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Exhibition of 1920s photos provides portal to the past

The bank of the Mekong
The bank of the Mekong River in 1929, one of many images from French actor Georges Portal's travels to Cambodia on display from Tuesday. GEORGES PORTAL

Exhibition of 1920s photos provides portal to the past

The photographs of the mysterious travelling actor Georges Portal are being exhibited for the first time thanks to an old family friend

Until four years ago, Pierre-Jean Rey had never thought of the collection of photos left to him by his “great uncle” (really his father’s best friend) Georges Portal as anything more than a remarkable family heirloom. Then, on a work trip to Cambodia, he happened to mention the 400-strong library of glass plate “positives” depicting Asia in 1929 to staff at the Hotel Sofitel Angkor.

“The manager was very interested when I told him there were some photos of Angkor, so the next time I came back, I made some prints to bring with me,” recalls Rey, himself a photographer.

When it was discovered that the collection also contained a rich selection of images of Phnom Penh, it was decided that an exhibition should be mounted at the hotel’s branch in the capital.

“Wonders of 1929”, which opens on Tuesday, March 31 and will be on view for four months, consists of 84 of the best images from Portal’s travels in Cambodia 85 years ago.

To the casual observer, the archive is a fascinating gateway to a different time, but Rey hopes it will prove even more interesting for professional archivists. “Historians don’t even know about this collection yet. It’s a first discovery,” he says.

Many of the landmarks captured in the lively and stunningly detailed selection will be familiar to viewers today: the bell curve of Wat Phnom, the original Naga Bridge with its fanned, serpentine parapet and – of course – the timeless silhouette of Angkor Wat.

But Portal was also a photographer with a talent for narrative, and the most thought-provoking photos in the exhibition are those that document local life and the power dynamics of colonial rule: in one image, a barefoot local hauls a passenger along the road in a foot-powered rickshaw. 

“He never took photos just of the French, he was not interested in them,” explains Rey. “He had a great appreciation of the character of the Cambodian people.”

Although the focus on local life is welcome, the lack of “holiday snaps” in the collection leaves the details of Portal’s trip in the shadows. No normal tourist, Rey’s “great uncle” was in Cambodia as part of an adventurous troupe of French actors on a tour of Asia.

Pierre-Jean Rey
Pierre-Jean Rey with Portal’s original Verascope and glass plates. KIMBERLEY MCCOSKER

“It took them a month to get here in the boat, with all their costumes and sets packed up in trunks,” says Rey, for whom bedtime stories about the trip to the Orient are still vivid memories 50 years on.

“Everywhere they went, they found a theatre and put on their shows, mainly contemporary French plays. There were some actors with them from the Comédie-Française, which was very prestigious.”

Wherever Portal went, he took his Jules Richard Verascope with him. The camera, which Rey has brought with him for the opening, looks like a rectangular pair of binoculars: the two viewfinders capture slightly different angles of an image simultaneously, and the best one is chosen for print. A popular trick in the 1920s was to overlay the two images with a special viewer called a Taxiphote to create a 3D effect.

Rey says the camera still works perfectly, but it is difficult to find places to process the images or buy new glass plates.  

After his trip to Cambodia, Portal went on to live the unusual life of “a slightly magical being”, as Rey remembers him.

For a while he ran Radio Alger – the North African subsidiary of Radio France – and spent part of World War II in prison having sent a letter to Marshal Pétain denouncing his “selling France to the Germans”.

Throughout his life, he used his successful acting career to finance his photography. “I would not call him an amateur. It was his second passion,” says Rey with pride.

“He was one of those very rare people who come along once in a while.”

‘Wonders of 1929’ is on display at Hotel Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, #26 Old August site, Sothearos Boulevard, from March 31.

Portal’s street photography captures local detail in remarkable depth
Portal’s street photography captures local detail in remarkable depth. GEORGES PORTAL
A visit to Angkor before mass tourism descended was an enviable luxury of the ’20s
A visit to Angkor before mass tourism descended was an enviable luxury of the ’20s. GEORGES PORTAL
The Faces of Bayon
The Faces of Bayon. GEORGES PORTAL
The Naga Bridge
The Naga Bridge. GEORGES PORTAL

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