Where do we go upon death? Into the memories of those we’ve left a mark on.
Photographs are said to be capable of immortalizing moments. A singular snapshot tells the story of a bygone past; its owner transported to a memory once forgotten; a tale they now share with anyone willing to listen. Hold enough photographs and you hold an innumerable amount of stories, maybe even a lifetime’s worth.
Known as the Philippines’ “first celebrity photographer”, Raymund Isaac (1963-2021) was a Communication Arts graduate with a major in Film and Television from De La Salle University. His career began around 1985 when he was an assistant under the Shadow Visual Design Group, Inc. He was known for his work with the American PHOTO Magazine where he was a winner in the publication’s beauty and fashion category for four consecutive years. He was also highly regarded for his work with celebrities and personalities such as Lea Salonga, Sarah Geronimo, Piolo Pascual, and Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo among many others, earning him his nickname.
Unfortunately, he passed away on September 4, 2021, in San Francisco, California due to COVID-19. He is survived by his relatives as well as by his husband Jayson Vicente.
While his career was public and well-documented, he began working during the height of print media and before the popularization of social media. With much of his work in print, access to these has been limited, and any lasting copies risk deterioration and decay. Encouraged by her adoration for her late uncle and his work, Andrea “Andi” Isaac embarked on a journey to archive and preserve his memory. An AB Art Management senior at the Ateneo de Manila University, she prepared ‘THE RAYMUND ISAAC ARCHIVE: A Photo Exhibit & Book Launch’ for her thesis project, which includes documentation of the entire archiving process, as well as the curated images for the collection.
In an exclusive interview, we had a brief conversation with Isaac, going over the archiving process for the project, her memories of her late uncle, and how she wishes he will be remembered through the help of the archive.
The book’s afterword reads:
“Ultimately, a photograph is just an object without an understanding of its particular context and its relationships with the rest of the archives. Every photograph has its own story, one that archivists strive to preserve and keep. And while archiving may at first glance appear to be a solitary practice, the duty of an archivist can only ever be completed in collaboration with others.
What I know now about the Raymund Isaac Archive comes not only from what Isaac himself has left behind but from the memories of those that have known and worked with him over the years.”
Why did you decide to carry out ‘THE RAYMUND ISAAC ARCHIVE: A Photo Exhibit & Book Launch’?
“This is about my uncle and it’s something that I wanted to do in honor of his memory. He was a veteran in the industry and I believe that especially now that he’s gone, there needs to be someone in charge of making sure that his life and his legacy aren’t forgotten.”
“These are things that haven’t been seen in decades, especially the majority of the works that I put in the book, and especially the ones that I exhibited. Those were from the 90s and 2000s, and that’s pre-social media age. The thing about my uncle is that while he was very active on social media, everything was very present. So he didn’t really take the time to post his older works. This exhibit is something that needed to be done.”
How do you remember Raymund Isaac? How would you describe him from a personal standpoint?
“Growing up around him, he was always this big loving personality. I loved talking to him and he’s always been very down to earth. Not to put anyone down, but being in the media industry, and being around all the celebrities all the time, for other people, it might have been easy to fall into certain attitudes about oneself. But over the years, he’s just always been so kind and respectful to everyone around him.”
Any favorite memories connected to him?
“One of the ways that we really became close when I was a kid, was when he found out that I started to get into reading—he’s actually a very avid reader himself. Growing up, I got my book recommendations from him and he knew the kinds of books that I would like. We would even go to the Big Bad Wolf book convention together.”
How did these personal interactions play a part in the project?
“I still approached the project as an academic. But of course, I can’t totally let go of my own positionality in this whole affair because I’m doing this for him after all. So the way that I put my personal light into this whole project was through the foreword of the book. And if readers get the chance to see it, to read it, then they would know exactly how much this project means to me.”
Part of the book’s foreword reads:
“Raymund Isaac was a people’s photographer. Those that knew him would recall him being an incredibly original and skilled veteran in the industry. I knew him as my Tito Menmen. I grew up visiting his studio for regular family lunches on Sundays, board games and fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and movie night sleepovers on a whim.
In my attempts to write a eulogy, nothing felt good enough. I could only show some half-written poems, a few obscure core memories, and a string of incoherent narratives meant to illustrate the kind of man he was. When he died, I couldn’t help but think: Wait, I wasn’t done getting to know you.”
Going back to the project, what went into the curation process? Why choose the images you chose?
“I wanted to include a self-portrait, especially for those that don’t know him or are only being introduced to him now. This is the man behind it all.”
“I chose a photo of Lea Salonga because he was after all known as ‘the first celebrity photographer of the Philippines’.”
“I chose this because I know that it was one of his favorite works. In a sense, he helped guide me in making this exhibit. As much as archiving is just as interpretive as curation, I wanted to include his works that I knew for sure he would have loved.”
“This one won in the American PHOTO Magazine in 1994 and I just love the story behind it. He once submitted to them because he wanted to critique them for not having enough Asian representation. He wrote to them but by some chance, they thought that it was a genuine submission and he somehow ended up winning that year. And in the next years, they kept calling him back to submit. He won four times in a row for the beauty and fashion category and the photo I chose was from his third year in a row to win.”
“He also made his name with nude photographs so it’s not a Raymund Isaac exhibit without some nudes. I love those two together and I knew that if I was going to have a series on display, it was going to include this pair.”
How would you want him to be remembered?
“I may not be a photographer myself, but the works that I’ve been archiving have all been in film. It was a time without Photoshop, a time when you couldn’t make a lot of edits as a photographer. Everything you see there, it’s practical, or it’s a play with the film or the cameras used. I remember him telling me that it’s not about the camera, it’s about the eyes and the one behind the lens. I honestly just want people to remember that he was already there before everything blew up, especially in social media, and that he never stopped working on trying to improve his craft until the very end.”
‘THE RAYMUND ISAAC ARCHIVE: A Photo Exhibit & Book Launch’ was held from May 2-5 at the George S.K. Ty Learning Innovation Wing, Areté. The project was a part of the Ateneo Fine Arts Department’s BOUNCE: FA Fest.
Images courtesy of Andrea Isaac