Imagining Singapore: Pictorial Photography from the 1950s to 1970s

Imagining Singapore: Pictorial Photography from the 1950s to 1970s
Charmaine Toh


This thesis explores the development of pictorial photography in Singapore and the different roles it has played in broader Singapore society. After World War II, photography practice in Singapore exploded via the numerous camera clubs and salons. Pictorial photography was the dominant expressive form of photography during this period and was deliberately positioned as art through its circulation in exhibitions and catalogues, similar to the display and distribution of painting and sculpture. The same period saw sweeping changes within Singapore as it fought for and gained independence from British rule, and embarked on a comprehensive industralisation programme. Pictorial photography in Singapore was shaped by these developments and took on traits unique to its circumstances. I contend that the specificities of the Singapore experience led to a distinct variant of pictorial photography that I term “Singapore Pictorialism”.

Pictorial photography offers a useful platform to examine representation and ideology, especially given photography’s close relationship with realism. Pictorial photography, with its own ideas of reality and aesthetics, provides access to questions of politics and imagination. This study looks at the politics involved in the production and consumption of Singapore Pictorialism, from the ideologies of Singapore’s colonial period to those of the post-colonial shift to independence. It places pictorial photography within this social history to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the visual representation of Singapore. By examining the activities of the
photographers and the photography clubs, this thesis uncovers a vibrant photographic scene, which not only had a prominent place in Singapore’s art history, but shaped the way modern Singapore was imagined and represented. Of particular importance to the research are Singapore’s nation-building activities during this period and the role the state played in driving developments within photographic circles, leaving a formidable impact on photographers’ imagination of their country. Photography during this period took on multiple roles, acting as a symbol of democracy and modernity, staging national identity and providing a mechanism for Singaporeans to engage with ideas of the past, present and future.


Charmaine Toh

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Melbourne, Asia Institute






Art and Culture