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“Bangkok That Was”, by Fabrizio La Torre of a late 1950s Thailand

Rarely has a photo exhibition left such a lasting impression as “Bangkok That Was” at Serindia Gallery. Showcasing a series of historic images taken by Italian photographer Fabrizio La Torre of a late 1950s Thailand, the exhibition offers a fascinating and largely unseen record of daily lives during a bygone era. Equally fascinating is the backstory behind the exhibition.

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Coffee table book published on the occasion of a double exhibition of the artist at The National Museum Bangkok and Serindia Gallery. All images © Fabrizio La Torre

In an exclusive interview with ADF, Shane Suvikapakornkul from Serendia Publications and Serindia Gallery presented a copy of the exhibition’s accompanying coffee table book “Bangkok That Was, Photographs 1956-1961”. Published on the occasion of a double exhibition of Fabrizio La Torre at The National Museum Bangkok and Serindia Gallery, this is the first book dedicated to the Asian photographs of the artist. The 148-page volume contains a wealth of captivating black-and-white photographs, whilst promising a unique insight into Fabrizio’s life at the time, as recorded by Fabrizio’s nephew François Bayle, curator and executor of his will.

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Opening ceremony of “Bangkok That Was”, with from left to right Shane Suvikapakornkul, publisher and director of Serindia Gallery; François Bayle, nephew and executor of Fabrizio La Torre; and Mr. Lorenzo Galanti, Ambassador of Italy to Thailand.

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Two young people on the side of the Chao Phraya River who seem to be sharing secrets.

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Street scene of a 1950s Bangkok


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Adolescents happily chatting with an elderly man

The photographs could possibly have been forgotten without Fabrizio’s nephew stumbling across them by accident. In the book, François reveals how on a dreary, cloudy day some 10 years ago he was visiting his elderly uncle, Fabrizio La Torre, by then in his 80s and living in the pretty seaside village of Bordighera on the Italian Riviera. Remembering stories from his relatives about his uncle’s exploits as a photo hobbyist in his younger years whilst working overseas, he inquired what ever had become of the photos. From the bottom of cupboards and from the depths of the cellar, a mass of hidden-away boxes, packages and files soon emerged, quickly amounting to a cubic meter of material.

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This photo was chosen by his Prince Albert II of Monaco for inclusion in the Grimaldi Photographic Collection, showcasing the talent of this artist following the prince’s visit to the La Torre Retrospective in Monaco.

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Starting in the 1920s, the local cinema industry in Thailand began making original productions, the first country in Asia to do so.

The discovery of this veritable treasure trove of photos was the starting point of an extraordinary adventure; one that began with the process of restoration and digitizing the photos under the watchful eye of the artist himself and continuing with the organization of exhibitions at galleries and museums in France, Belgium and Italy, and ultimately Thailand. In Bangkok, photos from Fabrizio’s stint in the Land of Smiles from 1956 to 1961 were showcased. This was a time when he was working in the newly established Italthai Industrial, now one of Thailand’s leading conglomerates.

“Fabrizio was there [Thailand] at an interesting time in history,” Shane reports. He met and socialized with luminaries like Jim Thompson, the former American intelligence officer turned textile tycoon credited with reviving the Thai silk industry in the mid-20th century, and the most famous American living in Asia at the time. To this day, Jim Thompson remains a renowned Thai silk brand. He also befriended Corrado Feroci (who later changed his name to Silpa Bhirasri after he became a Thai national), the father of Thai contemporary art and founder of Silpakorn University. With Silpa Bhirasri, Fabrizio collaborated in photographing ancient lacquered cabinets.

Shane shares how some of Fabrizio’s photographs of these lacquered wooden cabinets inadvertently became the inspiration for Hermès famous ‘chinoiserie’ scarves. As they depicted the everyday, simple life of ordinary people going about their business. Fabrizio painstakingly captured these intricate and intimate details on the side of cabinets, which was quite an achievement given the limitations of photography at the time. He showed these compositions to his mother, also an artist, who painted the scenes and sent them to Maison Hermès where the motifs were subsequently used on scarves and blouses.

“Hermès called it ‘chinoiserie’ but it is all Thai,” Shane reveals with glee.

In the artist’s own words,

Everyday life is what has always interested me the most. If you observe everyday life, you will see how universal human nature is. Despite what racists and extremists may think, we really are all the same, we all aspire to a better life for ourselves and those close to us, we try to keep illness, old age and death at bay, we gaze at the sky and try to understand the meaning of life.

“Bangkok That Was, Photographs 1956-1961” is currently on exhibit at Serindia Gallery (until January 20) and at The National Museum Bangkok (from January 4 onwards). The coffee table book is available on Amazon.

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Photos taken in Japan during the early 1960s when Fabrizio was working for JAL in Italy, allowing him to take regular trips to the Far East.

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