We are bringing back this updated story in celebration of the life and works of one of Cagayan de Oro’s foremost visual artists and photographers Nene Arce who recently passed on at the fine young age of 97.
At the spry young age of 86, Carlos Neri Arce published a book about his family’s journey in Cagayan de Oro over the last 90 years.
“THRESHOLD relates the story of how my father, Dr. Jose Arce of Quiapo, Manila, came to Cagayan de Oro (then known as Cagayan de Misamis, capital town of the province of Misamis) as a dental volunteer for the Red Cross, charged with the area from Oroquieta to Balingasag, and married Catalina Neri in 1920,” said the acknowledged dean of Cagayan de Oro’s photographers. “It’s also about my life.”
And what a life it’s been! Born in February 5, 1924, “Nene” as he is fondly known to his family and friends, started school at the Cugman Primary School, then moved to the St. Augustine school for his intermediate grades where he was the classmate of the late Dante Sarraga, Paking Pabayo and Renato Roa.
He took his high school at Ateneo de Cagayan, but received his diploma quite recently since he his studies were interrupted by the Second World War. When he completed his B.S. Commerce at the same school in 1951, he started out as a postal employee earning the princely sum of P30 a month under then postmaster Cipriano Queppet and Inspector Pablo Dael.
After a short stint with Compania Maritima, Nene was hired by Manfred Lion, a Czech national who opened the Cagayan Photo Supply along Velez Street across what is now the VIP Hotel.
When Lion left for the United States, Nene became the manager of the store selling cameras, film, photo papers and other photo supplies and accessories. It was during his stint with this store when he was taught photo developing and printing by his uncle Nicanor Velez.
In 1955, the Cagayan Photo Supply closed shop so Nene opened “Arce Photo Supply” at the Paterno Velez building in Yacapin-Velez streets in what is now the Metrobank-Velez branch. In 1985, he again moved his shop to the ground floor of his residence along Rizal Street.
Although the store played its part in making the Arce name known around town (mostly from sponsorships of beauty pageants held in Plaza Divisoria) it was ultimately the maestro’s photography and the legacy he passed on to his students which made him known as the dean of the Cagayan de Oro photographers.
It was Junie Manlapig, then known as one of the Top 10 photographers of Davao City, who awakened the photographic “bug” in him when they went out to their Baloy Beach property one day. While walking around the beach, Junie suddenly borrowed his camera and shot a picture.
What a waste of film, I thought, Nene recalls. “I’ve been through that same place many times and I thought there was nothing worth shooting there.”
However, when he developed the roll later that same evening, Nene noted he missed seeing five things that Junie shot in the picture: the ripple of the wind across the water, the beauty of the coconut and nipa palms in the background, the contrast of the kaingin patterns in the mountains in the distance, the beautiful cloud formations above the hills, and the overhanging branches of the siniguelas tree laden with fruit in the foreground.
From then on, there was no stopping the budding Ansel Adams from shooting everything in sight…with his camera, that is. When Manlapig came visiting three years later, Nene showed him his album of photos and the amazed visitor “raised both hands and feet in surrender.”
Nene describes his photos as “conservative, nature’s realism” and his favorite shots were taken at the beach and along the river banks. By his count, he reckons he must have shot more photographs of beaches in his lifetime than anyone else in the country.
His criteria for a good photograph: “It must tell a thousand and one words.”
Although he entered a number of photo competitions at his prime, Nene modestly claims he only won “consolation prizes” and never a major one. His pride and joy, however, are his students who have won a barrel full of awards including a sweep of all the major prizes at a major photographic competition in Davao City.
“Unlike some of my contemporaries who hold back their trade secrets, I teach my students everything, including the short cuts to a good photograph,” Nene said. “I know I cannot take my trade secrets to the grave, so I pass them on to my students without any reservations.”
In 1965, at the ripe “old age” of 40, Nene tied the knot with Charito Roa Pelaez of Balingasag, who was fifteen years his junior when they were married. It was his colleague and fellow photographer Goñong Sala of the same town who introduced him to the three sisters since “it was way past the time he got married.”
The couple has been blessed with four sons (Carmelo, Christopher, Cedric and Constantine) and two daughters (Christine and Cecile), who now have 14 grandchildren between them. Carmelo was born on the feast day of Carmen barangay so they decided to christen all the following children with names starting with C. That’s why their building at Hayes-Rizal streets is named the 8C’s Building.
When he came to his seventies and taking photographs were increasingly becoming a chore, Nene turned to painting. One of his techniques was taking one of his favorite photographs and then painting it with colors the way he remembered the original image.
Then, as he took the final turn in what he called a “beautiful life,” Nene was determined to pursue a new career once again as an author of what he says is his heritage and legacy in the book about his parents and his family.
“Threshold,” is variously defined as “a place or point of beginning; the outset” or more appropriately perhaps, as “the boundary beyond which a radically different state of affairs exists.”
At an age when he’s virtually “knocking on heaven’s door,” Nene Arce dared to try something new, maybe perennially on the lookout for “the picture that tells a thousand and one words.”
As the German-American philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm aptly puts it: “Let your mind start a journey through a strange new world. Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before. Let your soul take you where you long to be…Close your eyes let your spirit start to soar, and you’ll live as you’ve never lived before.”