Portrait Stories


Lee To Sang (1938) was born in China. At 25, he and his wife Ho Yuk-Mui moved from Hong Kong to Paramaribo, Surinam, where he opened a photo studio. After Surinam’s independence, they moved to Amsterdam, where they opened To Sang Photo Studio on 57, Albert Cuypstraat.

In 1992, Willem van Zoetendaal discovered the studio as he took a stroll down the former working class district De Pijp. He was drawn to the multicoloured window, as To Sang used vivid background colours and landscape wallpapers with Swiss alpine meadows and Brazilian waterfalls.

To Sang’s portraits were a multicultural reflection of the population and passers-by of De Pijp. He retouched pimples or excess beard growth with a brush, and had his colour photographs printed at department store HEMA around the corner on Ferdinand Bolstraat. He charged ƒ 17.50 (± € 8) for a standard size photo.

As a photography teacher at Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Van Zoetendaal sent first year students with a donated sum of ƒ 17.50 to To Sang Photo Studio to have them portrayed. The assignment was: do not have yourself photographed the way you are at school, but as someone else. This resulted in a marriage portrait with a total stranger, someone in an invalid chair who wasn’t disabled, or a student dressed as a McDonald’s staff member.

In 1995, Van Zoetendaal and Frido Troost published the book To Sang Fotostudio (Basalt Publishing). Van Zoetendaal convinced the then mayor Schelto Patijn to have his portrait taken by To Sang out of solidarity with the ordinary Amsterdammer. Fotostudio To Sang became a cult; the work was included in exhibitions in Foam and in photo festivals. In 2004, the portraits were part of Street & Studio, An Urban History of Photography at TATE Modern in London. The photos were shown next to the work of famous artists like Gillian Wearing and Edward Steichen.

Lee To Sang retired in 2002. He still goes out each year for a Chinese meal with Van Zoetendaal. They still call each other Mr. Sang and Mr. Willem.

This photo was part of our exhibition Ode to an Amsterdammer, in the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam.

@Lee To Sang, To Sang Fotostudio. Coll. Van Zoetendaal