Rising from abject poverty to become a leading purveyor in the effort to perfectly capture the female form, Dinh, some might suggest is living the dream. But that would be to place a western sensibility on it. The man himself is so much more, just as his photography is so much more.
As with his nudes, all his photography is infused with the same contemporary orientalism as is the product of the great painters of the east and south-east Asian region. Look at his image of a tiger slinking through the night, or his goldfish, or indeed, perhaps this scribe’s favourite, some peasants of Myanmar hard at their labour and I would suggest this is easily surmised. There are his clothed female beauties to consider as well. I would think any reasonable lover of the art of photography would agree that the rave reviews he has received are justified. That being said, his nudes are stunning and have rightly been praised the world over, but investigating, I found the man himself to be mercurial. Not for the first time he is leaving a successful career behind to embark on a new direction. Initially the odds were certainly against him getting anywhere in life – I think his story is remarkable.
Duong Quoc Dinh was raised in the poorest of circumstances in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He walked five kilometres to school and back each day. It was there, thanks to one perceptive teacher spotting his talent for drawing, that he began to dream. His gift was nurtured and worked at until it was enough for him to be taken in by a local college for the decorative arts after he became dux of his school in his final year. But, sadly, he was too poor to further hone his artistic pursuits and was forced to try and earn a living from what he had garnered to that date. He took any job he could find in his field to earn enough to keep the wolf from the door – costume design, magazine ads, company logos. It became even more crucial when he fell in love with a gorgeous woman. He married Quach Thi Mong Ha and soon found himself himself with a young family to support.
In the year the world entered a new millennium Dinh happened to be wandering in a park when he espied a professional photographer at work, taking snaps of families enjoying themselves in the sunshine. He would then encourage his subjects to buy the resulting images. It was his light-bulb moment. A sister working in Germany bought Dinh a camera adequate enough to get him started and because of his artistic training, he was soon gaining a reputation for freshness and originality. His family portraits far more resembled the popular and sophisticated painting style in vogue at the time, rather than the staid traditional groupings that were usually churned out by his competitors. The new camerasmith was soon pocketing good money and he stuck at it until his business was the most popular in his province. He worked incredibly long hours filling orders, often sleeping in the studio he was eventually able to purchase. He now knew he had made it and could have continued down that successful route till the end of his working life – but he felt unfulfilled. As he saw it, he was letting down those who had encouraged him to become an artist in his training days. He wanted more than just monetary comfort – he still had his dream. So, just when he’s at the top of his game, he changes course into uncharted territory. He wanted to be true to himself rather than a mere snapper of happy people.
His wife demurred, thought he was mad abandoning a more than steady income. What was to become of herself and the kids? His retort went something akin to this – ‘If I don’t make it in three years, dear, feel free to leave me.’
Even more radical was his decision to make the canvas for his leap into the unknown the nude female body. He’d been exploring the internet you see – just for inspiration. He observed what contemporary Vietnamese painters were doing with the womanly form and figured he could do something similar wielding a camera, particularly if his artistic training could be further evoked. He thought he had a formula – would it work? Would it what!
His first model was none other than his wife – despite her doubts, she had faith in him and was prepared to do what was required for him to succeed. Her beauty lit up his first attempts to put his ideas into practice. The results were an instant hit. The money that started to come in as a result almost caused his wife to swoon with joy. She therefore resolved to remain by his side throughout the journey this would take them on – and she has been a great aid in assisting him to gather other models to pose. To the shock of his friends, he has also festooned the living areas of their home with his images of her. ‘Why not?’ is his response. ‘Surely you can see how beautiful she is. Why should she hide it?’ Quite something in a conservative communist country.
But soon lovers of the art form world wide were festooning their own wall spaces with the beauteous images he produced of her and the other young women prepared trust him. None of them had any experience and his rota always numbered just nine. As it was their beauty that was essential to the demand for the work he bought them in on the business side as well, ensuring that they would never want for anything if he could help it. Of course, to ensure their comfort in posing, he was scrupulous in his treatment of them, his wife always present at such times. By now he was becoming stricter in his Buddhist beliefs and this has helped in a country where the boundary between life modelling and pornography is still somewhat clouded. Even the slightest whiff of impropriety would ruin him. In following his heart, his talent has attracted much acclaim and relative wealth – and now he is walking away from that as well to return to his first passion – the pencil and the brush.
His remaining original photographs he plans to sell and distribute the earnings amongst his models. He intends to promote their role in his success as much as possible, wanting them to be remembered as much as himself for the achievements he’s had. He yearns to teach his skills to a younger generation of Vietnamese photographers so, in the past three years he has mentored over three hundred needy students without payment. He was also struggling once upon a time. But painting, he points out, will be his main focus in the foreseeable future. ‘Art is endless. Once you’ve reached your goal, you’ll find nothing waiting for you but the abyss.’ To avoid that abyss, Vinh changes course. As he approaches his half century it remains to be seen if he’ll find fame for a third time.
Meanwhile, with the usual warning, we are all able to enjoy his work, if not in those galleries world wide, at least on-line. And if you can drag your eyes away from those alluring women he captures, explore around for there is much, much more in his oeuvre to please the eye. And I think his own personal story has been one worth telling.
Dunh’s Deviant Art Gallery = http://duongquocdinh.deviantart.com/gallery/