Vintage ‘selfies’ see light of day
2017-08-28, XU XIAOMIN in Shanghai

Taking selfies may be considered a phenomenon of the new millennium, but a Chinese man named Ye Jinglyu (1881-1968) was doing something very similar more than a century ago. 

Ye had his first portrait shot in 1901 when he was in London working as a member of the diplomatic staff of the Qing government. From 1907, he started to have a portrait taken every year. After his death, his family sold his portraits to a book collector. 

In 2007, 40 years after Ye died, the pictures changed hands again when Tong Bingxue, a collector and researcher of old photos, acquired them and uncovered their true value.

Tong is showcasing 62 portraits of Ye, taken at various photo studios around the world, in an exhibition titled Insight to Self, at Shanghai Library.

“I named the exhibition Insight to Self because these photos of Ye, just like a mirror, remind me to take a break and reflect, something that most people don’t have time for in modern society. This portrait series is just a small part of my collection, but it has given me a lot to think about in my own life,” said Tong.

“My contact with Ye’s grandson also revealed that Ye had kept a diary since his teenage years and it recorded his daily expenditure and bits of information about him and his wife. However, his family burned the diary during the ‘cultural revolution (1966-76)’.”

The collection has also been hailed by many on the photographic scene as a marvel to behold.

Xu Haifeng, a senior photographer and visual department director of The Paper, a major news outlet in China, said that “it is a miracle that these images are still so well-preserved after so many years”.

“Not many people in China are known to have done such a thing, to document their life through photos … I think it is amazing. The album will leave a valuable mark in the history of Chinese photography,” Xu said.

Ye’s collection of portraits has been deemed remarkable because most Chinese could not afford to have photos taken of themselves during the early 20th century, as China was gripped by a series of wars. Furthermore, the tradition in some regions in China is to burn or discard the possessions of those who have died.

Tong, who majored in journalism at university and works as a television producer, has never seen a photo of his own grandfather, while his parents only had a few pictures of themselves.

The 48-year-old’s interest in old photos started in 2000 when he was looking for paintings to decorate his apartment in Beijing.

After discovering that most paintings at the art market were of low quality, he visited the Panjiayuan Antique Market in Beijing where he was enthralled by an old photo, set in a rosewood frame, of a village in the northern Shanxi province. Tong immediately bought it and hung it in his home.

“To me, an old photo is a moment in history which tells a story and it produces a special charm. It’s more significant than hanging replica paintings on the wall,” said Tong.

Following his first old photo discovery, Tong would search antique markets in Beijing every weekend for similar treasures, and remained on constant lookout for such images whenever he was abroad. 

At the beginning, Tong’s family could not understand why he would spend money on portraits of unknown people, most of whom were already dead.

To Tong, however, researching the background of the people in the photos is one of the most interesting parts of his hobby.

“Who is he? Where is he? Why did he take this photo and what happened to him? Some answers are written under the photos but there is so much more to look for,” said Tong.

One of his most treasured photos is a portrait of a young woman taken in 1870 at Su San Xing, a famous photo studio in Shanghai. In the photo, the woman is wearing a puffy Chinese costume with jewelry pinned to her hair. A bottle of flowers, arranged in Western style, can also be seen behind her.

Following the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China was forced to open some of its port cities, such as Shanghai, to Western countries. This was when foreign lifestyles and culture started to seep in.

When photography first appeared in China in 1844, the Chinese thought that it could harm the soul. When people eventually became more open to photography, they adhered to traditional Chinese aesthetic standards — anything that was not a full-body portrait was considered inauspicious as it was likened to decapitation. Shadows on the face were not welcome.

Photography was later popularized by the royal family and the affluent, and this inspired more Chinese, especially those in Shanghai, to embrace the Western invention. In 1861, the first modern photo studio was opened in Shanghai and other studios — filled with props such as clocks, sofas and pianos — soon followed.

From the 1920s, Shanghai’s photography scene began to thrive, due to the booming celebrity culture that had influenced many to dress, pose and be pictured like their favorite stars.

“At that time, Shanghai was considered the benchmark of the country’s aesthetic standards, which photography helped to depict,” said Tong. “Be it the volume of old photos or the quality of them, Shanghai tops the country,” he said, adding that about one-third of the photos in his collection are from the city.

The Internet brought about “an earthshaking change” in the way Tong expanded his collection, as he could now procure old photos that he would have otherwise never have come across. It also allows him to gather more information about his photos.

“I always post single photos, without any information, online and sometimes people will contact me to say that they know the person in the photo. The most interesting part of this collection, to me, is about sharing. Through communicating with others, I can have a deeper understanding of these photos,” said Tong.

The price of old Chinese photos has been on the rise in international auctions. In an online auction that Tong participated in, the bidding price for a photo from the late Qing Dynasty started at $280 and eventually closed at $800. 

He said the popularity of Chinese art is rising quickly, and a photo from China, taken in the same era and of the same quality as one from another country, could be worth 10 times as much.

At a China Guardian auction in 2003, an old photo of the Bund in Shanghai went for 140,000 yuan ($20,590).

While some people may see money-making potential in Tong’s passion, he insists that his photo collection is not about profit.

He is in discussion with several institutions and government departments about setting up a museum to showcase the history of photography in China. The facility would include his photo collection as well as the results of the past 16 years of research into the nation’s photo studios.

“The process of collecting is a long-term affair. It is only after you have gathered a certain volume that you begin to understand the objects and, by understanding them, you achieve so much more than just money,” said Tong.

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