Georges Portal’s photographs give a rare and privileged glimpse of life in Cambodia nearly a century ago
When Pierre-Jean Rey was handed a box of photographic plates left to him by his ‘great uncle’, Georges Portal (in reality, his father’s best friend), he thought nothing of them. That was until four years ago.
On a visit to the Kingdom, the Frenchman spoke about the intriguing collection with staff working for the country’s two Sofitel hotels. Rey promised to bring back some examples of Portal’s work.
Keeping his vow, Rey returned with a selection of prints in hand, showing historic and beautifully composed scenes. They revealed the little-seen world of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in the 1920s, at the height of French colonial rule, from temples and public buildings to daily life in markets and on the streets. Motorised vehicles are few and far between and clothing styles are very much last-century, but there is a thread of familiarity that runs right up to the present day.
Portal (1887-1958) was first and foremost a respected theatre actor and director who travelled the world with performers from a French troupe. Professional Asian tours and private expeditions to the East allowed him to indulge in his other passion: photography.
By the time he reached Cambodia in the 1920s, Phnom Penh, then known as the Pearl of Asia, was a major city and trading centre of French Indochina. Between performances, Portal was able to traverse the capital’s streets and through the majestic forests that surround Angkor Wat, putting the best of what he saw in the frame.
Now visitors to Cambodia’s capital have the opportunity to view a collection of the best of Portal’s fascinating photography, which are on show in the lobby of the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra hotel.