“This show is to complete what I’ve started—and it’s been a long time coming”.
The photographer Pham Tuan Ngoc, who runs Noirfoto Gallery and darkroom in Thao Dien, has led many lives. From an initial stint as an auditor in Hanoi to a graduate student in the north of Sweden to a sushi delivery driver in Paris, there has remained one constant: a passion for analog photography. Today, at the gallery and darkroom he developed from the ground up, Ngoc’s own dedication to the art of printing is manifest. His upcoming solo exhibition at Noirfoto, a retrospective titled ‘9 - Paris in B&W’, makes clear, above all else, a commitment to storytelling through a medium that demands reflection, re-evaluation, and patience.
‘9 - Paris in B&W’ is the culmination of two years spent living and breathing a city that, Ngoc recounts, “immediately drew me in”. Though he initially came to Europe to study e-commerce in Sweden, Ngoc happened to stop in Paris for nine days on the way. That was all it took—soon enough, on any break from school, he found himself returning to Paris. After gaining some practical skills through a photography internship and, as he puts it, “learning about perfectionism” in a strikingly new environment in Sweden, Ngoc moved to Paris in 2009. How, exactly, he would find work was secondary to the desire to fully immerse himself in the city.
At the beginning of his time in Paris, Ngoc began to develop film in the darkroom of a friend’s university. “Before I had a job, even if I had no money or anything, I would sneak in and work all night making black and white prints there”.
Then, a blessing in disguise presented itself: a gig as a sushi delivery driver. Glamorous? Not on the surface. Nevertheless, Ngoc quickly saw more of the city than many Parisians would in a lifetime. With a job description that necessitated navigating hidden alleys, forbidden courtyards, and, sometimes, the insides of peoples’ homes, Ngoc was at once an outside observer and a flâneur. His view of the city was intimate.
“To me this was an amazing job. Why be a waiter? You only see the kitchen and the table. I wanted to see more. Sure, I drove in the freezing rain, but I still loved it”.
And during this time, he never stopped taking photographs. Even in the harshest conditions, the beauty of the city drew him in. One photo featured in the exhibition, a glimmering cobblestone in the nighttime rain, was taken on, “the worst, coldest night. I got stuck under an overpass, waiting for the rain to stop. But I still had to get this one shot”. Ngoc’s own devotion to the craft of black and white photography made the decision to feature Paris a clear one; though he has lived across continents and in numerous cities, he contends that Paris, even without color, retains its identity and takes on new meaning.
Now, nine years later, Ngoc will share his work at Noirfoto, the space where he has also crafted his own darkroom. And much like the years taken to reflect upon his time and photos in Paris, the exhibition’s chosen medium, black and white, is an exercise in deliberation. In an age of digital photo editing aimed at instant gratification, key in Pham Thuan Ngoc’s work is the consideration of moving slowly: to take the time not only to capture a photo and develop the film, but the time to understand what it means in the physical world .
Time is at the forefront of the photographer’s personal philosophy. “To take pictures with film”, he says, “is to combine light and time. By shooting film photography you create something tangible with it, something you can hold in your hand. For me, art is not just the content but also the medium”.
‘9 - Paris in B&W’ runs from March 31st at Noir Gallery.
199bis Nguyễn Văn Hưởng
Thảo Điền, Quận 2, Hồ Chí Minh
*This piece also appears on blisssaigon.com