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

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