A life in pictures for 'darkroom master'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 October, 2008, 12:00am

Chen Shilin, 79, started developing, colouring and retouching photographs in 1944 and went on to help the famed International Photo Supply Company set up offices in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He returned to the mainland in 1950 and soon became head of photo-processing at Xinhua News Agency. The 'darkroom master' discusses his work, including four official portraits he created of Mao Zedong , one of which can still be seen on the nation's currency.

How did you become a specialist in retouching photographs?

I like taking photos but I also like the technical aspects of retouching them. I started working at a relative's studio in Yangzhou when I was 15, and because the studio was small I needed to learn all the skills for producing a photo. Two years later, I joined the biggest studio in Nanjing , which was founded by the famous war photographer, Gao Lingmei.

But personal interest aside, it was a pragmatic choice. At that time the market needed this type of talent and the pay was generous - I could earn 30 yuan (HK$34) colouring a 30cm black-and-white photo and I could colour more than 10 photos a day. It was not easy.

I worked 12 hours a day, colouring in the day and developing photos in the darkroom at night. But by the time I was 19, I was already a division head for the company's office in Taiwan. I enjoyed researching new retouching skills and I invented a way of replicating negatives, which allowed for accurate mass production of retouched propaganda photographs across the country.

How did you come to retouch Mao's photos?

The first time I retouched a photo of Mao was in Hong Kong. At the end of 1948, when I was working there, a famous director brought me a photo depicting Chairman Mao and General Zhu De studying documents. That was the first Mao photo circulated in Hong Kong, and I retouched it.

One of the problems with producing standard portraits of Chairman Mao was that he had no time for photographers and he didn't like being told how to pose. For the first official portrait I had to cut his picture from a group photo of him with model workers in 1950. I scraped away a worker's head over his shoulder, with a sharpened clockwork spring.

The second photo was also cut out from a group photo. But, unfortunately, I retouched it a bit too much and the hair looked slightly fake. The third photo was processed before the 10th anniversary of the new China, and it was taken specifically for the occasion.

Unfortunately, it was considered a political smear of the chairman for being 'partial' towards the lefties, since the photo only showed the chairman's left ear and a left eye slightly rolled upwards.

But the most difficult one to do was the last photo. The reporter did not dare get too near to the chairman, so there was insufficient light, and heavy shading. The chairman looked old and tired. I locked myself up for a week to balance the lighting on the photo, to make sure it corresponded with his sacred image among the people, while retaining the right amount of wrinkles and the protruding forehead, a feature of wise men in Chinese culture. The portrait hanging in Tiananmen Square is based on my photo, but the wrinkles and the forehead have been smoothed out.

What is your definition of an 'authentic' photo?

An authentic photo is one that reflects the person accurately. We cannot change the features of the face, or the expression, but we can adjust the lighting so it's balanced in the photo. We can make the tone of the portrait look gentler and warmer, like what we try to achieve today with the use of strobe lights. Technically, film cannot capture an image 100 per cent accurately. Film quality, the use of the lens and lighting all affect the quality of a photo. Our job is to remove these man-made elements and create an authentic image.

Chairman Mao holds a special place in Chinese people's hearts. We must protect his glorious image, so a photo showing him old and tired is not authentic. Nor are photos showing him with black teeth. He was so busy, where could he find time to brush his teeth? Only by making his teeth white would the photo be an authentic reflection of Chairman Mao.

With your Hong Kong and Taiwan connections, how did you survive the Cultural Revolution?

I kept a very low profile during my career and just focused on my job. I did not gossip and I never flaunted my relationship with anyone in power. So even during those politically tumultuous years, I was still entrusted with the task of retouching all the leaders' photographs. I was a lucky one. Despite everything, Chairman Mao is a great man to me and his philosophy will stand the test of time.

What do you enjoy doing now and what is your next photography project?

I collect porcelain from all dynasties. I bought most of them many years ago at very low prices and a lot of them are broken pieces patched together. I like porcelain because they display some of the finest and most fantastic colouring. The metallic colourants they used in the past do not fade in time, and allow for the richest texture. Colouring helps determine whether a piece is authentic or not. I am also hoping to hold an exhibition of my photographs taken of Tiananmen Square over the past decades. I've got photos taken at different seasons, with different Mao portraits in the background, and also previously undisclosed ones of important occasions at the square.

Do you use digital cameras?

Yes, I have two. They tend to capture light more accurately than film cameras. I also use digital methods to work on my old film and achieve effects previously impossible, like merging several photos together.