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Museum focuses on bygone age of China’s state-run camera industry

From the 1950s through to the ’80s, China’s camera industry saw rudimentary state factories laboriously copying intricate overseas designs, mostly for official use.

WANG HUA tells MANDY ZUO about why he wants to preserve that history

What does the museum showcase?

We have about 100 obsolete cameras made by domestic companies from the 1950s onwards – when camera-production started on the mainland – with the main focus on products made by the Shanghai Seagull Camera Factory. There’s also a collection of several hundred classic cameras from abroad, such as Leica, Rolleiflex, Kodak and so on.

China’s camera-making industry started around 1956, with Beijing and Shanghai taking the lead. Under the planned economy, designs from the two cities’ factories – mostly copies of German cameras such as Leica and Agfa – were sent to other local factories to share production. So despite them having different brand names, cameras made in different places looked similar.

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These different brands were often named after city landmarks, such as the Yangtze River in Chongqing, West Lake in Hangzhou and Zijin Mountain for Nanjing.

At the museum we are trying to show how the whole manufacturing process at the Seagull factory was basically done by hand.

China’s camera-production industry virtually died off a few decades ago, so this craftsmanship was lost at that time. Most assembly line workers in the industry started doing other jobs after being laid off in late 1980s, and no young men would care to learn the same skills today.

Today we have several former technicians working at the former factory in Songjiang district, where they mainly help repair these old cameras.

Why did the industry stagnate on the mainland?

All the factories were state-owned and often involved workers making things by hand. While foreign rivals were able to focus on independent research and development, domestic firms couldn’t produce small parts accurately because they didn’t have machines to do so in the 1960s and 1970s, let alone try to develop new technologies, such as electronographic cameras [highly sensitive electronic cameras used in astronomy, such as recording astronomical images], which were rapidly increasing in the 1980s.

Although some domestic companies bought technologies from abroad, the developers of these technologies often held the patents, which were much too expensive for Chinese companies to buy. Also they were unable to copy the technology or they would have infringed international property rights. Seagull, for example, which was widely considered a leader in the domestic industry, wasn’t even able to develop its own auto-focus technology – the basic function on a single lens reflex camera.

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Today the Seagull company is a privately run company, which mainly makes and sells two digital cameras for mainland consumers. But its products are not popular because they are of poor quality and quite expensive to buy compared with rival foreign products.

The only other domestic company making cameras is a start-up, Xiaoyi, which also produces dashboard-mounted cameras for cars.

Why did the museum move to a new home?

When the museum opened in 2012 it was in South Chongqing Road – a venue provided free by the district government as a way to promote culture. But the space was limited and there was no room for cultural activities. So last September we moved to a three-storey building near the Shanghai Drama Art Centre in Anfu Road, which is known as having a decent arts atmosphere.

This allowed us to expand the museum into an art space with a café, where lectures and training courses are held regularly, a photo exhibition space, a darkroom for photography enthusiasts to use, and a family portrait studio, which will open soon.

What drove you to run this space?

I used to be a photography teacher for 10 years at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science after graduating in 1998. Over the next three years I offered training courses in Beijing. Later several of my friends thought of the idea of recording the history of the Seagull company and starting a museum.

Our goal is to promote the culture of photography and images, and also encourage more young photographers.

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Do you expect to make much of a profit?

The museum, which is closed on Mondays and Thursdays, has free admission. We have been offering additional new services at our current home for only one year, so we wouldn’t expect to be making any profit for at least another two years. But the ultimate goal is not about making money, although we know we have to survive financially to achieve our goals.

Who are your main visitors?

They are mostly local photography enthusiasts and professional photographers. Tourists and visitors going to see a play at the nearby drama centre, who tend to show an interest in photography, are also among our main visitors.

What is the major challenge you face now?

I’ve chosen to open the space in Shanghai, since I am a Shanghai local and have better connections here. But compared with art enthusiasts and art collectors in Beijing, people here are very different in terms of their consumption and the way they share their hobbies.

In Beijing, photography enthusiasts are passionate about getting together. There will be a lot of visitors when there’s an activity – everybody is eager to share.

Some of the people attending our lectures are old people, who have retired and have the time and money. They are actually not our exact target audience. We hope to see more professional people with higher skill levels in the arts. But these kind of people in Shanghai seem to like to do things on their own, or as part of a small group, like a couple chatting together. So it’s a little difficult to build a bigger platform for professionals here.