1993 / 2月
Sunny Hsiao based extensively on material from Chien Yung-pin's In Search of the History of Taiwan's Photography Culture /tr. by Phil Newell
According to the judgement of Chien Yung-pin, author of the book In search of the History of Taiwan's Photographic Culture, following the transformation of society, there have been four main stages in the history of photography in Taiwan:
(1) The professional portrait school of the Japanese Occupation Era (which ended in 1945), (2) The spread of amateur photography, or the first generation of Taiwanized photography (1920--1950), (3) Realist photography, or the second generation of Taiwanized photography (1950--1975), and (4) The establishment of contemporary photography, or the third generation of Taiwanized photography (1975--present).
You could say that the professional portrait school of the Japanese occupation era was the fountainhead of the development of photography culture in Taiwan.
Generally speaking, before photographic techniques had really gotten a foothold in Taiwan, the "portrait hall" handed down from mainland China had been the only way for the masses to retain images of their parents and elders.
Although as early as the 1850's colonial powers vying to colonize Formosa made a photographic record of Taiwan, and later missionaries used cameras to photograph local customs and practice it was only after the island was made part of the Japanese empire that "technique" really began to "breed" in Taiwanese.
In order to develop highly skilled "daguerreotypes," Japan had established portrait classes and schools beginning in 1915. The Toyo School of Photography, established in 1929 to develop talents for the photography industry and to support portraitists, had the most Taiwan-origin students enrolled of any school. The course was limited to six months, with three months of preparatory curriculum and three of classes on the main subject.
Starting in the 1920s, more than 100 people went to Japan to learn topflight technique. The main consideration of most of those who went to Japan to study or apprentice was to open a portrait studio or sell equipment in the future.
Besides going to Japan to study or learn from a master, another path for Taiwan portraitists was to study in a studio in Taiwan opened by a Japanese photographer. The journey from apprentice to master took about three years and four months.
On another front, the trend in Japan toward the age of cultural commercialization, information dissemination, and widespread advertising brought with it a qualitative change in "artistic portraiture." Competition among professional studios became increasingly intense.
At this time, trained professional Taiwanese masters returned home in droves, with each setting up a shop. Sometimes the Taiwanese students turned out to be better than their Japanese teachers, and they stole quite a bit of business away from the Japanese portrait galleries.
Chien Yung-pin points out that the style adopted in the early period of Taiwan portrait prints essentially followed from the structure of painted portraits, without much thought put into the backgrounds. The most you could get was a dour, dignified looking subject sitting stiffly in a chair, with perhaps a few flower arrangements in the background.
Between 1920 and 1945, the following basic style appeared: the use of lighting became increasingly sophisticated, there was more flexible use of techniques for altering prints, special effects were developed, and so on.
In terms of the use of lighting, in the early period the departure of the sun was utilized to capture the image of dusk. But in this period, besides using patio glass arrangements to control the natural sunlight, portraitists also used semi-transparent cloth or black cloth to modulate the light source. Thus the photography of that time moved mostly toward a "soft style" of moderate-level richness.
In terms of touching up or altering of the film, you could say this was the key to success or failure for a Japanese occupation era studio. Besides taking out the wrinkles and improving skin quality, there were also techniques like "eye-opening" (changing closed eyes into open ones) and "backdrop-switching." Even the most ordinary of citizens could come out in the photo dressed in elegant finery, looking most elevated.
In terms of the development of special techniques, double and triple exposures were the most favored tricks of that age. Having one person appear in the same picture two or three times, with different costume, dramatically arranged, satisfied the desire of the average person to "play several roles."
"Oil portraits" and "watercolor portraits" were also in fashion in this period. Oil or water-based pigments would be applied by hand, to compensate for the fact that color photography was not very prevalent at that time.
At this stage, there was one especially interesting phenomenon. Because the Japanese military imposed strict order, any photography that included topographic features, military bases, or indeed any photo whose field of vision extended downward more than 45 degrees had to be approved by the military police. Thus it was difficult for ordinary people to photograph freely outdoors. As a result portrait studios and equipment shops became the natural gathering places for shutterbugs, leading directly to the diffusion of photography in Taiwan.
The technique of "added background depiction" involved altering a background directly on the emulsion of the plate glass. Film alteration was one of the required courses for Chen Li-hung when she studied in Japan. (photo by Chi Hsiu-mao, courtesy of Chien Yung-pin)