By Cheah Ui-Hoon
FOUNDER publisher of Insight Guides Hans Hoefer is one rare person who has managed to make a living out of his passions - travelling and photography among them. So to say that he went into retirement when he sold his travel guide business in the late 90s is not the right conclusion to make.
The German who has lived in Singapore since 1970 calls it 'rejuvenation' instead because it freed him up for yet another phase in his life - one which included acquiring villas in Sri Lanka and a farmhouse in Nepal.
'I don't know why people need to 'escape' from their professional life or view retirement as a form of escapism,' muses the 66-year-old. 'If you loved your work, why would you need to get out of it?'
In fact, Mr Hoefer cites a Chinese saying that roughly translates into how every good Chinese should have 55 professions before he dies. It must be an obscure saying, but in Mr Hoefer's view, it certainly matches the idea that there should not be a distinction between 'working' life and 'non-working' life.
Thus, one finds Mr Hoefer, married and father of two teenage daughters, dividing his time between Singapore, Sri Lanka and Nepal these days. 'I see myself as a rocket in space, that occasionally switches on its engine to speed up and change direction; but I'm happy to continue on 'cruise' and be at leisure most of the time!' he declares.
Mr Hoefer continues to be enterprising in the things he loves - all his 'hobbies' pay for themselves, such as his yacht Rising Tide which is rented out - but not having travel guides to publish does allow him more time to develop passions like photography. In fact, soon after he sold the publishing business, he delved into his photo archive to hold an art exhibition here in 2000.
'I have over 3,000 images on various polaroid films,' reckons the intrepid traveller who first arrived in Singapore in 1968, when he was 25, and published the first ever guidebook on Bali under Apa Publications in 1970.
A guidebook on Java followed, and then a joint venture with Times Publishing in 1972 resulted in Insight Guides for Singapore and Malaysia. Twenty five years later, when he divested the title in 1997, Insight Guides was one of the biggest companies in travel publishing, having sold over 20 million copies on over 125 destinations, and the only guidebook series available in 10 languages.
Too heavy for the backpacker, Insight's strength is in the extensive writeups about the historical, political and cultural backgrounds of the over 100 destinations it covered. And known for its pictures too, Mr Hoefer points out.
In fact, he had set up a photo agency as well through which he did things like contract photography, and whatever money he earned through that was invested in book publishing, he recounts. 'I had apprenticed in a publishing company when I was in Germany, before studying graphic design in university,' he explains. A perfect skill to have when he came to Asia and could produce books from scratch.
But back to photography and art. Thanks to an accidental discovery early on, he had realised that if he scratched on the surface of polaroid pictures that he took, within 20 minutes that it was developing, that altered the lines of the pictures. It was 'on the spot' art, not unlike watercolour paintings which can't be altered once done.
As a professional photographer, Mr Hoefer used every kind of camera technology as it evolved - from large format to digital photography. One of the books he published was an 8x10 inch photographic journey of Malaysia called Jalan-Jalan in 1980, filled with pictures he took of Malaysia while touring on a motorbike, using a large format wooden camera like the ones used to take family portraits in photo studios of old.
'Unlike a compact camera which you shoot from the hip and almost 'steal' pictures because you can take a shot and run, with a large format camera, it's like a roadshow because you have to stage the scene in front of you - directing it from behind a large tripod.' In his travels, he also brought a polaroid camera along so he could offer photographs of the people he took to them. 'I went to the remote places and people wanted to have a copy of the pictures I took of them, and of course, I never could mail them once I got back. So the instant polaroid shots was one way to get around it,' he explains.
When he discovered he could manipulate the polaroid emulsions, he quickly adopted the 'instantaneous' painterly effects as his personal art form. This also marks a period in polaroid photography because it's linked to the type of thick emulsions on the Polaroid SX-70's film available only at that time. Mr Hoefer thinks it had something to do with the silver content in them, and when silver prices rose in the 1980s, all big film makers had to reinvent film to use less silver.
Now that he's gone through the gamut of cameras and photographic techniques, Mr Hoefer finds himself returning to large format, fascinated by the 'hyper sharpness' they provide. Basically, large format captures the entire scene in sharpness, unlike the human eye which tends to zoom in and focus on one small area or point and never really 'captures' the full picture. With 35mm film, which behaves much like the human eyes, it's also a narrow field of focus.
'I'm fascinated by large format especially now that digital photography is coming full circle, with the ability to offer large format digital printing these days,' he says.
He currently has a small exhibition on in Galle, Sri Lanka, at The Fort Printers hotel, in fact, where he's blown up some his polaroid art into 1x1 metre prints. Ever the enterprising man, he's planning to set up an online gallery where he can sell prints of his polaroid art.
'I'm trying to organise my archives now,' he says, adding that he would jump at the opportunity to exhibit them if some sponsor comes along. 'I've enough to fill the whole museum!' Meanwhile, life continues to takes him off on related tangents: photographing for a commemorative book on Thailand last year, organic farming in Nepal, long-distance rides on his BMW motorbike, bicycling in Europe and so on. Once an intrepid traveller, always one.
This article was first published in The Business Times on Oct 25, 2008.