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3 May 2019 / by Ellen Oredsson

Wong Wo Bik’s Daring and Beautiful Polaroids

A Polaroid photo of a young woman wearing fashionable sunglasses posing for the camera with her arms crossed. The Polaroid shows signs of age.

Wong Wo Bik. Self Portrait 1, Hong Kong, 1981–1983. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

Hong Kong photographer Wong Wo Bik (b. 1949) is best known for her images of architectural landmarks documenting Hong Kong’s transition from a colonial to a post-colonial city. In contrast, her instant print photography reveals lesser-known aspects of her experimental, daring, female-centred, autobiographical, and at times surreal work. The M+ Collections contain examples of her architectural photography and a large selection of these Polaroid works, including experimental snapshots from her student years, and her more mature Polaroid works from the 1980s.

Wong began her photography career in the late 1970s. Drawn to buildings facing imminent demolition, Wong’s photographs of historical architecture and other sites contain the remnants of the lives of past occupants. Her work, along with works by Holly Lee, Lee Ka-sing, and fellow photographers, paved the way for experimental image-making in Hong Kong.

Polaroid photograph of a person’s bare feet sticking out from under a long red dress with small leaf patterns on it. One of the feet dig into a sheet of fabric lying on the floor.

Wong Wo Bik. Hung Hom Studio, Hong Kong, Self-portrait #1, 1982. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

In the early 1980s, after returning to Hong Kong from her studies in the United States, Wong began experimenting with Polaroid photography. An instant phenomenon that made photography more accessible, Polaroid photography was recognised by many artists for its creative potential. This was an association that Polaroid encouraged by supplying artists with cameras and film. Wong was the only artist commissioned by Polaroid in Hong Kong to publish her work in book form. In Color & Consent, Wong chose fifty of her Polaroids for publication.

Wong’s subjects in this series include herself, studio interiors, vintage fabrics, and objects from daily life. These are often juxtaposed in unexpected and sometimes surreal compositions. Because of the intimate and spontaneous nature of Polaroids, you are invited to view the images more closely and question the scenes and objects captured.

Polaroid photograph of a woman wearing a turquoise turtleneck cardigan with a 3D flower pattern stitched across the chest. Only the lower half of her face is visible.

Wong Wo Bik. Self portrait 2, Manila, 1981—1982. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

Polaroid photograph of a black net bag laid out on a surface of white fabric. Three leaves made out of translucent fabric are spread out on and around the bag. Two of the leaves have a butterfly embroidered on them, and one of the leaves has a cricket embroidered on it. A row of Polaroid photos to the right of the bag shows how these items could be combined in different ways.

Wong Wo Bik. Hung Hom Studio, Hong Kong, 1981. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

Polaroid photograph of a girl face down, leaning her head on the thigh of a person dressed in a short white skirt and grey sweater.

Wong Wo Bik. Two sisters, Hong Kong, 1981. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

Polaroid photograph of a bundle of red chopsticks tied together with string, lying on top of a surface covered in red fabric with images of large pink flowers.

Wong Wo Bik. Hung Hom Studio, Hong Kong #1, 1982. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

Polaroid photograph of a girl wearing white in a dark space with her back to the camera.

Wong Wo Bik. Polaroid Spectra 5, 1986. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

Polaroid photograph of an empty theme park ride in which people sitting in seats ride in circles around a large central rotation mechanism.

Wong Wo Bik. Untitled 5, Hong Kong, 1981—1983. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

Polaroid photograph showing a view looking down on several floors of circular staircases that wind around a central pillar.

Wong Wo Bik. Steps leading down from Pao Sui Loong Galleries, Arts Centre, Hong Kong, 1982. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

A Polaroid photo of a big potted plant standing on the pavement next to a road. It stands behind a narrow white pillar, sticking out on each side of the pillar in a symmetrical fashion.

Wong Wo Bik. Polaroid Promotion 3, 1986. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

A blurry polaroid photo of an old fireplace with a mirror built into the mantle.

Wong Wo Bik. Polaroid Spectra 2 (Josh Hon's studio), 1986. Dye diffusion transfer print. M+, Hong Kong. © Wong Wo Bik

As a student, Wong worked closely with performance artists. Her interest in storytelling through movement is reflected in the composition of her Polaroids that defy a coherent narrative, like a ‘story half-told’.[1] This contributes to the sometimes jarring visual qualities of these powerful works. Wong also often included herself in her Polaroids, creating a tension between her role as the subject, and her identity as the photographer.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Ellen Oredsson is Editor, Web Content at M+.

  1. 1.

    Eve Tam, Hong Kong/China Photographers Four: Wong Wo Bik (Hong Kong: Asia One Product and Publishing Limitied: 2009)

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