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