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Witnessing Life Change Through Photo Studio


Tang Zhenghe sits in his photo shop, drinking tea while waiting for business. People pass by in front of his eyes, but few stop at his shop.

“Business is getting harder now. About 95 percent of my clients come to my shop for ID photos,” Tang says. His shop is located on a small street in Mianzhu, southwest China’s Sichuan province. And this could be the worst time since he took over his father’s photo studio business.

The 60-year-old Tang is the same age as the People’s Republic of China. Like his peers, he had been to the countryside for re-education, and returned to the city to work after the Cultural Revolution. The only difference is that in 1980 after he came back from the countryside, he had chosen to live on his own, running the photo studio.

In the 1930s, his father, Tang Jingfang, opened a photo studio in Chengdu after learning the skills of photography. During the anti-Japanese war, the studio, named Times, was moved to Mianzhu, 80 kilometers away to avoid Japanese bombings.

“When I sgareturned in the 1980s, business was not at all like this,” says Tang Zhenghe. “I had only a stall in the park to take photos for visitors and I could earn over a thousand yuan (one yuan was almost ten times its worth now) a month.”

Tang had grown up in his father’s photo studio. He still remembers clearly that in the 1950s, most of the people coming to the studio were fashionable young people or intellectuals. High schools students, in particular, liked to take photos. Farmers rarely came for photos.

“People usually took one-inch for eight fen (one yuan equated 100 fen), occasionally they enlarge to three inches or six inches, which was quite a luxury then,” Tang recalls.

In the 1960s, as more farmers came for photos, customers had to wait in line to take their photo.

“Wedding photos and half-length portrait photos were most fashionable. A man and a woman stood straight like door panels in front of the camera,” says Tang. These wedding photos were usually enlarged to six to eight inches.

During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, more people joined the trend. “Everyone loved to take a photo in military uniform, holding a little red book of Chairman Mao’s Quotations. Some even pose typical revolutionary gestures. It was only after the Cultural Revolution, when people started to stay at ease during photo taking.”

Despite the increasing number of customers, the photo equipment in the shop did not change too much from 1950s to 1980s: a camera, three hand-drawn backgrounds sheets, a few lights and toys for children.

By the end of 1980s, things had changed. “Young people liked to wear fashionable clothes for photos so we bought a few costumes. Today, a photo studio won’t survive without costumes, which has become a major spending,” Tang says. In 1990s, it took him more than 10,000 yuan a year to buy costumes from east China’s Suzhou and Shanghai, the forefront of the country’s style.

“In the old days, there are at most a comb and a mirror for customers to brush up before having their photo taken. Now, studios are like a small beauty salon, providing even tweezers for the eyebrows. In the digital age, computers also become a must. Photo editing on the computer is increasingly vital. Many clients want you to do the editing on the spot,” Tang says.

“I’m already 60, and I still have to learn how to use editing software such as Photoshop.” As for cameras, lighting and backdrops, changes are enormous. “Simply put, it’s becoming more and more advanced.”

Despite all this, Tang feels the business is going downhill.

“From 1950s to 1980s, the public didn’t own cameras. Photographers were respected just like teachers,” Tang says.

As the standard of living improved in the 1980s, cameras were no longer a novelty, and more and more families could afford a camera. In mid-1990s, practitioners from Hong Kong and Taiwan penetrated into Sichuan, equipped with better facilities and new ideas for wedding and art photos. As more and more customers were drawn to these chic shops, the traditional photo studios were sidelined.

The advent of digital camera since 2000 is even worse news for Tang. Business is slow and Tang makes no more than 2,000 yuan a month (one U.S. dollar is exchanged for about 6.8 yuan). What’s more, Tang lost more than 10,000 yuan worth of equipment during the Wenchuan earthquake last year. Taking into account another 10,000 yuan for renovation this March, the balance book is in red.

“Nowadays who doesn’t have a camera? Even if they don’t, they can still use their cell phones for photos. Few people develop photos now. They view their photos on computers,” Tang says, sadly.

The only thing that still keeps Tang in business is ID photos which are required for all sorts of documents, certificates and cards-- ID card, driver’s license, medical insurance card, social security card, etc. “I take six to seven ID photos every day. Without them, I’m out of business.”

For most Chinese, losing jobs at the age of 60 is like retirement. But retiring is not Tang’s intention.

“My photo studio will go on,” he says. “I want to write a book and leave behind my experiences,” he adds. End

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