Interview with Sam Tata by John K. Grande: July 18th, 1988, Montreal, Canada
published in French as "Pour reussir un portrait", Vie des Arts, autumn 1996, Vol 41, no. 168
Courtesy of John K. Grande.
… Instant Mirrors … An Interview with Sam Tata
Montreal photographer Sam Tata was born in Shanghai in 1911. At the time, Shanghai was the commercial capital of the Far East, the largest colonial city the world has ever known.
When Tata met Henri Cartier-Bresson in Bombay in 1948, he advised the young photographer to always integrate the environment with people in his photos. The two remained life-long friends. In 1949, Tata photographed events before and after the liberation of Shanghai by the Communists, which led to the establishment of Mao Tse-Tung's government in China. These documentary photographs of the arrival of Maoist troops and political commissars in that once remarkable city formed the basis of a book Shanghai 1949: The End of an Era published by Batsford Books in 1989.
Arriving in Canada in 1936, Tata became known as one of Canada's most accomplished postwar photographers and produced a remarkable body of work on India, Japan, Canada and other countries during the past 60 years. In Canada he gained a reputation not only as a documentary photographer, working for numerous magazines and periodicals, but also for his portrait photos which have been the subject of numerous shows including The Tata Epoch, organized by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in 1988 and the book A Certain Identity; 50 Portraits.
JG: When did you begin photographing?
ST : I started playing around with cameras in 1935 in Shanghai. I was about 35 years old. Alex Buchman, an American aeronautical engineer who was writing pieces and doing some photojournalism suggested I buy a Leica. I asked my father and began. I began taking photos and did a photo series on Chinese actors but my first real work was in the streets.
My first good photograph is my friend George Talbot and his Russian wife Gralia on a rooftop watching the bombing of Shanghai by Japanese planes in 1937. The International Settlement and the Concession française were not in danger at the time. The Chinese outside these zones were in great danger and some of them came into the safe zones. There's another picture I took of a man lying down with all his things around him who had just entered the safety of the International Settlement. By 1941 nobody was safe. The Japanese just came in. When the Communists came nobody was safe; the Japanese were violent.
JG : Were you still able to go out and photograph?
ST : Later on, with the communists, yes, they were peaceful, but when the Japanese were there you wouldn't dare go out and photograph. The Japanese were very violent. They'd take you in, beat you up, perhaps chop your head off. The Japanese rape of Nanking was absolutely the worst kind of atrocity, but I didn’t have many bad experiences. We formed a camera club and I did a lot of portrait work indoors then with a big camera - a Leica and a 2 1/4 by 3 1/4 Graflex on a tripod, using floodlights for still life, and a 3 1/2" x 4" J.H. Dallmeyer Junior Classic.
Oscar Sepol, a Latvian, taught me a lot about studio photography, how to develop films well, mix the chemicals and make good prints. He was a fantastic man. I had people come in and would photograph them, including my brothers and my father. You couldn't get the Japanese plates with emulsion on glass then. Sometimes you'd have only half the glass with emulsion. Oh, those guys could print. So I learned from them - 35 mm and special developers - that you had to get the chemistry and make it yourself.
JG : What made you decide to go to India?
ST : My parents were Parsis from India. The Parsis of India who number only 100,000 or so, ran into India around 600 AD when the Arabs overran the Middle East and you had to become Mohammedan. Later on they went into Spain and Portugal. That's where you get all that wonderful Spanish music. It’s all Arabic. I say to the French Canadians, it’s very difficult to lose your identity. We left our country and yet we have our identity. 1,300 years with hundreds of millions of Moslems and Hindus and we are still known as Parsis. So the Parsis are called fire worshippers. I tell Christians we are fire worshippers and you are cross worshippers. It’s only something to represent God. So my thinking, born and brought up not in India, but in China, was very different than my father. My father was very broad-minded. He managed two cotton mills in Shanghai and took me with him on his business trips to India many times as a kid. Our family made a trip across India when I was 19, so I was naturally drawn to the place.
J G : What was your first sensation ?
ST : Gee whizz. My God what a terrific country. Exotic, wonderful, fantastic. During my last visit when I went back in 1983 I was very disappointed. Now it has 8 million people and its filthy dirty. I was so shocked. I had lived in Bombay for 2 years in 1947- and 1948 when it was beautiful city of a quarter million. Bombay is on an island smaller than Montreal, just like from Ste. Anne de Bellevue to St. Denis St. I returned there with my ex-wife whom I had married in Shanghai and daughter who was then two years old. We intended to visit Kashmir for one month and ended up staying five months. That was when I met the Indian author Mulk Raj Anand, an eminently social, but shy man. He later wrote me to say that I reacted to the religiosity of India, not consciously, just that where people are poor they’re religious. Poverty and religion go hand in hand. That’s their only solace.
JG: How did you meet Cartier-Bresson?
ST: I was in Bombay in February 1948 and a Paris chap - I remember him well - said, "Have you heard of Cartier-Bresson ? He's giving a show." I said “No, I've never heard of him.” There was a magazine called Pop Photography that had a feature article on Cartier-Bresson that quite intrigued me, so I went to the show. Cartier-Bresson was talking to some Indian photographers who were asking all sorts of silly questions and eventually he broke away from them. I was introduced to him and took that rather well known portrait of him with sandals in a safari jacket, one of many portraits I took at that time.
JG : Did you go out with him when he was working?
ST : Yeah. In Bombay we wandered around the streets taking photographs. The following year I met him in Hong Kong and then in Shanghai. He lived in our home with his first wife who was Indonesian for about five months in 1949. Of course the Communists wanted to see everything we printed. So he and I got into a darkroom and I processed those negatives and made contact sheets. It was just great. From where I lived, in the extra-territorial zone I could see Nantao, the original settlement of Shanghai Chinese. I only went there when Cartier-Bresson came along. He went anywhere.
JG: You were publishing work with Life magazine and National Geographic as early as the 1940s and 1950s.
ST : The first thing I did for Life Magazine was in Shanghai. Bob Doyle, was their writer in charge of things. Unfortunately a year or so later in Djakarta Bob got killed by a bomb. He was a young man and in sympathy with what was going on and to be killed by the very people you have sympathy for is tragic. So Bob told me a couple of English people were holding out in the suburbs of Shanghai and the place was mined and still held by the Nationalists. They were trying to persuade these people to come into the city, but they wouldn't. I knew him because he was the Head of the Scout movement - Scout Commissioner Hawkins. So I said to Bob, “If you're going then I'm going too, mine fields or not.” So we went there and photographed putting up sandbags and the French flag, all that sort of stuff. I think finally they were persuaded to come into the city. So that was my first story for Life Magazine, about 4 or 5 photos. Later on I did a photo piece for a funeral ceremony of some rich Chinese in Hong Kong, another of escapees from China captured in Hong Kong and later freed.
Years later in 1955 Life sent me to do a story on the pilgrimage to Armanath in Kashmir. It was a Hindu pilgrimage though Kashmir is mostly Mohammedan. The bearers who carried the well-to-do Hindus on chairs and led the ponies were also Moslem. We gathered here at Pahlgam and proceeded up to the caves at Amarnath. I photographed the Moslems making chapatis, the procession making its 27-mile return by pony with the glaciers in the background. We only travelled in the morning up until early noon and would then camp. Life had wanted me to do a story on religion; however the editors decided they had too much religion and didn’t want it. So Christopher Rand, a very fine American writer who was with me on the trip, suggested I sell it to National Geographic. It appeared as Himalayan Trekking in their October 1956 issue.
JG: When you arrived in Canada in 1955 who did you work for?
ST : I did a lot of work for Weekend Magazine. There was an instance where I did a photo series of my daughter standing by the window. I forgot all about it. It was in my camera for about 4 months. So I took it and got it processed. I had forgotten what I had taken and there she was. So I took it to Phillip Surrey, photo-editor for Weekend Magazine . I didn't know he was an artist. He said if you can work this into a story on your daughter then I'll buy it. So I spent an afternoon with her and she was dancing. I asked her mother to pinch her and she started crying. It was a good story. Anything for a story.
JG : Some film, video and photography today is more about the image than experience.
ST : Yes. The problem with a lot of that kind of thing is that it makes the person feel self important. The only self-important person I will tolerate is the poet. The poet expresses what is within much more that the short story writer. The poet is really expressing emotion to the Nth degree. That's why when photographers look into themselves too much the viewpoint is so narrow. They don't seem to be concerned about the world around them. We live in a big world and a lot is happening. A lot is happening with people even in a little village. Life is going on, the flow of life. Life is a great theatre.
JG : Portrait photography has stayed with you throughout your career. It’s the subject of a book A Certain Identity; 50 Portraits. You make it look so easy, as if you’ve got all the time in the world. How do you approach your subject when taking a portrait, as theatre or a mutual kind of thing?
ST : Actually what you're doing is bringing out the subject's reaction to you. So it means that you have to spend some time. While you're sizing them up they're sizing you up. I will sit and talk with them for a while. They gradually become more quiet and accepting. And then they decide you’re OK. Some people are very shy, like Marie-Claire Blais who's now almost 50 years old. Even today she looks like she's just come out of university, always very young looking and on the defensive. Armand Vaillancourt is great. Guido Molinari loves it. He's all there. You can photograph him all day. But not Yves Gaucher ! He's a nervous cat always on his tiptoes. I’ve photographed a lot of photographers like Robert Frank at Charlie Gagnon’s apartment - a good photographer, a good painter, cinematographer, ... always cool. I photographed Edward Steichen who was with his brother-in-law Carl Sandberg in Stockholm while he was visiting the photographer’s group Tio. Marc Riboud, and of course the British photographer Bill Brandt in London. I consider the last one my best portrait. Bill Brandt wrote me a card saying that his wife thought it was the best portrait of Bill Brandt.
JG : When did you start doing portraits ?
ST : It’s my obsession – the portrait. I’ve been absorbed in the portrait more than anything else right from the beginning. I won a newspaper competition in Shanghai with a portrait of my youngest brother. Many of the people I photographed became good friends... the writers Hugh Hood and Ray Smith and the photographer Geoffrey James, who I met on an assignment for Time Magazine. I keep young by having friends. I'm already possibly regarded as old fashioned but I'm glad to see that a lot of young people are still doing reportage and are still interested in the drama of life that surrounds each of us daily. Photographing what is going on in the world reflects what is going on inside of us and a lot depends on luck. I once saw this old girl at a pay phone in Tokyo in 1973 and just as I was taking the photo, this young girl appeared on the scene. She wasn’t aware of me. I thought to myself, how lucky can one get? It made the photograph. We are very quick mirrors - instantaneous.
Sam Tata Shanghai 1949 was published by Batsford Books UK