A bow to the past
The son of one of Beijing’s most renowned portrait photographers sheds light on the industry’s past
A photo studio in Beijing offers customers portraits that conjure the good old days, with authentic props and costumes to bring the past alive.
“If it wasn’t for the China Photo Studio, I wouldn’t have been born in Beijing,” said Yao Jianzhong, 55. In 1956, Yao Jianzhong’s late father, Yao Jingcai, a renowned portrait photographer in Shanghai, boarded a train bound for the Chinese capital, together with his beloved camera — don’t think of a handheld singlelens reflex, think of a wheeled bulk of a camera that requires the insertion of a silver plate and weighs about 80 kilograms.
“My father wasn’t alone, he was with 18 other people who together made up the entire staff of China Photo Studio,” Yao said.
Throughout the 1950s, the central government was concerned with the revitalization of Beijing’s economy. “Somewhere between the discussions, I suppose, the idea of introducing old brand names from across the country to the capital was proposed,” Yao continued. “In the spring of 1956, several old Shanghai brands were ‘brought’ to Beijing, in a way that would be hard to imagine today.”
In addition to China Photo Studio, founded in 1937, there was one restaurant, one laundry shop and four barber shops.
“They were all on the same train, with their belongings, heading for a strange city they would call home. For many, it was the first time in their life they’d left Shanghai,” said Yao. “People say that a photo studio is a place to record stories in images, but there’s no story about this institution that’s more compelling than the one experienced by our forefathers — men who made it in Beijing after having made it in Shanghai.”
“Institution” is the right word, according to Gao Liqi, who joined the studio in 1978. “From day one in Beijing, China Photo Studio set a standard for the trade,” he said. That’s a standard befitting the location of the studio’s headquarters on the Wangfujing Boulevard, which was THE shopping street of Beijing at a timewhen all businesses in China were State-owned.
“Within the first few months of the studio’s arrival in Beijing, we were flooded by customers as well as people from various local studios who were curious about what we had in the store,” Gao said.
Yao was born in Beijing in 1961. By that time, his entire family, including his parents, his four Shanghai-born siblings and his maternal grandma, had all moved to Beijing. The crowded family eventually relocated to a big courtyard, together with a couple of other families from Shanghai.
His childhood memories are untainted by any of the homesickness felt by his parents. “I loved to go to the photo studio and play with the little wooden horse I couldn’t find anywhere else,” he said. “There were two main characters in my earliest memory of a photo-taking session — one moving the giant camera forward and backward while the other held the flash bulb.”
That giant camera he described sits today in a place ofhonorin the studio’s groundfloor lobby, shaded by red velvet cloth worthy of a crown. “My father mainly used this camera. And it was with this camera that he took pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, iconic images that define the leaders in many minds,” said Yao.
China Photo Studio, which became famous in swinging Shanghai in the 1930s by giving away black-and-white photos of reigning movie actresses to potential clients, consolidated its position in the industry in New China by taking pictures of political stars.
Back in Shanghai, although a strong anti-bourgeoisie mood had dominated society for several decades after 1949, a deeply-rooted fashion tradition still had its subtle influence in this “Pearl of the Orient”. Shanghai New People Photography, founded by a Russian in the 1940s before its ownership was passed on to a man named Gu Yunming, was the place foreign consulate staff and local celebrities went for half-length portraits in the 1950s.
In a nod to platinum Shanghai, photographers from the studio were invited to record the wedding of the daughter of Rong Yiren, a powerful business man and financier who later joined the government and became the vice-president of the People’s Republic of China.
Fast-forward to the early 1980s, when China’s political and economic reform and opening-up brought changes to all aspects of people’s lives. A telltale sign was the twiceyearly changes of display windows by Shanghai New People Photography, one of the city’s oldest — and today it’s only — State-owned photo studio.
Zhang Jianjun is the studio’s deputy general manager.
“Those window changes were big events. People came from all over the city to see the new photos of celebrities, trying to envision what the latest trends in fashion, hairstyle and makeup would look like for themselves,” he said. “Even ordinary people were willing to spend half their monthly salary on a photo shoot here. And studio sessions could constitute a valuable wedding gift.”
Talking about weddings, it seemed that the people in Beijing are no less enthusiastic about having their memorable moment sanctified on film by a time-honored photo studio. A wedding package usually consisted of five pictures, costing about 100 yuan ($15), at least two months’ salary for an average wage-earner.
“You think it’s outrageous? But people lined up at the front door, sometimes for four hours during weekends and holidays, just to appear in a wedding gown in our refurbished studio that featured such novelties as Westernstyle spiral staircases, vineyards and Roman columns,” said Gao, referring to newly introduced props that caused a sensation among clients bored with spartan settings.
Times have changed
The days when order-keeping seemed to be a bigger issue than moneymaking were long gone for China Photo Studio in the 1990s. The arrival of studios from Taiwan changed the landscape of photography on the mainland by introducing concepts of drama and theatricality.
Demand for old photo studios dwindled to a thin stream. Going with the flow seemed to be the obvious option, and both China Photo Studio and Shanghai New People Photo obliged, with initial reluctance. Today, both have their own “shooting base” on the outskirts of the city, to cater to clients whose fantasies go far beyond the studio walls.
Yet on the other hand, there’s always a yearning to reach back deep into the studios’ archives, a yearning that found its urgency when a collective nostalgia started to take hold after 2000. Early clients who were now in their 60s and 70s wanted some form of visual connection with the past, while their offspring, after a perusal of the commercial studios, rediscovered the cool appeal of a vintage photo, a silent, unpretentious, yet deeply emotional frame that conceals as much as it reveals.
In retrospect, all these changes become trivial in comparison with the advent of digital cameras that were about to redefine photography. While Yao, who had learned about photography from his father after joining China Photo Studio in the 1980s, had to adapt to new equipment and learn how to use a computer, Gao, whoused to work in the dark room, found his art rendered obsolete by newtechnology.
“Gone are the days when a picture is hand-colored and the first thing a trainee like me learns is to sharpen a pencil in a way that it won’t be easily broken,” said Gao, who as a child lived just around the corner from the studio on Wangfujing Boulevard, and whose mentor at the studio, Xu Songyan, is the only one among the 18 who came to Beijing in 1956 that is still alive today.
“Before the coming of China Photo Studio, the street probably had 10 or 20 small photo studios, most of them operated by husband-and-wife duos. They were either disbanded or incorporated intoChina Photo Studio, but that’s another story,” he said.
Every time a teenage Yao was in the studio, his father would ask him for a helping hand. “Most of the time, I prepared men’s shirts for photo sessions, rubbing away the ruffles withmy hand,” he said. “They were not even shirts really — just the upper half of it that clients wore for a stellar picture.”
And shirts are one of the things that Yao remembered most vividly about his father, whopassed away in 1997 at the age of 73. “My father liked smoking as much as he liked watching people on the street thinking about how he would have photographed them. He was too preoccupied with his thoughts to notice the holes burned by cigarette ash on his shirts,” he said.
According to his son, throughout his life, Yao Jingcai never really completely got accustomed to his adopted home. “The weather of Beijing was simply too dry for him, and he had always preferred his old diet,” Yao said. “But he stayed in Beijing and in China Photo Studio long after retirement, while many of his old colleagues had returned to Shanghai.”
“Where the capital hadn’t proven attractive enough, the photo-taking did,” he said.
China Photo Studio on Wangfujing Boulevard in Beijing in September 2016. Founded in 1937, the company is one of China’s oldest photo studios.
Yao Jianzhong, photographer at China Photo Studio, teaches customers to pose in September 2016.