Cameras of China
The dream of writing a book on the cameras of China has been rooted in Zhao Zhenxin's heart for 20 years. He aimed to record the history of Chinese cameras before the old cameras and their manufacturers disappeared completely.
To realize his dream, the 56-year-old has spent the past two decades searching out cameras manufactured all over the country.
Zhao has collected more than 300 cameras in different categories which were manufactured in China from the 1900s to the 1990s.
The Chinese Camera History Museum, as Zhao named his office, boasts abundant research materials on Chinese cameras.
The museum is nothing more than a little apartment on the first floor of a building in a run-down residential area in Shanghai.
Zhao bought the apartment in 2000 and converted the biggest room into the exhibition room for his precious cameras. Admission is free.
The smaller room was occupied by computers, piles of documents and books on photographing and cameras.
Nobody is likely to pay attention to the brown weather-beaten apartment. What distinguishes the little museum from the other old houses around is a board marked with its name and its collection of more than 300 cameras.
The earliest camera in Zhao's collection dates back to the early 1990s, but no record of the camera's specific history remains.
The small black box was believed to be one of the earliest cameras made in China, with a tiny lens and an iron rod serving as the shutter.
It used special film, smaller then the ordinary type and believed to be no longer obtainable.
The Shanghai 58-1 was another precious item. This hand-made camera, costing US$10,000, was one of the few Chinese-made models which could compete with its counterparts from other parts of the world.
"The old cameras recorded the history of China's industry and technology. Each camera has a story behind it," said Zhao.
Apart from the cameras, Zhao also collected many precious camera accessories such as the light meters from different times.
Zhao's collection and his research into cameras began with his experience of taking photos for his son.
He had to borrow a camera every month to take photos of his new born child. Cameras were regarded as luxurious possessions in China at that time.
He gradually became addicted to photography and craved his own camera. He spent a lot of time window-shopping in camera shops and second-hand goods stores for a camera he could afford.
He intended to buy an imported camera but the prices were too high since his monthly wages only amounted to 30 yuan (US$3.60) at that time.
He encountered a military officer in a second-hand goods shop who was trying to sell his camera, a German-made Leica.
Zhao bought the cameras for 70 yuan (US$8.50), spending all of his family savings.
The camera needed repairing, a complicated task for Zhao. Zhao's leisure time was completely consumed by the piles of camera parts, books on cameras and paying visits to experts. The camera was restored to working condition after a year's patient efforts.
Zhao interest in cameras blossomed following this experience.
His family often found him in camera shops, second-hand shops or recycling stations.
He also placed advertisements in newspapers looking for old cameras from all over the country.
As a salesman, he had the opportunity to travel to different places, where he could collect the cameras manufactured by local factories.
Idea for a book
It was Douglas St. Denny who gave Zhao his great inspiration. St. Denny wrote the first book on Chinese cameras in the 1980s.
Zhao was shocked to learn that the only history of Chinese cameras had been written by a foreigner.
The idea of writing a better book on Chinese cameras came to him when he found out there were a lot of mistakes in St. Denny's book.
He devoted himself even more whole-heartedly to the collection of old Chinese cameras, especially those made during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as those made before 1949, which were seldom mentioned in St. Denny's book.
Most of the Chinese cameras were the copies of foreign cameras. For example, Leica cameras from Germany and Sports cameras from the former Soviet Union were frequently copied.
The small number of each model meant finding an example was often difficult. Most had not been made for sale, and they had often been treated negligently.
Almost all of the 40-odd camera manufacturers had disappeared, with only two remaining in Shanghai. Zhao paid visits to many local manufacturers, only to find the old factories leveled to ground.
It was also hard to obtain information, with the manufacturers rarely welcoming his visits. A large proportion of Zhao's cameras were unaccompanied by fundamental information, lacking even a manufacturing date or address.
"It was the responsibility of the cameras to build a museum. But I shouldered it myself on behalf of the manufacturers, even the country. They thought it was my responsibility to do it," complained Zhao.
Zhao did not receive any financial support from the manufacturers, except for the occasional old camera.
In 1995, Zhao changed his job to international trade, achieving success that provided him with a more solid financial basis for his hobby.
He bought an apartment near the downtown to use as his museum and display his collection. The museum opened to the public in 2001 and has developed into one the biggest museums featuring old Chinese cameras.
What surprised Zhao was that the number of foreigners was larger than that of Chinese. Many of these foreign visitors were even familiar with Chinese cameras.
Yet Zhao found it hard to manage the museum on his own. It also proved quite expensive.
"Although my camera collection has cost most of my savings, my family stands by me," said Zhao.
His son, a computer programmer, built a web site for his father to help the museum expand its collection.
"It is impossible for a single individual to collect all the kinds of Chinese cameras along with the relevant information unless the government provides some support," Zhao said.
"The cameras are not only the tools of photographers and the possessions of collectors but also a witness of the development of the national camera industry."
Zhao said he would donate all his collections to the museum once it was built.
Zhao has now begun to write his book, "Cameras of China", on the basis of his abundant collection and accumulated knowledge.
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