A bow to the past

The son of one of Bei­jing’s most renowned por­trait photographers sheds light on the in­dus­try’s past

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHAOXU zhaoxu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

Child­hood mem­o­ries

“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.

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