Sam Sanzetti: A Shanghai Photographer (1902-1986)

Ordinary professional commercial photographers tend to leave few traces behind them. Unlike a Robert Capa or a Henri Cartier-Bresson who became famous worldwide for their artistic or field photographs, they easily fall into oblivion despite the wealth and scope of pictures they produced. Yet, because what they photographed belonged mostly to the “ordinary”, portraits of common people (at least few became famous), it did not register in the history of photography. And yet, these photographs also offer a certain angle from which to look at how people had themselves represented in front of the camera. I have brought together a selection of 43 pictures gathered from three different web sites to introduce Sam Sanzetti and his work on Virtual Shanghai.

Sam Sanzetti belongs to a long genealogy of such commercial photographers in Shanghai whose career and fate went largely unnoticed. In part, this was due to their activity, which did not aim at high artistry (which does not preclude actual talent). But in the case of foreign photographers established in Shanghai before 1949, history simply shoved them aside when political change forced them to relocate outside of China when they no longer saw any hope to maintain their activity there after the communist takeover. Sam Sanzetti left Shanghai in 1957 — his second major migration in a lifetime — five years after his compatriot, also a major studio photographer, Micheal (Misha) Melnikoff.

Sam Sanzetti was born Sioma Lifshitz, to a Jewish family in Russia; his father was a schoolteacher. At 13, he followed his parents to Harbin, China, where he worked for two years as a delivery boy in a department store. At 15, he went to work for the Chinese Eastern Railway as a lathe specialist. Two years later, he re-joined his parents in Russia, after a railway labor strike. His family had moved to Siberia, where revolutionary forces had just taken over. Sanzetti started to work on restoring a demolished metal factory, and he was sent to Vladivostok to acquire some parts required for the job. “There,” writes Sanzetti, “I was prevented by the Japanese to carry out my mission and for some time was in hiding, and the day after the ‘slaughter night’ staged by the Japanese I escaped to Shanghai. I arrived in Shanghai in May 1921.”

According to an article written about Sanzetti in a 1928 photography magazine, he already had some experience taking photographs before he arrived. Once in Shanghai, he started working at the studio of a local photographer, “and after a few months became so interested in studio work that when an American business man offered to establish a studio for him in Shanghai he was quite willing to accept the offer.”  Sanzetti was able to build up one of the most successful photography studios in Shanghai, eventually opening up four branches throughout the city. When he left China after 30 years, in the 1950’s, he did so with 20,000 photographs in his bags.

Sanzetti spoke fluent Chinese Mandarin and Shanghainese, and married a Shanghainese lady. He left Shanghai in 1957 for Israel where he continued his activity as a photographer. He stayed there until his death in 1986. Unfortunately, very little is know of his work and the collection of photographs he produced through his lifetime. His setpson, Moshe Dexler, inherited the photographs and films of Sam Sanzetti, but many of them were in bad shape already. In 2011, the Israeli Consulate in Shanghai posted a selection of 200 portraits on its Weibo account, which led to half a dozen people coming out as those portrayed by Sanzetti. Although plans have been made to present Sam Sanzetti’s photographs is exhibitions, nothings has materialized so far. The actual location of the extant original collection is unknown.

Main sources:

Photography of China web site

So sah Shanghais teuerster Fotograf seine Kunden

NARA Bureau of foreign and domestic commerce (RG151)

During my last visit to NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) in Washington D.C. — in fact the facility located at College Park, Maryland —I had planned to re-visit the Consular Trade Report series. I may write later on my most recent findings in this series, but today I wish to point to another extremely valuable collection.

Thanks to the advice and precise indications provided by Cécile Armand (post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University), I “visited” the RG 151 series. It is made up of the reports and documents produced by the Bureau of foreign and domestic commerce, an agency that existed between 1912 and 1953. It included four units: Office of International Trade, Office of Business Economics, Office of Business and Defense Services, ad Office of Field Services. I was not able to ascertain which office posted officials abroad (commercial attaché), but the American representatives in China conducted numerous surveys on various aspects of business, including field work during which they took numerous photographs in various parts of China. One of the qualities of these photographs is that they were sent as part of the reports, usually mounted on cardboard with indications on place (not always in precise terms), date (usually precise), activity and topic.

Altogether, this represents hundreds of pictures by practical-minded and business-oriented American officials that cover topics rarely recorded by photographs (although there is of course some overlap with pictures seen elsewhere). Yet these commercial attaché were interested in understanding how commercial networks operated, how the transportation system worked, how American goods circulated in China and of course how to promote the sale of U.S. products in China. They focus on very practical aspects of economic life throughout China (see below)

Very few scholars have used this collection of photographs, and probably nobody in the China field. I explored it with increasing curiosity and excitement. I believe I have collected all that could be found on Shanghai (distributed in various topical folders), but also on various aspects of economic activity in China, which I am currently uploading and sharing Virtual Shanghai’s sister web platforms, and especially with Cécile Armand’s MadSpace platform.



New paper on the space of cinema in Shanghai (1919-1943)

Historian Zhao Weiqing (赵伟清) has contributed a new essay on the Virtual Shanghai platform on the process and underlying factors of change in the space of cinema in the foreign settlements of Shanghai before 1949. Written in Chinese and entitled 上海租界内电影院空间分布的演变过程及原因探析(1919-1943)[Shanghai zujie nei dianyingyuan kongjian fenbu de yanbian guocheng ji yuanyin tanxi], the papers offers original insight on the rise of cinema in the city. In the first decades of the 20th century, Shanghai  became China’s most important film center, both for production and distribution. The city hosted the largest number of movie theaters in China. From the establishment of the first theater in 1908 by a Spanish national, the distribution of movie theaters gradually transferred and expanded from the Hongkou District, north of Soochow Creek  (Suzhou River)  to the south bank of the International Settlement. This paper uses geographic information system to document and examine the characteristics of the distribution of movie theaters in the city from the perspective of population, traffic, war and other aspects. It analyze a series of factors leading to the particular geographical distribution and discusses the possible links between the space of cinema and urban development and urban cultural space .

Workshop: La fabrique numérique du passé. Sources, outils, récits: “What next?”

On Friday 16 September, IrAsia (Research Center on Asia) will hold a workshop (9h-18h) on the use of digital technologies and the exploration of the past. The event will take place at the Pôle Multimedia (Building T1) in the Schuman Campus of Aix-Marseille University at Aix-en-Provence. All presentations will be made in French.


Matinée – 9h00-12h15

9h00 – Ouverture et introduction

Christian Henriot (AMU) – Gérald Foliot (CNRS, Huma-Num)

9h20    – Bernard Cousin (AMU), Eric Carroll (AMU)

Le mur numérique des ex-voto peints provençaux

10h00  – Sophie Gebeil (AMU)

Le web comme source pour l’historien : la fabrique numérique des mémoires de l’immigration maghrébine sur le web français de 1999 à 2014

10h40  – Pause café/thé

10h55  –  Jean-Pierre Dedieu (CNRS)

De la source à la base de données. Les Répertoires d’Extrême Orient

11h35  – Anne Kerlan (IHTP, CNRS-Université Paris 8)

« Loin d’Hollywood » : une base de données croisées pour une histoire globale du cinéma

Après-midi – 13h45

14h00 – Cécile Armand (IAO)

MADSpace : un compagnon numérique pour écrire l’histoire spatiale de la publicité à Shanghai dans la première moitié du XXe siècle (1905-1949)

14h40  – Christian Henriot (IrAsia, AMU)

August 1937. Death en masse in Shanghai : A VizStory narrative

15h10 – Fleur Chabaille (Inalco, IAO)

Interpréter, écrire et publier le visuel : un retour réflexif sur Scalar

15h50  – Pause

16h00 – Mou Zhenyu (Collegium de Lyon/SASS)

Cadasters, land market and urban transformation in the foreign settlements of Shanghai (1843 – 1943)

16h40 – François Guillemot (CNRS, IAO)

Virtual Saigon : Retour d’expérience sur quatre années de collecte et de développement

17h10  – Discussion finale




Virtual Shanghai just published on line the Chinese version —— 1937年8月:戰爭與平民的集體死亡 —— of “August 1937: War and the death en masse of civilians” presented by Christian Henriot at the “War in History and Memory: An International Conference on the Seventieth Anniversary of China’s Victory for the War against Japan” (戰爭的歷史與記憶:抗戰勝利七十週年學術討論會), Academia Historica 國史館 (Taipei), 7-9 July 2015.


The original English version will be published soon as well. The printed version can be found in Lü Fangshang (ed.), War in History and Memory, Taipei, Academia Historica, 2015, 492-568.



The 1932 Shanghai Battle (淞滬戰爭)

On 18-19 May 2015, the French Société Asiatique (Asian Studies Society) held its annual conference at the Collège de France on “War in the societies of the Orient and the far East.” The conference brought together a wide array of scholars across time periods and boundaries, from ancient Egypt to medieval India, from the Ottoman empire to Vietnam. This provided the “War made Shanghai” group to present for the first time a work in progress on the 1932 Shanghai Battle.

Crédit photo: Fr. Guillemot


The presentation is based on unique Japanese military sources, including a full set of battle maps, a complete case study of the conflict produced for the training of Japanese officers, multiple visual documents, graphs, etc. The various materials have been processed through GIS into an integrated database. The main line of inquiry was to explore a core question: What does spatial approach bring into the analysis and interpretation of the Shanghai Batttle ? At this preliminary stage of analysis and interpretation, we contend that spatial analysis reveals patterns of warfare that highlight a combination of the use of modern weaponry (mass destruction, mobility) and past military strategy models (trench war) that reflected the nature of the battle ground. The contending parties met with a difficult and challenging terrain that played to the advantage of the disadvantaged Chinese troops and stalled Japanese battle plans and tactics which the latter overcame only through a massive input of weaponry.

Three people were involved in the preparatory work of this presentation, Christian Henriot (IAO), Zhang Peiyao (postdoctoral fellow, IAO), and Charlotte Aubrun (GIS specialist, IAO). The presenters were graced with the presence of two major historians of China in France, Prof. Alain Roux and Prof. Xiaohong Xiao-Planes (with whom they enjoyed a happy lunch).

From let to right: Zhang Peiyao, Christian Henriot, Xiaohong Xiao-Planes, Alain Roux

From let to right: Zhang Peiyao, Christian Henriot, Xiaohong Xiao-Planes, Alain Roux


Prelude to “The French Concession and modern Shanghai” Conference

As an opening to the delocalized session of the “The French Concession and modern Shanghai” (“法租界与近代上海国际学术讨论会”分会场会议) that took place on May 22, two doctoral students — Liu Zhe and Jiang Jie — have composed a film prelude that we are proud to present today in avant-première. The full panel will be made available after the closing session of the conference on May 28, 2014. Enjoy !


Wenhuibao interview: C. Henriot

The Shanghai-based Wenhuibao (文汇報), one of the main newspapers in the East China metropolis, has published a long interview of Christian Henriot (安克强) by journalist Ren Siwen (任思蕴) on historical research on Shanghai, digital technologies and the use of GIS in history. The interview, entitled “地理信息系统是关涉到想象力的技术” (GIS is a technology that matters to the imagination) appeared in the “Wenhui scholars” (文汇学人) section of the newspaper.

“Wars made Shanghai” gets an official head start

The coordinators (Prof. Ma Jun 馬 軍 and Chr. Henriot 安克強) and the members of the SASS team (Prof, Jiang Wenjun 江文君, Li Zhiming 李志茗, and Mou Zhenyu 牟振宇; Ph.D graduates Lu Ye 陆烨 and Yue Qintao岳钦韬) of the “Wars made Shanghai” project have held three work sessions in the course of April 2013 to get the joint research project started. Moreover, one of the members of the IAO team, Prof. Christine Cornet,  will soon be in Shanghai for research in the archives and will team up with the SASS scholars.

The first session held on 10 April was devoted to an overview of the project, the presentation of each participant’s  past and current research, the set of tools to be used in the implementation of the project, as well as the modes of collaborative work. All the participants contributed to a lively discussion of the challenges ahead.

During the second session on 17 April, Christian Henriot made a presentation of the French institutional setup, especially the system of joint research units (UMR) and the unusual mix of institutions that characterizes French research units. Henriot took the opportunity of this presentation to introduce a mind-mapping application (X-mind) to demonstrate the flexibility of this application for “brain-storming”. This was followed by Feng Yi’s (馮藝) presentation of the digital resources for research at the Institut d’Asie Orientale, especially BN-IAO (IAO’s digital library), which the participants will use in the course of the project.

Finally, Henriot introduced the participants to one of the major digital applications to be used, Actoz, designed and developed by Prof. Jean-Pierre Dedieu in France. Actoz is a Filemaker-powered application. It is based on a thorough analysis of what constitutes historical data and how such data can to be broken down into significant units. Actoz  is a most powerful tool not just to store historical data, but to establish multiple links, many unforeseen or invisible to the human mind, through the data, to keep track of all the original sources and documents, to establish elaborate genealogies, to handle all kinds of cultural objects in relation with their contributors, and to integrate spatial data. This short description does not make justice to the many features to be found in Actoz, but it seemed important to highlight what amounts to a serious attempt at historical modelling. Training sessions on Actoz are to take place in Lyon in the spring and the fall, with follow up sessions in Shanghai.


In the last session held on 25 April, the participants turned to a presentation of their proposed main lines of inquiry in the joint project. They formulated research directions based on their previous scholarly achievements that can match the objectives of the project. While each will pursue one’s own line of work, each will contribute to the collaborative platform based on Virtual Shanghai. Since collaborative work also requires both discussion and coordination, participants will avail themselves of a closed-circuit Wiki for internal discussions and well a regular meetings, real or online, every two months. One of the major features of the “Wars made Shanghai”  project, aside from substantive research, will definitely be the use of a large array of dedicated digital instruments to promote a new approach to history in both China and France.

The ‘Wars made Shanghai” Blog

‘Wars made Shanghai’: Toward a spatial history of 19th-20th-century Shanghai (1842-1952)” is a new collaborative project between the Lyon Institute of East Asian Studies (IAO) and the Institute of History of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. This project was selected by the French National Research Agency (ANR) under its 2012 Open Call for Projects. It will develop over 2013-2016. One segment of the project also received the financial support of the Rhône-Alpes Region under its CMIRA Research Grant Program. This blog will serve as a platform to present and discuss issues and highlights during the course of the project. English and Chinese will be the two mediums in which we shall communicate.

The P.I.s of the project are Prof. MA Jun (马 军), senior research fellow at the Institute of History (SASS) and Prof. Christian Henriot (安克強), professor at the University of Lyon and research fellow at the Lyon Institute of East Asian Studies (IAO). Prof. Ma and Prof. Henriot have a shared interest in the social history of Shanghai in the XXth century and have initiated collaboration on various projects in the past. The research team involved in ‘War made Shanghai’ includes a dozen scholars and Ph.D. candidates. Their profile will soon be available on the Virtual Shanghai platform.

In this project, we plan to address two challenges, one in terms of work hypothesis and one in terms of methodological approach. The history of Shanghai has been told from the angle of modernization, westernization, and astounding economic development. In other words, Shanghai appears in most narratives as a « success story ». A success indeed it was. And precisely, an even more astonishing success when one looks closely at the history of warfare and violence in the city. In this project, we argue that the development of Shanghai as an urban territory was conditioned by issues of defense and conflict. Shanghai thrived and prospered out of war. From the initial military foray and brief occupation by British troops in 1842 to the civil war (1945-49) and its ripples in post-war China, all through the civil rebellions (1853-55, 1860-61), revolutionary movements (1911, 1925-1927), and Sino-Japanese conflicts (1932, 1937), the city was the seat of forms of violence that affected both the spatial configuration, the distribution, composition and activities of the population, and the whole economic structure.

Wars have a tremendous impact on territories and their populations. Many cities were, at one point in their history, subjected to the grueling consequences of warfare. Some have suffered repeated assaults, successive cycles of destruction and reconstruction, displacement of population, and as a consequence, a remolding of their environment. Yet only a few large modern metropolis have gone through such cycles of sudden and thorough destruction, followed by periods of more or less rapid reconstruction, involving a massive regeneration of their populations. In this project, we plan to demonstrate that Shanghai represented an exceptional – though unfortunate — case of an urban space that from the mid-19th century to the late 1940s was engulfed in several conflicts. The city can also claim the sad record of having been the first city in the world to be exposed to and ravaged by the most modern weaponry and to have suffered from heretofore unknown levels of violence.

From a methodological perspective this project proposes to explore the history of war and civilian violence in Shanghai over a long century (1842-1952) from the perspective of  spatial history and seeks to establish the determinants and modes of transformation of the city that resulted from warfare. It sits at the interface of history and geography. The methodological approach to be adopted fits in the realm of “digital humanities”, in particular digital history. It will rely on the use of digital instruments tailored for and by  historians in the collection and processing of historical data, as well as in historical narratives.