The New Age: Chinese Photography After the 70s

Red flag 20 (Chinese Leica)

Red Flag 20

Red flag 20 (Chinese Leica)

Jiang Qing in the trail

The 1970s were a golden age for Chinese photography industry. It started with two major factors. One is the meeting of the Chinese photography industry in 1972, and the other is Jiang Qing, the Madame of Mao. After the Culture Revolution started in 1966, China turned into Chaos for almost ten years. However, at the start of the 70s, even China was still in the Culture Revolution campaign, the government decided to restore the order of the industry, including photography industry. In 1972, the Ministry of Light Industry convened all camera and photography factories together and opened a big meeting. The meeting told about two goals of Chinese camera industry. The first thing is to recover the damage from the Culture Revolution and the second goal is the resources integration. At that time, China had 37 camera and photography factories. The government wanted those factories became a collective unit, just like 37 brothers (Tencent 2009). 

The Madame Mao is also an important factor for the golden age of Chinese photography industry. Madame Jiang Qing was very keen on photography. When she worked as an actress in Shanghai in the 1930s, she was a fan of Leica camera. However, she did not have the money to purchase Leica. After the marriage with Mao, because of Mao's restriction, she still cannot have an ideal camera. However, during the Culture Revolution, she had the power to do so. In the campaign, she got the power in controlling the art movements and some power on industry development (Wu 2016). When Jiang Qing got a Leica M3 camera by chance, she soon fell in love with it. Then, she used her power to force the factory to copy production of Leica M3In the 1970s, production of sophisticated cameras was regarded as a symbol of a country's industrial strength, particularly for developing nations like China. Meanwhile, because of the split with the Soviet Union, China was pursuing an economic policy of absolute self-reliance and attempted to produce anything it needed. For this reason, the copy production of Leica M3 was a huge challenge to Chinese photography industry. In order to overcome the Challenge, the factory measured all the parts of the original M3 and then hand-copied. There were many institutes, universities and research centers involved in the process, and special glasses were imported from East Germany (Wu 2016). The Red Flag 20 was the one of the best copy from those factories. However, the cost of the Red Flag 20 was too high to reproduce so there was only around two hundred cameras rolled off the line. After this process, those factories whose involved in the copy process had a great improvement on manufacturing cameras like Leica M3 and Leica M4. Indeed, the Madame of Mao did for her own lust, but her action helped the development of photography industry. 

Digital Still Camera (DSC)

Steven Sasson with His Camera

Digital Still Camera (DSC)

The Map of the First Digital Still Camera

At the same period, in 1975, Steven Sasson launched a new revolution on the camera. In this year, he invented the first digital still camera in the world. It is a self-contained electronic camera that used a charge-coupled device image (Mccullough 2016). Different than the film camera which popular during that era, the digital camera can store photographs as digital bits on hard drives or memory cards. It was very convenient for users to keep photographs and transfer through the internet. China did not notice technic until the normalization between the United States and China. More importantly, the first digital camera appeared in China's market was 1995, twenty years after Sasson had invented the first digital camera (Tencent 2009). As a result, it is too late for China to catch up with the digital skills on camera.

Before the invasion of the digital camera, China's market was already occupied by foreign cameras. After the Open and Reform, the reopening of China's market endangered the survival of Chinese camera industry. Because of the price and quality, the foreign camera quickly took over China's market in the mid-80s. It was the darkest age for the "37 brothers." Those brothers were too weak to compete with international enterprises like Nikon and Canon. At the end of the 80s, only two "brothers" survived in this unbalanced competition (Tencent 2009). However, this two "brothers" did not survive for a long time. They did not notice the advantage of the digital camera and still working on the film camera. As a result, two factories collapsed few years after digital camera entered China (Sina 2009).

Camera Phone

How the Camera Phone Work

Camera Phone

Nokia 7650

In 2000, the Sharp launched a new revolution on photography and deeply influenced the development of the photography in China. The J-SH04 was the first camera phone in the world but only sold in Japan (Debjit 2010). The first global camera phone was the Nokia 7650 (Hoista 2012). As camera photo enter China's market, the situation for Chinese photography has changed dramatically.  

With the help of the phone, people can instantly share their photos to the internet. Meanwhile, the development of the internet also helps the communication of camera phone. As a result, everything happens instantly and automatically. The camera phone combined the camera and the communication together that endanger the position of the real camera. In the smartphone era, the increase of camera phones caused camera sales to decline after 2010 (Gye 2007). It is a bad news for Chinese camera industry but a good news for Chinese cell phone companies. Smartphone companies like Huawei, Xiaomi, and ZTE seized the opportunity and become major players in China. Now, with the help of the government and China's market, those companies become international companies and have great influence in the world. In some way, like the productions below, we could say a new "37 brothers" reappeared with rising China.