From state-owned photo studios to personal digital SLRs, check out the history of modern Chinese photo-taking

In 1978, Wu Haijun made a living taking photos of villagers in Sichuan Province with his Pearl River twin-lens reflex camera. Business was good; in rural China, a camera was a rare thing. Families, many of whom had never been photographed before, put on their best clothes for the occasion. For each photo, Wu charged 0.64RMB. Wherever he was, he would always convert his own bedroom into a studio; he developed the photos in bed after it got dark, washed them in basins and flipped them with chopsticks.

Wu didn’t want to work in a city. In fact, he couldn’t. The market was dominated by well-equipped photo studios, most of which were state-owned (and would be until the late 1990s). Wu couldn’t compete with their plastic fruit and flower arrangements, their picturesque backdrops of the Great Wall or a forest in autumn. After all, city dwellers took these things seriously on the few occasions they actually went to a photo studio. It was a sort of ritual, something you did only on special occasions such as birthdays, graduations and weddings.

By today’s standards, the equipment that set these studios apart seems almost medieval. The lighting was dependent on bulbs that were at most 200W, and light meters and remote shutter cords were rare. Touching up photos wasn’t a matter of just two or three clicks in Photoshop, it was an art.

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Ginger Huang is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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