Looking Through His Lens Clearly: The Photography of Wig Tysmans

Despite of the emergence of digital camera, photography in the Philippines still develops into a very blurred picture and has yet to evolve from its commercial roots into an art form it was meant to be more than a hundred years ago. The lack of exhibitions dedicated to it and even the absence of a National Artist given to photography is proof enough despite the many who have blazed the trail by reinventing the art form, some even brought honor to the country by exhibiting abroad. Photography is still relegated as just “one of those subjects” under visual arts.
Herwig “Wig” Tysmans has been at the forefront in this struggle in turning the lens and clearing Philippine photography’s focus having been one of the country’s top portraitists and commercial photographers in the last 40 years or so.
Unlike other master lensmen, Wig had artistry in his Belgian and Ilocano roots. His grandfather is a known painter in Belgium. He had a writer for a father and a mother who was engaged in a shell handicraft business in Zamboanga City which exported its products to some parts of the world. The Tysmans eventually moved to Manila in 1961 when they closed the business.
The young Tysmans would discover his love affair with the camera at 15 years of age in 1971 during his final year in high school in Dumaguete while being involved with the school yearbook project. With a borrowed Olympus PenF camera, he was among those who took photos of his batch mates to be featured in the said annual publication.
On that same year, a field trip to Baguio will eventually make him comeback and stay longer. The cool climate, rich culture and warm hospitality of its people made him fell in love with this city of pines. He convinced his parents to allow him to enroll there after his high school graduation. With the influx of foreign tourists Baguio was a visual feast and fertile ground for his creativity, thus, plant his artistic roots of this city planned by the Americans. Unable to find a fine arts degree in any of the educational institutions there, Wig enrolled in the closest course possible, architecture at St. Louis University.
It was in this period that his love for photography brought back and fully bloomed. Together with four other Engineering and Commerce friends who became his friends, they formed a sort of photography cooperative in the campus. For a cost P25, they would photograph people and blow it up 20 x 24 inches size.
“We were into business because we wanted to buy our own equipments,” Wig reminisces, “we made more than a hundred blow-ups, we made good money.” A Nikon F with a 50 mm lens was his first gift to himself from his initial earnings. In time his friends became more interested in their courses while Wig took frequent and longer trips to the darkroom. Word of their good work spread fast and St. Louis became too small for their immense passion. In fact local newspapers relied on whatever he and his photographer friends would give them to end up in their pages. Converting his extra bathroom into a bigger dark room, Wig went full time after college.
Wig had a well-rounded background in laying the groundwork of his artistry. Among his early jobs also included documentary work doing publications in the countryside, some magazine assignments, and a stringer for Associated Press for three months World Chess Championships between Korchnoi and Karpov in Baguio.
Out on his own in 1976, Wig started doing portraits of old people who migrated to Baguio before World War II. Since he had access to them, he was able to convince them for a photograph them among them were Robert Fox, Mr. and Mrs. Chan of the Old Pagoda, and the Ifugao Lam-ang who wore G-string to Congress. From 1977 to the early 1980s, he was building up a series of portraits for his future one man show.
Santi Bose
Writer Eric Caruncho in an article, “Wig 
became part of an emerging art scene that included fellow photographers Tommy Hafalla and Mannix Santos, filmmakers Boy Yñiguez and Kidlat Tahimik, and painters BenCab, Santi Bose and Roberto Villanueva. His early influences were painters: modernists such as Roberto Chabet and Lee Aguinaldo whose works exhibited a zen-like simplicity and straightforwardness that Tysmans sought to emulate in his photographs.”
Wig reflects: “Malaki ang influence ng Baguio. Iba angculture sa Baguio kasi yung mga artists magkakalapit studios or nasa cafes. Unique in a sense is that we were all respected artists in group but we were opinionated. You could hang out and discuss ideas which hindi mo magagawa sa Manila. The environment itself was conducive to the arts as it was rich in indigenous culture, the Cordilleras. Plus there was a constant influx of tourists, thus, we would get a taste of Europe and America and have access to their photography. We could also go to Camp John Hay Library and see photos.”
In 1981, in a chance meeting with Gilda Cordero-Fernando he was able to be introduced to Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala. Through Don Jaime’s help, Wig was finally able to organize a group show for the Baguio Photographers Group at the Ayala Museum. He eventually showed his portraits for his first one-man show also at the Ayala Museum later in 1984. This same show would later tour in other consulates and the Philippine embassy in the US such as San Francisco, Chicago and Washington showing the same images, his manager and curator was now National Artists Arturo Luz.
By this time, there was no stopping the boundless energy of Wig. His next show was bigger and better with 90 portraits of writers and artists, some even in the nude at Goethe Institute in Quezon City. With the overwhelming acceptance, commercial work easily came in.
“Fashion photography was the closest thing to portraiture which I really like. It was the only direction for me – merging of my angst as an artist and limelight of the fashion scene. Press photographers lang gumagawa ng fashion photography nun. Sila lang yung may access sa newspapers, Sunday magazine and Lifestyle sections. Through my fashion work I ended up doing major portraiture. Subsequently since show biz is related to fashion, that followed too. Book photography came in as well.” Wig adds.
                                                                      One Light Source
“The hallmarks of a Tysmans photograph are his minute attention to detail and a flawless technical sheen. Through his mastery of the subtleties of lighting, the photographer manipulates light and shadow to throw one or more particular features in bold relief while keeping others intriguingly swathed in various shades of light and dark. Through his mastery of darkroom technique, these qualities are brought out and enhanced in the final, museum-quality print,” wrote Caruncho.
Early on Wig admits his influences were all foreigners such as the portraits of Richard Avedon and Eugene Smith who was a war correspondent. He clarifies though that he does finer versions in his attempt to be different.
Wig stresses: “For example Irving Penn, when I shot Sinaunang Habi book he was my influence, I even brought my back drop with me while shooting ethno-linguistic communities as how Penn did when he was shooting the Indian tribes in Peru and in the Andes, pero syempre iba yungapproach.”
Equally lauded as his portraits are his nudes. “I like it because it is the most basic, wala kang dadamitan. Walang mag-didictate but I will have to catch the character of the person. I have a way of making him relax with me and capture his soul. That’s why I favor artists as subjects because they are willing as they trust me,” emphasizes Wig who is known for his signature borders which came from his Hasselblad bracketing and his having a one light source.
Of late he has done collaborative work for people in other disciplines. For example with Antonio Garcia, florist, “Ako nagpapalabas ng form, Ilalagay niya yung elements like flowers and chili. Sometimes the drive is not for an exhibition but more of an exercise. Depending on the magnitude, the body of works could in the long run be for a show.” Nearing the landmark age of 60, he is planning to do another show of portraits but this time with more of people of our time and many of them new personalities.
Sili King
Wide Opening
Susan Sontag writes in her famous essay On Photography: “Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all objects that make up and thicken the environment we recognize as “modern. Photographs really are captured and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—therefore, like power.”  
For Wig a good photograph should tickle your imagination when one views it. One gives you wonder, doubt and amazement at how the image was done not that we want to analyze it, for sometimes the photo speaks for itself. He adds “the really nice photographs are the ones that you retain after a week, a month, a year you still remember them. These are the types of photographs that become iconic.”
Wig’s aesthetic sense leans towards the stark and macabre. “If the image is dark, I sometimes wonder why he did it because it is that was the situation or is it because he wanted to portray something to establish a mood? As a photographer you will have to know the intention.”
“When digital photography came out ten years ago hindi ko feel,” Wig further explains, “Some of my friends, kahit 3 mega pix bumili sila. It cost a lot of money. At a time kaya naman ng film then drumscan in Hong Kong. Purist ako just for a little more, this will I get. Bangko Sentral’s Ginto book was my first venture into digital. Somehow I was convinced I could shoot something reflective like the BSP gold collection.”

Recently a clothing line featured Wig’s infrared photographs he did of popular spots Baguio Cathedral, Camp John Hay and Session Road in Baguio in the late 70s to early 80s. It was only Wig who had access to infrared film then which makes these photos more significant. Since infrared gives one an ethereal somewhat fleeting feel, quite apt since much of these scenes have changed or even gone forever. Baguio will always be beautiful for Wig: This is where I was energized and discovered my talent for photography, a medium for me to express myself.”