Teo Poh Seng, popularly known as PS Teo, was the chief photographer at Studio Deluxe, his family owned photo studio, and one of the most sought after photographers in Singapore in his time. He remains one of the finest portrait photographers Singapore has produced, and was famed for his black/white portrait photographs which won him international acclaim.
PS Teo was born in 1930 in the town of Sibu in Sarawak. The eldest of eight children, he came to Singapore with his family at age four. His father, Teo Chong Khim, worked as an accounts manager in Great World Amusement Park (now Great World City) before the Japanese invasion2 , and in 1947 after Singapore’s liberation, he founded the Studio DeLuxe photo studio at 33 Stamford Road with two partners - the photographer Fong Fook Seng and the financier Wee Hian Kiat. Wee was a silent partner who left the management of the business to Teo, while Fong was the studio’s first chief photographer. Studio DeLuxe prided itself as a first-rate photo studio, committed to taking quality portrait photography.3
PS Teo was roped in by his father to help out at the studio at a very early age, starting work there when he was only 14 years old. He was not given a choice in the matter. As the eldest son in a traditional Chinese family, he was obliged to obey his father’s wishes. His younger brother Yeow Seng, a skilled photographer in his own right, recalled:
“After school, he [PS Teo] stayed back in the studio and he would help to clean up... He would be the last one to go home…he learnt maybe here and there watching the photographer taking photos and such… I don't think he had a choice…Father was quite strict in the matter. You are the eldest; you have to shoulder the responsibility. You have no choice... Its the old traditional method of bringing up family.”4
But PS Teo had a natural aptitude and interest in photography and did not find this responsibility onerous. He grew close to his father, and he devoted his after school hours to developing his art - aiding and observing the studio’s chief photographer Fong and then experimenting in photography privately. Still, his first independent attempt at photography was a comic failure as his brother Yeow Seng recalled:
“The first occasion, he took pictures of one lady…Very good customer. He was trying out taking a portrait standing full body… he showed me the pictures...It was terrible…flat, the nose was flat! ….So he was showing me the photos and I said, 'How can you take such a picture...' He said, 'How now?' [I said] 'Never mind, you just cook up a story, the negative blackout…..' But the lady was very kind…. We said, 'The pictures, some of them, blackout so spoilt. Can you come and sit again?' So she came down and took again.” 5
In spite of this and other setbacks, PS Teo persevered, and perfected his photographic technique. He learnt his fundamentals mastering how to take simple passport photographs. He also created additional practice opportunities by offering to take photographs on Sundays when the other Studio DeLuxe photographers were on leave. He found interesting subjects - a building security guard with an impressive beard, a photogenic Dutch woman who lived next door - and got them to model for him by giving them free photos. 6
This portrait photograph of a young Dutch woman was taken in the 1950s and was among PS Teo’s prized art photographs.
PS Teo’s determination was even more impressive when one considered the nature of photography in the 1940s and 50s. Mastering photography was arduous work because of the state of the technology at the time. Almost everything had to be done manually. Teo Yeow Seng explained:
“The difficulty in taking all these portrait pictures here is the fact that he [PS Teo] is using an old camera in which is the [shutter] speed is very low…. At the same time, the camera doesn’t use roll film. It is used with sheet films, piece by piece. So if you load the piece in the film plate holder, you have to take the picture on that piece. After that, you have to remove, bring it to the darkroom and develop it…
[Another] difficulty with this type of photography is that you have to play with the light and he has three, four lights... two lights in front to shine onto the face…and then one light to shine on the hair to make sure you have a lovely curry puff hair …. So [the subject] will be sitting down there and then you have to direct his way of looking…
…At the same time, you can only take one shot. After that…., you must go back load a new sheet….. So doing this sort of thing is not by trial and error…Every shot is calculated with precision…today's method, it's a different thing. You set up all your lights there and then you… talk to [the subject]…crack jokes…. Then the fellow will smile and you just click click away…. You go back to your bedroom, you just delete, delete [and] out of 300 pictures you take within half an hour, you should be able to get a few good shots. But PS Teo….he takes four or five shots and that's enough. Because it's already taken up about half an hour or so… ” 7
Touching up photographs was especially difficult work, requiring much patience and precision, described Teo Yeow Seng:
“… [The photo negative]… to touch up the thing…you have to put pencil markings on the face. That means you apply some oil on the film emulsion surface and then you put the film in front of you on a glass plate…you put the negative on top of [a light box]. Then you …slowly touch up. Use pencil, very sharp pencil point to touch up…the pencil point movement must be rounded at certain angles to make the markings merge with the surrounding texture on the negative.
Today is different… you go to a computer; use Adobe [Photoshop], you put the image inside….touch up, clone…I can do it myself.” 8
PS Teo laboured to master these techniques, and wedded them to the creative vision he developed through his study of the photographic masters. He read broadly and experimented vigorously, setting his sights on developing an aesthetic style that was distinctly his own, yet timelessly classic.9 Through his tireless work in the 1940s and early 1950s, he built up a portfolio of fine photographs and laid the foundations for his subsequent success.
PS Teo’s breakthrough came when he submitted some of his favorite photographs to the Singapore Photographic Society (SPS) for exhibition in the 1950s. The Singapore Photographic Society’s Exhibition was a prestigious, international event. Professional photographers from America and the British Commonwealth sent in their photos to be exhibited, and the committee of judges included luminaries like Dr Loke Wan Tho and Prof. C.A. Gibson-Hill. Although PS Teo was little known within the photographic community, his photographs were chosen for exhibition and were highly commended by the judges. He was also awarded the bronze medal for photography, twice, by the judging panel, amidst strong competition from more seasoned photographers. 10
PS Teo’s triumph at the Singapore Photographic Society Exhibition changed his relationship with his erstwhile mentor Fong Fook Seng, the Chief Photographer at Studio Deluxe. Fong had also sent in his photographs, but he was not awarded any medals. His protégé had surpassed him and he felt misplaced. Fong started moonlighting at another photo studio and soon after left Studio Deluxe, leaving PS Teo, who was barely into his twenties with less than five years of experience, as Chief Photographer. 11
But PS Teo’s career was about to enter its brightest stage. His success at the Singapore Photographic Society was quickly followed by even greater success. He took up a correspondence course with the AGFA School of Photography in London and excelled. His confidence boosted, he began submitting photographs for accreditation at international photographic societies. He sent photographs to the Institute of British Photographers in 1956 and was awarded with an Associateship. A year later he submitted his work to the Royal Photographic Society of London and was declared an Associate. And a year after that, to cap it all, he was made a Fellow of the British Royal Photographic Society of Art. 12
PS Teo submitted this portrait titled the “Chinese Philosopher” to the Midland Salon of Photography in 1953.
This photograph titled “Charming Look” was exhibited at the Institute of British Photographers prestigious Exhibition of Professional Photography at the Royal British Academy Galleries in London 1955.
This was an unprecedented achievement. All three awards were great honours. PS Teo was one of only two photographers in the whole of British Malaya at the time to have received an Associateship with the Institute of British Photographers. The Associateship and Fellowship with the Royal Photographic Society were even more prestigious, ranking among the highest photographic honours that could be received in the British Commonwealth. Teo Yeow Seng commented:
“ The Royal Photography Society award… it's so prestigious, [that] the society after giving him the title, asked him to publish the fact in newspapers... It's a prestigious title because it’s well recognised by the world. So the newspapers reported; both of these awards they reported. …Even today…the Associate of Photographic Society…Not many get this title…Not easy to get because it's standard is very high…The Queen is the patron. I got this award … [but] I submitted three or four times before I got. It's not easy.”
PS Teo was not yet thirty, and largely a self-taught photographer.
In spite of his sudden fame, PS Teo remained very humble. He was naturally shy and self-effacing. When his siblings encouraged him to actively publicise his triumphs to attract more customers, he refused. Yeow Seng recalled:
“I told him, you got these titles; you must put it on the window pane to give people to see. But he's so humble, he didn't want to advertise. He put it all where? In the dressing room…. People come and comb hair before they sit for taking photographs, who actually see it?...Even doctors put [their certificates] in the clinic for people to see. He's so humble. He said, 'No, no need.' 13....”
PS Teo counted instead on word of mouth to draw in his clientele, which soon resembled a “who’s who” list of prominent Malayans - judges, politicians, businessmen, performance artists had their portraits taken with him. PS Teo was also well-known for his wedding photographs which were taken in a dramatic yet noticeably informal style, where he encouraged his subjects to express their natural affections and had the pictures developed in soft texture.
PS Teo encouraged natural poses in his wedding photography
PS Teo was one of the most sought after photographers in Singapore. He took portrait shots of many prominent people, for instance, President Benjamin Sheares (left) and Singapore’s first Chief Minister David Marshall (right)
In his later years, PS Teo experimented with colour photography and outdoor shots. But he remained best known as a studio photographer par excellence in black and white portraits, a photographic form he raised to the level of art. 14 PS Teo passed away on the 11 February 2005. He was remembered by his siblings as “a simple and humble man, he never felt the need to travel abroad or possess wealth or fame….he worked almost every day in the year. He focused on doing his work well and taking care of his siblings.” 15 He devoted his life to his craft and to the well-being of his family, and left behind a legacy of art photography for his countrymen. He was a Singapore cultural hero.
1 Between 2008 and 2009, the family of the late PS Teo donated the photographic negatives of their late brother to the National Archives of Singapore. Approximately 26,000 photo-negatives and 38 original photographs were donated. The Teo family also loaned to the National Archives 151 of PS Teo’s most prized photographs to digitize. The images range from the 1950s to the early 1990s, and comprise mostly black/white portrait photographs taken by PS Teo when he was chief photographer at Studio DeLuxe, his family owned photo studio.
2 Interview with Mr Teo Yeow Seng, Oral History Centre, Acc. 003165/05, CD 3
4 Interview with Mr Teo Yeow Seng, Oral History Centre, Acc. 003165/05, CD 4
5 Interview with Mr Teo Yeow Seng, Oral History Centre, Acc. 003165/05, CD 4
7 Interview with Mr Teo Yeow Seng, Oral History Centre, Acc. 003165/05, CD 4
8 Interview with Mr Teo Yeow Seng, Oral History Centre, Acc. 003165/05, CD 4
9 “PS Teo, Photographer - A Retrospective Exhibition of Works Spanning 50 Years” Exhibition Guide, Studio DeLuxe, 2007, p. 6
10 Interview with Mr Teo Yeow Seng, Oral History Centre, Acc. 003165/05, CD 4
11 Interview with Mr Teo Yeow Seng, Oral History Centre, Acc. 003165/05, CD 4
12 “PS Teo, Photographer - A Retrospective Exhibition of Works Spanning 50 Years” Exhibition Guide, Studio DeLuxe, 2007, p. 9
13 Interview with Mr Teo Yeow Seng, Oral History Centre, Acc. 003165/05, CD 4
14 Interview with Mr Teo Yeow Seng, Oral History Centre, Acc. 003165/05, CD 5
15 “PS Teo, Photographer - A Retrospective Exhibition of Works Spanning 50 Years” Exhibition Guide, Studio DeLuxe, 2007, p. 10