place and time then. Through the years, I kept returning -- taking more pictures each time and seeing how many of their old practices have changes, disappeared altogether, or have remained the same.”

But the idea for the exhibit came to him only last year when he was commissioned by the North Luzon Expressway company to do a calendar featuring the scenic destinations of northern Luzon. Tapan realized that he was always coming back to the Cordilleras, either on assignment or on his own initiative, and decided to go through accumulated photographs and mount an exhibit. Some pictures chosen for the exhibit date back to as early as 1969 while the others as recent as 2008. This time the images he will be showing are mostly of the peoples with sprinkling of landscapes, a sort of the departure of the thing he is known for: tourist spots captured in vivid colors, almost more vivid than life itself. He wants to present another kind of reality, which is a departure from the glossed-over, postcard-percent kind he has been creating.

One photograph shows an old Kalinga woman bent in grief. Tapan chanced upon her during a funeral. There is a young Ifugao man courting a girl by playing a flute in the evening. Like a mating call, the sound of flute rising somewhere in the mountains indicates someone is courting, he said. And he feels privileged to capture one in action. He also shows Banaue in its not-so-idyllic rendering: unattractive shanties cropping up and clinging on its slopes.

Another thing about this body of work is the photographs are all in black-and-white. This is to highlight Tapan's current fascination with the play of light and shadow as best revealed in black and white, hence the exhibit title, which is Ilocano for “light.” The result is more photojournalistic, more anthropological, more National Geographic, more art.
Many photographers have been capturing Cordillera, its people, culture and landscape, lured by the fact that this rather remote area still harbors cultures that have remained mostly unchanged through times. This is where one finds the rice terraces, perhaps the most spectacular ancient monument in the country. This is where one can encounter the Ifugaos still wearing their traditional loincloths and practicing their rituals.
Perhaps the iconic images of the Cordillera were taken by late Eduardo Masferre, the Spanish-Kankanaey mestizo photographer who documented the Cordillera people since the 1930s until the 1980s and left a treasure trove of photographs for both anthropologists and culture lovers.

Tapan himself paid homage to him by visiting his home, now a café run by his Bontoc wife and children, in Sagada, Mountain Province. Most likely, he is influenced by him. But Tapan does not think so. While Masferre's intention was to document, his is more on the side of art, he avers.

But the inspiration is evident, particularly in the old photographs of Bontoc women who went about their everyday chores topless. It seems Tapan was struck by these images that he depicted similar scenes in his own way. He went in search of that “pristine” way, which is now very rare. When he got none he hired a model to go topless, a very young Kankanaey-Ibaloi who had done nude modeling for artists like Ben Cabrera, who formerly owns Tam-Awan Village, convincing her that she was doing it to help preserve her culture.

This is a deliberate attempt to foment exoticism, which can only come from an outsider or visitor. And Tapan admits to being a visitor. His photographs were taken in passing as a frequent visitor, he said, unlike Masferre, who immersed in the culture and lived in the community.
This is also a kind of romanticism for which Tapan is known: beautiful land with beautiful women. Somehow it is a very heterosexual male point of view. One can see them around, these touristic posters with women, flower tucked in their hair, in flowing and thin sarongs walking along a beach, posing with a volcano at the backdrop, or enjoying the view of a waterfall. This the Tapan trademark, his “signature,” he says, that identifies him.

Kasi mas marami ang tumitingin (Because more people look at them),” he says.

This signature can be traced back during the days when Tapan was doing fashion photography.
Tapan comes from a prominent family of photographers, hailing from the sleepy town of Unisan in the province of Quezon. During family reunions, talk will always revolve around cameras. His father Gregorio was the first one. Then George, together with his brothers Edgar and Donald, followed his steps, starting to take pictures just after high school. But George says he veered away from “tradition” by treating photography more as an art rather than as a source of livelihood.

George began professional photography by taking still pictures for films. Then he went into newspapers. His career began to blossom in the mid-'70s when he was taken on board the magazine Sunburst, where he did fashion spreads until he gradually got travel assignments. Even while he was shooting for fashion, he manifested a penchant for scenery. He would always insist on shooting on location, with the models set against a picturesque backdrop. The studio set-up is boring, he believed. This is where perhaps his signature look developed.

Always freelance, Tapan has never been employed full-time. He enjoys this kind of freedom. His works now adorn all the offices of the Department of Tourism and airports all over the country, have been featured in coffee-table books and in-flight magazines, and have been into postcards.

Now with this exhibit, he is enjoying a kind of freedom--to show his own expressions and his own take of his encounters, unfettered by commissions and the need to be glossy. And despite the lack of vibrant colors and the display of the grittier side, a lasting beauty subtly shines through—the soul traipsing between shadow and light.

Prior to the exhibit, George Tapan will be conducting a photography workshop from Feb. 21 to 23. Coinciding with the exhibit is the launch of the Philippine Travel Photographers' Society. For inquiries on the exhibit and workshop, call 659-0463 or email travel_photography@yahoo.com.

Published in The Daily Tribune, February 8, 2008

Monday, February 04, 2008

Gearing Up For a Korean Winter

Going to Korea in early December, my biggest concern was what to wear. Korea at that time was in the middle of winter. “Winters were long and very cold,” wrote Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, one of my favorite travel writers, in her 1992 book I Remember…: Travel Essays. I checked the weather reports. In Seoul, where we would spend the first night, temperature dipped to zero and even subzero. It snows there, contributed a friend who had a friend who just recently arrived from Korea. But in Jeju Island (said to be the warmest part of Korea), where we would spend most of our Korean sojourn, temperature averaged about eight degrees. Still, I thought, very cold. Baguio, the coldest place in the Philippines, can have temperatures as low as 18 degrees Centigrade, and we thought we would get sick from this cold. Baguio temperature was my indicator. Having lived in a tropical country all my life, I had never experienced winter and had no idea on how cold were near-zero and sub-zero temperatures. To survive this temperature, one must wear the proper clothes. I agonized over winter clothes, how to get them and how much to pack for a four-day winter trip.

I asked my friends, who have been to wintry places, what clothes were proper for this weather, and the keyword was thermal. This means the kind of cloth which provides and maintains much warmth. Thermal clothes are hard to come by in the Philippines. And they tend to be very expensive. Try the ukay-ukay stores, advised a friend. But I did not have enough time to scour these stores that have propped up in every cranny of Metro Manila like toadstools after rain, and wade through a dusty sea of secondhand clothes. If one has the time, patience and fortitude, the ukay-ukay stores can be a treasure trove. They have winter jackets, sweaters and boots. In or near Quaipo, there is a store that specializes on adventure gear, including winter jackets, carrying brands like The North Face and others, whispered a friend. Newspaper photographers frequent this place, he said, but could not divulge more information. I will find out this place, I vowed, when I get back.

Those squeamish about wearing clothes, whose former owners one will not have the chance to know, one can go through the surplus shops. SM has one in every of its malls. My friend Johanna got all of her jackets at the SM Surplus Shop. The store has ample choices for women. Unfortunately, the choices for men are limited.

Without thermal clothing, the trick is, said my other friends, layering. You put on layers upon layers of clothes.

I aggregated the tips from people and put to use what I could apply for the moment. One good tip is to borrow from friends who have been abroad. Buying brand-new winter jackets can be impractical, especially when one does not go to wintry places on a regular basis. Once used, these jackets can be practically useless in the Philippines. Friends who have them are very willing to lend you their jackets. Friends offered some jackets and in the end I have a few to choose from, more enough really for my travel bags.

Thermal underwear is important, said one friend. Fortunately, the Marks and Spencer stores carry an array of thermal underwear from shirt and socks to briefs and long johns. They have both long- and short-sleeved shirts. They also have different “levels” from minimum to maximum warmth. The price ranges from a thousand to two pesos. A tad pricey, yes.
With thermal underwear, one can wear the ordinary jeans. With thermal undershirt, one can wear another shirt, an ordinary one, a sweater and the winter jacket. With thermal socks, one can wear ordinary rubber shoes. One advised getting “closed” shoes or boots. But these can be hard to find here.

From friends, I got other winter accoutrements like scarves and gloves. I found these can be important. Cold weather can be harsh on the extremities like fingers, ears, nose and toes. Protect the neck with scarves, the hands with gloves or mittens and ears with head gears that can over them like a bonnet.

The North Face jacket and sweater
For brand-new jackets, there are few and select stores here that offer them. One that is on top of the mind is The North Face, which has earned a revered status specially among explorers and adventure climbers. In the Philippines, The North Face has been a recent introduction. Their backpacks arrived in select stores in 2003, and the year after they put up their own shops, which now carry jackets, apparels and tents, aside from the famed packs.

“When it entered (the Philippine market), it (the bestsellers) would be the backpack,” said Roel Chan, the brand manager of Uniglobe, the local franchise holder of The North Face. But with the shops, The North Face here is “now known for what it is known best, which is the outerwear, the jackets.”
“Although in the Philippines, we thought that jackets are not really needed since we’re a tropical country, but the market of The North Face are those outbound,” Chan added. “And even in hardcore mountaineering in the Philippines, you need a jacket. Definitely, it’s a part of your equipment. If you look at the market now, The North Face has no competition in terms of jackets…The North Face has the most number of designs of jackets in the Philippines.”
By design, he does not only mean the style but also the technical features. The North Face jackets are made for the outdoors and harsh weather conditions. It carries several series of jackets, each having special features, many which are propriety innovations. The Flight series, for example, is lightweight, waterproof and breathable, meant for fast-packing and adventure races. Several series are made for mountain climbing and cold weather. The brand is usually used by those climbing Mount Everest.
For this trip, The North Face provided me with a jacket, a mid-range one, with more than enough features for the trip. It made me feel like one of those adventurers that The North Face supports.
The Aleut Jacket of its Elevation series is a thick jacket meant for the cold and mountain climbing. It is not very thick as to restrict movement. It is actually sleek, in its Arctic Pool blue color. There are pockets in very interesting but very logical places. The armpit area can be zipped open for ventilation, and the hood is detachable.
With the jacket was a sweater, extra protection against the winter cold. I had a handsome Lyell crewneck sweater in Pinot red with beige sleeves. It is described as “a soft, thermally-efficient fleece layering piece with mock neck and contrasting sleeves and seams.”
With these two, I could face the Korean winter in style, comfort and warmth.

The Columbia Titanium shoes
Winter boots are perhaps the hardest item to find in the Philippines. But a friend said ordinary durable rubber shoes can suffice. Of course, I had to put on thermal socks and another pair of ordinary socks. The shoes should be a tad bigger than your usual size to accommodate the layers of socks.
For this trip, I was provided with a Columbia rubber shoes in its Titanium series with Omni-Tech features, which means these shoes are waterproof and breathable.
Columbia is sportswear company, which started in 1938 in the United States as a small family owned hat distributorship company. Now, it is one of the world's biggest outerwear brands and the leading seller of ski wear in the United States. Aside from outerwear, sportswear and accessories, Columbia also has rugged footwear.
The Titanium series employs the Omni-Tech technology for fabrics to be high-performance, waterproof and breathable. Different fabrics are combined and applied various coatings or laminates (to the underside of the fabric), thus creating appropriate functional applications based on needed levels of waterproofness and breathability. Additionally, they said they applied “ invisible DWR (durable water repellent) finish to keep water beading on the surface. The result is a wide range of fabrics comparable to other leading waterproof/breathable fabrics, but with incomparable value.”

Beside this technology, the Columbia Titanium shoes are stylish. I got one in Karasi color with burnt orange lining and insides. It was enough to keep me protected and comfortable.
With North Face jacket and sweater, and Columbia shoes, and big help from my friends, I became ready to be astounded by Korea, and even enjoy the winter temperature.
Published in The Daily Tribune, February 4, 2008.