Outside the photo studio
Sitting in front of a vintage mahogany armchair, wearing a qipao and an old-fashioned hairstyle, a Chinese woman waits to be photographed in front of a half-century-old wooden Seagull-brand camera. Photographer Huang Mohua, in a room decorated in old Shanghainese nostalgia, traditional furnishings and black-and-white portraiture, directs his subject. "Turn a little bit left. Look at my hand. Good," says 58-year-old Huang before pressing the shutter release.
Sitting for a portrait
Huang has worked for Shanghai People Photo Studio, one of the city's oldest time-honored studio with 80 years of history, for the past 40 years. The Seagull camera Huang once used was standard equipment in the film era. Today he relies on digital.
Old-time photo studios such as People Photo Studio have struggled to adapt to China's modern photography market, which has drastically changed following the popularization of smartphones and DSLRs, not to mention the wave of commercial chain studios that rely on Photoshop rather than skill.
Huang has spent two-thirds of his life behind a camera. After high school he enrolled at a technical school, where for two years he studied the complicated process of film photography, including shooting, developing film and printing.
After graduation, he signed up with People Photo Studio, one of the earliest studios in the city. "Back then there were different rankings for photo studios. Only the most excellent graduates could enter a "specially honored" studio, and People Photo Studio was one of them," Huang told the Global Times.
The place to be
People Photo Studio was established in 1940 by a Russian. At that time, it was a social necessity for the rich and famous of Shanghai to have their portraits taken here. Frequent customers included Consuls General of foreign countries as well as domestic celebrities such as film star Zhao Dan, painter Liu Haisu and writer Ba Jin.
In 1958, the studio was relocated to Huaihai Road. The high quality - and high fees - continued through the 1970s, which is when Huang started working for the studio. At that time, a one-inch photo cost 0.7 yuan (.11), even though Huang's average monthly salary was only 18 yuan.
Wedding photos were even more expensive, costing 30 yuan for a set of just three pictures. Nonetheless, long queues of customers were often seen outside the studio waiting to be photographed.
"I shot almost 200 photos a day and had to work until midnight. I could only finish for the day after serving all these people outside," Huang said.
He recalled that, back then, many Chinese were "afraid" of the cameraman and the camera itself, requiring Huang to spend extra effort calming his clients so that they appeared natural and comfortable in their poses.
In a pre-Photoshop era, another responsibility of the photographer was to be a "human Photoshop," detecting and making up for imperfections during the shooting process.
"Photographers have sharp eyes. We know the defect of a face at first glance and make up for that defect with clever photographic techniques," Huang said.
For example, if a client's eyes were of different sizes, Huang asked them to turn slightly and face the camera with the smaller eye in front. "Now you have eye stickers (or mobile apps), but in the past we had to rely on the keen observation of photographers," Huang said.