Taking a shot at fame

Eddie Sung used to dish out corporate advice while dressed in a suit and tie. These days, he is frequently dressed in faded jeans, sneakers and black T-shirts even when working.

That sums up the two starkly different lives he has led.

In the first, he gave career advice as a headhunter. At age 44, he retired from the corporate world to indulge his lifelong hobby - photographing music stars such as The Beach Boys, Metallica and Lady Gaga.

A self-taught photographer, devoted Beatles fan and collector of rock memorabilia including original outtakes of the Fab Four's iconic Abbey Road photos signed by the photographer Iain Macmillan, Sung, 55, is going places with his monochromatic images.

From July 11 to Aug 2, 20 of his choice works are on display at a solo exhibition at the Soho, New York branch of photo gallery Morrison Hotel Gallery (MHG).

He is the first photographer from Asia represented by the gallery, whose stable includes famous rock photographers such as Joel Brodsky and Sung's heroes, Bob Gruen and Mick Rock.

MHG co-founder and owner Peter Blachley says: "Eddie has proven to be both a creative and technical photographer of the highest order. Mr Sung's talent is backed up by the ease he brings to his music subjects."

The exhibition, A View From Asia: The Photography Of Eddie Sung, is the "apex" of his artistic second life so far, he tells Life! in an interview at his studio-cum-gallery in Queenstown.

"When I was young, all the rock photographers were Westerners - Jim Marshall, Bob Gruen, Annie Leibovitz, Mick Rock.

"With this accolade, it's a dream come true. That's why I started in rock photography. I wanted to be the first Asian to be known in the rock photography arena. This is a great platform to be recognised for my work," says the easy-going, bearded photographer who has a business degree from Hawaii and an MBA from Texas.

It is not the first time that his photographs, which are also on display at Hard Rock Cafe branches here, have made it to the world stage.

His portrait of American new wave/rock veterans Blondie taken in Woodstock is found on the sleeve of their 2011 album, Panic Of Girls.

One of his signature pictures - a shot of metal band Slipknot's drummer standing on stage, behind him a sea of fans at Fort Canning Park - was one of several he took at their 2005 show here that the band ended up using in their live album released later that same year.

Sung's photo of American surf-pop legends The Beach Boys taken at their gig here in 2012 was also used on the cover and inside sleeves of their Live: The 50th Anniversary Tour live album, released last year.

He got his earliest international break in 2006 when he won all top three prizes at New York photography awards ceremony Lucie Awards in the NonProfessional Music category.

The win raised his profile and led to a deal with MHG to represent him.

"With this exhibition, those veterans are now basically my colleagues, we're on the same level. When I talk to them, there is a subtle respect shown. They don't talk down to me, they talk to me like we are on the same level."

His one regret is that the late American photographer Barry Feinstein, who shot more than 500 album covers including Sung's favourite, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, is not around to see the exhibition.

Sung is immensely influenced by Feinstein's works and struck up a friendship with him when they met at MHG. They became so close that Sung flew to New York to visit Feinstein at the hospital just before he died in 2011.

"He was my hero, my mentor, an almost father-like figure to me. When I found out he was sick, I bought many of his prints to help him with his hospitalisation costs."

In conversations, Sung frequently name-drops celebrities whom he knows personally through his travels as well as his concert photography gigs. He says Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer and guitarist from The Byrds Roger McGuinn are some of his friends who have visited his Bukit Timah semi-detached house when they came to Singapore.

Do not call him a groupie, though.

"I meet these people at shows or when I travel, and we keep in touch and we become friends. We're on equal footing."

He also makes friends with the movers and shakers in the live entertainment industry, who give him access to the photo pit at gigs.

Mr Ross Knudson, co-founder of LAMC Productions, one of the bigger gig promoters here, vouches for Sung's works.

He says: "Eddie first approached us about shooting our Steve Vai gig back in 2004 and he's been with us ever since. Over the years, he has captured many memorable rock 'n' roll moments at our concerts with his iconic shots. Eddie's passion for music and deep respect for the artists clearly show in his photography."

Sung, who grew up in Sennett Estate and studied at St Andrew's School, traces his love of photography back to when he used to play around with his father's Yashica camera in primary school.

The youngest of five children born to a civil engineer father and a housewife mother, he also loved music and the arts, and says that his late parents always encouraged him to pursue his love of the arts. His love of rock music came courtesy of an older brother, who was constantly playing The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at the family home.

Sung does not sing or play any instrument but he is an avid music fan whose vinyl and CD collection now numbers more than 6,000. Still, when it came to his higher education, he chose to study business.

"I like using my brains," says the man whose siblings are all academic professionals. His parents funded his education at the University of Hawaii, where he graduated with a bachelor of business administration degree with a major in marketing.

"After I got the degree, I told my dad that I'm going to do an MBA. He said, 'Eh, no more money leh'. But I said, 'It's okay'."

In Hawaii, Sung had built up his savings by working part-time in the school library. He chose to do his MBA in Texas because of its low school fees. He also worked as a tuition assistant and received a state grant and ended up paying only one-tenth of the full fees.

"I always knew how to look after myself. So far, it's been good, I've been quite lucky."

After graduating, he worked in the management consultancy line, eventually joining international management consultancy firm PA Consulting Group, where he rose to senior partner and eventually headed its regional operations.

He never lost his love of music, though, and also contributed music reviews and drew artwork for nowdefunct home-grown music magazine BigO under the pseudonym The Walrus, inspired by the Beatles classic, I Am The Walrus.

When PA Consulting Group was bought over by headhunting firm Korn/Ferry to start up recruitment firm Futurestep in Singapore, Sung made "a tidy sum" through his share as a senior partner. He stayed on after the buyover for three years to ensure a smooth transition before he decided to call it a day.

It was never a long-term plan to retire early, insists Sung, who also spends a lot of his post-retirement time as vice- president of children welfare organisation I Love Children.

"I'm just following my heart. My favourite phrase is 'Water will find its level' and I am always curious where my level is in the world."

One of the catalysts pushing him towards early retirement was the Sept 11 New York terror attacks.

"When 9/11 happened, I realised that, man, life in this world is too short. You'll never regret not spending an extra day in the office when you are on your deathbed.

"The pull from my art was so strong, I knew I had to do it. People say it's a leap of faith, but I say it's just a simple step forward."

Besides his savings, Sung, who owns several properties, also derives a regular passive income from rental and capital gains from various investments.

Besides his photography, there was another, even more pressing incentive to retire - spending time with his two children, son Ethan, 15, and daughter Ella, 12.

His wife, a former marketing manager, also quit her job at the same time, soon after she gave birth to their daughter.

He says: "When my second child was born, we decided to focus on the upbringing of our children. We didn't want to be the type of parents who shower their kids with presents instead of their presence."

Sung's wife, Elaine, whom he married in 1995, a year after they started dating, says that she gladly went along when he told her of his plans for early retirement.

Her sister was Sung's fellow student in Hawaii and the couple met when he went to their house after he came back to Singapore.

Elaine said: "I wasn't surprised. Knowing Eddie, I knew the retirement was something that he would have thought through. I had confidence that whatever he planned to undertake, the family would always be taken care of."

While Sung considers his career his first act and his post-retirement years his second act, he says that there is always a possibility of embarking on his third act.

"I don't know what it will be but my heart is always open. The first and second acts are a lot more than I could ever dream of and are a blessing. If there's a third act, I'm open to it. Such things are best left unplanned."

My life so far

"They price it, I left it to them. To me, it's like entering Harvard. I don't care how much I sell. When you're in Harvard, no one cares about your grades, you're in Harvard, you're king already."

Eddie Sung, on his photographs, priced between US$600 (S$756) and US$3,000 and sold through American photography gallery Morrison Hotel Gallery. He is the only Asian photographer in its stable, which includes world-renowned rock photographers such as Terry O'Neill and Ross Halfin.

"When I wanted to retire, I asked myself, 'Can I bring something to the table?' And not just in Singapore because I was already known, I was always quoted in the papers as an employment expert. I wanted to do it only if I did something world-class. And I strongly believed that I could be different from all the other Western rock photographers. And I said, 'Eh, I can do something different, so let's do it, I don't want to die not doing it. You always regret not doing something rather than doing it'."

On quitting his headhunter job to spend his time indulging in his passion in rock photography

"After my wife and I retired, the only gainfully employed person in my household is our maid."

On his family and household. He lives in a semi-detached house in Bukit Timah with his wife, 15-year-old son, 12-year-old daughter, both students, and a domestic helper.

"It's taken a life of its own. The lighting was great on (Slipknot drummer) Joey as well as the crowd. Everyone had their hands up and their faces were all ecstatic after an awesome show."

On the picture taken at American metal band Slipknot's gig at Fort Canning Park in 2005. The band used this picture and others he took of the show on the sleeve of their live album, 9.0: Live, released in the same year. Sung's pictures have also been used by other American bands such as surf-pop icons The Beach Boys and new wave pioneers Blondie.

This article was first published on July 21, 2014.
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