Picture perfect

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Dong song uon khuc (Winding river), one of the pictures taken by Dan in his latest photo book Non song nuoc Viet.

For more than 60 years, Nguyen Manh Dan has focused on getting his angle just right and waited patiently for the right time to press the shutter

One day in the early 1980s, Do Huan got a call from the Hanoi police department.

They had arrested a man they suspected of being a spy for some subversive organization and he had mentioned Huan's name.

Huan hurried to the police station and found his close friend and fellow photographer Nguyen Manh Dan there. A policeman explained that Dan had been behaving suspiciously for the last several days.

He was seen early in the morning at different spots near the Hoan Kiem Lake doing nothing but taking photographs.

Huan explained to the police that Dan was just a photographer doing his work, but it took some convincing before they let him go on his friend's guarantee.

"I just wanted to take the best photos of the lake at dawn," Dan explained.

The anecdote was one of several related by Do Quoc Anh, son of Do Huan, at the launch of Dan's latest photobook, Non song nuoc Viet (Land and People of Vietnam), on March 4.

The man himself, born in 1925 in Vu Ban District of the northern province of Nam Dinh, said he was happy looking back at the different periods in his life.

"The most important thing is that I've achieved my target. Reflecting Vietnam's scenery and people through the lens and introducing them to foreigners and letting the world know more about our nation."

Dan had to use to a walking stick after he'd suffered a stroke late last year, but the ailing 87-year-old was in high spirits at the launch in Ho Chi Minh City.


Nguyen Manh Dan on a working trip to take photos of 1995 total eclipse in Mui Ne, Phan Thiet Town.

Born in 1925 in Sa Trung, Vu Ban District, Nam Dinh Province.

A pioneer in artistic photography in Vietnam.

Member of VAPA (Vietnam Association of Photographic Artists), HOPA (Ho Chi Minh City Photographic Association), VNPS (The Vietnamese Photographic Society), RPS (The Royal Photographic Society), and PSA (The Photographic Society of America).

Published photo books:
* Viet Nam khoi lua (Vietnam in flames) in 1969
* Hinh anh kinh te Viet Nam (Vietnam Economy in Pictures) in 1974
* Que huong Viet Nam (My homeland Vietnam) in 1996
* Hinh anh Viet Nam (Scenic beauty of Vietnam) in 2003
* Non song nuoc Viet (Land and People of Vietnam) in 2011

Non song nuoc Viet (Land and People of Vietnam) features more than 200 photographs taken by Dan, together with his sons and grandchildren.

It is Dan's fifth photo book, and he said it might be the last, that it might be time he hung up the photographer's boots he has been wearing since 1950.

Dan said he began to learn photography when he was 18 and two years later, he worked as a photo reporter for many foreign newspapers, including the Paris Match, covering politics and social issues in Vietnam during the 1940s.

Later, he turned to be a freelancer, taking artistic pictures.

The turning point, Dan recalled, was the challenge and skepticism of a few photographers then who doubted that a photo reporter like him would be able to take good artistic photos.

He has proved them wrong emphatically. Many of his landscapes and people's portraits have been described by other professional photographers as "masterpieces."

Dan was one of some 20 photographers, including Trinh Van Bach, Nguyen Cao Dam,

Do Huan, Bang Ba Lan, Vo An Ninh and Nguyen Van Chiem, who joined Vietnam's first artistic photo exhibition held in Hanoi in 1952.

The exhibition, organized by the Vietnam Photography Association chaired by Pham Van Mui and his deputy, Do Huan, displayed more than 100 photographs and marked an important milestone in the development of photography in Vietnam.

Nguyen Cao Dam, a famous contemporary, said, "Nguyen Manh Dan is the king of pictorial photographs."

Undying zeal

In July 1954, Dan moved south to Saigon with his family and lived in a house on Phan Thanh Gian Street, now Dien Bien Phu Street in District 10.

He continued to participate in many photo exhibitions and contests at home and abroad. Between 1959 and 1963, he won more than 70 medals and prizes in international photo contests.

"I have a passion for artistic photography and I've traveled to different regions of the country to capture the beauty of the Nature and people," Dan told Vietweek.

"I would go to Da Lat, some 300 kilometers from Saigon, in my car or my Vespa at night and reach the city early in the morning, just to take some pictures of the misty town, then return to Saigon right away."

The trick to taking a good photograph, he said, is to select a good angle and be patient and wait until the right time to get the best picture.

This point is well made by another anecdote narrated by Quoc Anh, a son of photographer Do Huan.

"Once I attended the Huong Pagoda Festival with uncle Dan and many others. I saw him climbing and lying on the branch of a tree on a mountain. He stayed there for several hours but did not take any photos.

"I was a young man, but I felt very tired after a few hours of waiting so I told him let's go but he said he would stay there."

"But you are just lying there and taking no photos. Why?" Anh asked.

"I have to wait until I can take a photo of pilgrims but no one is wearing a mũ cối [soldier's hard hat]," Dan explained.

Dan wanted to take a picture featuring an image of people making a pilgrimage to Huong Pagoda in the past, said Anh, now chief of the Office of the Ministry of Education and Training in Ho Chi Minh City.

Divine intervention

Dan had even more interesting anecdotes about himself. He said there were several times he faced troubles "not caused by human beings but by deities.

"Once I went to take photos of Ngu Hanh Son (the Marble Mountains) in Da Nang City. But my camera would not work, although it was in good condition when I set out. And when I left the mountains, it began working normally.

"I'm not superstitious so I don't believe in any supernatural powers. But the situation repeated itself many times, so I thought perhaps I had to ask for the mountain gods' permission to take photos there.

"So I said aloud, "˜Can you let me to take pictures of the mountains? My purpose is just to introduce their beauty to other people.'"

"Surprisingly, after I said this, I could turn on the camera and it has worked fine since," he told Vietweek in an interview at his house, which as a studio on the ground floor named after him Manh Dan.

Three generations

In the living room on the first floor there are many large-sized photos of landscapes taken by Dan hung on the walls and a large picture of the artist's big family with more than 30 people.

"The picture was taken in front of the Tan Dinh Church in HCMC's District 1 at the wedding of my first grandson," Dan said.

The artist has three daughters and six sons, four of whom (Manh Son, Manh Sinh, Manh Quynh and Manh Ngoc) are well known photographers.

"A thing is that the children whose middle name is "˜Manh' have all succeeded their father while the two others Huy Quang and Trung Vinh, who live in Germany and the US, did not succeed in photography," said Thu Thuy, Manh Sinh's wife.

Dan's grandsons have also taken after their grandfather. Manh Lam, Manh Phuc (Son's children) and Manh Nguyen (Sinh's son) have also contributed to Dan's latest photo book.

The proud father and grandfather is satisfied that his sons and grandsons will continue to devote themselves to photography as he did.

Dan has so far trained only two students, Nguyen Ngoc Hanh (before 1975) who now lives in the US, and Dao Hoa Nu, the founder of Hai Au, a Ho Chi Minh City-based club of female photographers.

In 1997, he was awarded the national For the Cause of Literature and Arts medal for his contributions to photography in Vietnam.

Asked if there was any disappointment that he has experienced in his life as a photographer, Dan smiled and said, "Nothing."

"I've traveled to many places, had chances to enjoy beautiful landscapes and capture the life of people across the country. It's great happiness."

Asked if it was easier to take good photographs now, with the development of technology and state-of-the-art cameras, Dan replied in the negative. Modern devices are not the most important part of taking a good picture.

"Khong phai deo kinh moi doc duoc sach," (It is not that you can only read a book with glasses) he said.

"The thing is you have to work with devotion, bringing all your strength, your mind and your heart into creating an artistic work."

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