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December 31, 2010

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Nostalgia trip into old photo studios

OLD portrait photos freeze moments in Chinese history and frame personal aspirations. Wang Jie explores vintage Shanghai photo studios and reports on an upcoming exhibition.

When Zhang Xiaogang's surrealist "Family Portrait" series began to fetch astronomical auction prices worldwide in the mid-1990s, this real-life, old-fashioned photography style was already fading, tucked away in family albums.

These old family pictures, whether painted by Zhang or photographed in studios, stir deep nostalgia for the old days.

And the photo studio itself is a piece of history - photographers and subjects being testament to changes in China. A recent symposium about Shanghai photo studios at the Shanghai Art Museum put a lens on studios and the deeper historical and cultural meaning of pictures.

An exhibition from Shanghai portrait studios will be held at the museum late next month.

According to Susan Sontag (1933-2004), a well-known American author and literary theorist, "photography means to put oneself in a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge - and therefore, like power."

"Studio photography in China in the past was akin to small theater, where ordinary people try to surpass their mediocre life," says Xiao Xiaolan, the symposium organizer and curator of the forthcoming exhibition.

Studio photography was imported into China after the mid-19th century and reached maturity in large cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, capital city of southern China's Guangdong Province, in the 1920s or 1930s.

At that time, young photographers were all overseas Chinese who returned with a passion for photography. They often employed Hollywood shooting and lighting techniques.

The year 1949 was a turning point in the history of studio photography in China.

"Before 1949, only celebrities, the rich or politicians would frequent photography studios," says Xiao. "However, in a new political environment, more ordinary people and those at the lower level of society flooded into studios, including workers, peasants and soldiers."

"The world in focus after 1949 was different, there were fewer movie stars, fewer Westerners, fewer suits and ties. Instead there were more ordinary people and more common clothes," recalls Gu Yunxing, a retired photographer from Renmin (People's) Photography Studio.

Gu and other photographers of that generation used photography to express what was called the "revolutionary potential of the mainstream" during the 1950s and 1960s.

In those photos the faces were flushed with enthusiasm and inspiration, burning bright red with passion and hard work; the eyes were pure and shining, always wide open, looking toward a noble goal. And there were big beaming smiles. They represented optimism, power and progress. It was a bit like socialist realism.

"The aesthetic taste of the photographer during the shooting process partly mirrored the emotion and core of society, while at the same time the portrait photo was unable to move away from the political shadow during that period," says Li Gongming, dean of the art department at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.

"The vicissitudes that each family experienced before or after 1949 were unthinkable," Li adds. "Yet what these pictures reflected was another spiritual world, as if everything was pleasant, unconstrained and ideal."

According to organizer Xiao, there were two types of old portrait photographers. One type had a poor family background and learned photography to make a living. Many learned as apprentices.

The second type came from well-to-do families and were passionate about the new art and science of photography. Many were both studio owners and photographers.

After 1949, studio photographers were not considered artists.

"Believe it or not, they were considered service people," Xiao says. "The photography studios, together with restaurants and hotels, were all listed as food and service companies, which sounds a bit ridiculous."

"There were two types of photo business at the time, standard photography and artistic photo," recalls Zhu Tianmin, another retired portrait photographer. "I used to take more effort in shooting a so-called 'artistic photo,' thinking about the lighting, costumes and posture."

The aesthetic taste of the photographers represented the taste of the bourgeois class during the 1970s. Unlike the "revolutionary portraiture" of the 1950s and 1960s, a dreamy, idealized and romanticized aura was sought by people in the 1970s.

"Photographers at that time seemed to be more keen on the light and shadow of the picture itself, and every small detail of hairstyle, costumes and even facial movements," says Wu Zhaohua, a retired photographer. "Everyone in focus was filled with happiness and warmth, fulfilling the life they might not attain in reality."

Qin Xiaoyu, a retired teacher in her 60s, was one of those who had her idealized picture taken.

"When I look back at such pictures, I have complicated feelings," she says. "It looks like me, yet not the real me. I remember trying to pretend I was another girl."

The photographer asked her to hold a violin, a symbol of taste and sophistication, though Qin had no idea how to play it. "There was a kind of obscure feeling in the photo, hope and a romantic touch in an unreal world."

However, in the 1990s, studio photography largely passed from the scene with the arrival of wedding photography, digital photography, documentary photography and conceptual photography.

"Today one has more choices in shooting what kind of pictures he or she wants," Xiao says. "But these old photos focusing on a person, a couple or a family freeze the characteristics and emotions of a bygone era.

"I always remember the small photo studio from my childhood, since it recorded my growth in images since I was an infant," he concludes.


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