Yangon Fashion 1979 – Fashion=Resistance, ed. Lukas Birk

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Fraglich Publishing (here). Softcover in a softcover slipcase (30×10.5 cm), 152 pages on transparent paper, with 124 black and white photographs. Includes an essay by the artist. In an edition of 300 copies. Design and editing by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Lukas Birk is an Austrian photographer, researcher, and archivist, interested in the intersection of photographic archives and storytelling. He has spent the past decade researching photography in China, South and South-East Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. His research in Afghanistan, together with ethnographer Sean Foley, focused on a street box camera (a camera and a darkroom in one) used by Afghans to take portraits. The online platform for that project (here) and a publication serve to document this disappearing form of image making. In 2013, when Myanmar opened its borders, Birk decided to investigate the public photographic archive in the country, and when he realized that it didn’t exist, he started collecting materials. Today, his collection has about 20,000 images and objects, dating from 1890 and to the present. It includes “studio portraiture, private photo albums, official photography, company records, scientific research photography, documentary images as well as studio accessories, slides and negatives.”

Birk established the Myanmar Photo Archive, secured funding, and brought together a team of local collaborators to create a large scale archive platform which is scheduled to launch by the end of 2020. They also use the materials to organize exhibitions and to produce photobooks. The Myanmar Photo Archive is the first photobook publishing initiative out of Myanmar, and all of the photobooks are produced locally using local materials, with Birk bringing in local residents to work on the projects. The books they publish look at the photographic history of the country with rarely seen cultural insight. For Birk and his colleagues, it is important that all of the books are first sold locally (for an adapted price) and only then are distributed internationally.

Birk’s most recent publication is entitled Yangon Fashion 1979 – Fashion=Resistance, and it brings to light unique photographs of the fashionable youth of Yangon in the late 1970s. The 1970s in Myanmar was a period of dictatorial power, inflation, food shortages, and government corruption. The country became isolated and mostly separated from the outside world. With the rise of photography in urban Myanmar in the 1960s, portraiture became an important domain for the development of cultural identity.

What was acceptable to wear on the streets of Myanmar in the 1970s was rather limited. It wasn’t common to wear western clothes, but young people wanted to be part of the fashion world. They would illegally import glossy fashion magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue, then go to local tailors to create those outfits – flared trousers, dresses, shirts etc. Since it was not possible to wear the clothes outside, young people would go to photo studios to take photographs in these outfits. They would make small photographs (they were still pretty expensive to print) and exchange them with friends. It was a way to express your style, share with friends, and in a way, resist the controls of the regime.

Yangon Fashion 1979 is quite exciting as an object. The book itself is extremely vertical, its shape long and thin. A black and white photo of a young woman in a photo studio appears on the cover. The title is placed in red at the very bottom, with the words “fashion = resistance” embossed in gold, matching also embossed in gold woman’s belt and headband. The text on the back is both informative and sharp telling the viewer to “get ready for style made in Myanmar 1979 fashion not made for masses but to be shared with friends.” All of the photographs are printed on transparent paper creating continuous overlaps between images, resembling the exchange that was happening in real life. Occasionally, the images start on the right side and continue to the other, creating even more overlaps and visual dynamism. 

The photographs included in the publication were taken by Har Si Yone at his Bellay Photo Studio (it was founded in 1969 and is still active today), and in many other unknown studios. The parade of photographs inside documents young women and men posing in front of the camera. While most of the images are full body shots, occasionally the flow is interrupted by a close up portrait or details from the outfits. The sitters look radical and westernized, their body language and style signifying their freedom. And some young people even embraced the haircuts of western celebrities of that time, like Elvis Presley.

At roughly the same time period, young people in various parts of the world used western fashion and music to express themselves, and a studio turned into a place for playful experimentation. Studio portraiture is a key to African photographic history: Seydou Keïta’s photos often played with patterned backdrops, clothing, accessories, and other props to help sitters reimagining themselves; Sory Sanlé captured youth culture, dancers and musicians, of West Africa; Malick Sidibé encouraged his subjects to bring their own props for photoshoots, as their were posing in bright shirts and western-style flared trousers. Just like in Yangon, these photographers were establishing a new aesthetic and celebrating freedom.  

Yangon Fashion 1979 is exciting in both its content and presentation. It highlights a lesser known cultural phenomenon, showing the role fashion played in sparking imagination and a personal form of rebellion. Birk’s project also brings to mind Beijing Silvermine, an archive of vernacular photographs from China, a collection of discarded negatives from a recycling plant salvaged by Thomas Sauvin, a French photography collector and curator. Sauvin also uses playful and unexpected methods for experiencing vernacular photography in book form. Birk’s initiative follows the same path, but goes one step further, making local people active participants in their own storytelling.

Collector’s POV: Lukas Birk does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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