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Semion Markovich Lifshitz

  • Given name:
  • Middle name:
  • Last name:
  • Alternative names:

    Sam Sanzetti; Semion Markovich Liphshitz; Семен Маркович Лифшиц Сэм Санзетти

  • Date of Birth:
  • Place of Birth:
    Armyans’k (UA)
  • Date of Death:
  • Profession:
  • Introduction:

    Sam Sanzetti was a precocious photographer and portrait artist, whose signature style came to define the aesthetic of the Shanghai bourgeoisie. The portraits produced in Sanzetti Studio, masterfully retouched and delicately hand-tinted, reflected the growing fascination with Hollywood.

    Word Count: 38

  • Signature Image:
    Sam Sanzetti, photography (© Israel-Asia Center).
  • Content:

    Semion Markovich Lifshitz was born in Armiansk, in Crimea. His parents moved to China when he was a child and he studied at a technical school in Harbin. In 1921, he came to Shanghai and became an apprentice at Josepho & Co – Shanghai’s first Russian photo studio, which opened in 1920 on Broadway. Lifshitz’s colleagues, such as Boris Lublin and Oscar Seepol, later became prominent photo artists in their own right, but Lifshitz outperformed them all, becoming Shanghai’s wealthiest émigré photographer.

    In 1925, at the age of eighteen, Lifshitz was operating his own photography studio on Nanking Road. Having changed his name to S. M. L. Sanzetti, Lifshitz made his potographic style recognisable and much sought after. The portraits produced in Sanzetti Studio, masterfully retouched and delicately hand-tinted, showed the sitters in elegant and modern poses, projecting glamour and serenity. They reflected the growing fascination with Hollywood and represented an idealised self-image of the Chinese and foreign bourgeoisie. The country’s elite happily posed for Sam Sanzetti: Lifshitz counted the diplomat Wellington Koo and the politician Sun Yat-sen among his clients.

    In an interview with The China Press in 1931, Semion Lifshitz explained his approach: “A photographer has to be clever enough to put his subject in a position and mood to get the best out of his soul […] A photographer has to be an artist, and an artist cannot worry about money or consider money in his work. If one is a good enough artist, enough money comes.” Aside from commercial portraiture, Sanzetti Studio produced vanity shoots for Shanghai socialites and photographed public and private events, art openings and military parades, to be reproduced in the local English-language newspapers. It was through the press, in 1929, that Sanzetti Studio introduced a useful novelty – photographic collages, then referred to as “trick pictorials.”

    Sanzetti’s popularity was stimulating for the market, but it also invited imitation and competition. An émigré photographer Zoia Zhdanova, owner of a photo salon on Bubbling Well Road, rebranded her business “Sanzetti Studio” after successfully registering this name as a trademark. When Lifshitz objected, Zhdanova sued him and Lifshitz counter-sued. After much deliberation as to whether “Sanzetti” was a personal or a trade name, the judge officially returned the pseudonym Sam Sanzetti to Semion Lifshitz. By the end of 1931, Lifshitz owned three branches of Sanzetti Studio and the studio of Paul de Gaston.

    In 1933, Leonid Skvirsky, from Harbin, partnered with Sam Sanzetti and they started to operate as Sanzetti & Skvirsky. As a talented photographer with his own distinctive style, Skvirsky introduced bolder, more intriguing lighting schemes and put his models into provocative poses. In June 1935, he married one of his models, the American actress Lulah Thompson, and bought Sanzetti’s share of the studio business. After Japanese hostilities began in Shanghai, the couple moved to Atlanta.

    Unable to get an exit visa and leave China, Semion Lifshitz stayed in Shanghai and continued to work under the name S. M. L. Sanzetti. The establishment of the Communist regime in 1949 forced him to transfer the studio business to the authorities and turn to teaching photographic art. According to some sources, he spoke fluent Mandarin and had married a Shanghainese woman, but he was alone in 1957 when he finally managed to leave China via Hong Kong. By some accounts, he took 20,000 of his photographs with him. Sam Sanzetti-Lifshitz died in 1986 in Israel.

    Word Count: 561

  • Media:
    Sam Sanzetti's studio on Nanking Road, photography (© Israel-Asia Center).
    S. M. L. Sanzetti, photographer’s signature, studio photograph, 1927, author’s collection.
    Whitey Smith Band, manipulated photography, The China Press, 3 April 1929.
    Semion Lifshitz in Shanghai, photography, around 1940 (© China).
  • Bibliography (selected):

    Abbe, Dan. "The Unlikely Shanghai Portrait Studio of Sam Sanzetti." Accesed 2 March 2021.
    Dittmar, Peter. "So sah Shanghais teuerster Fotograf seine Kunden." Accessed 2 March 2021.

    Word Count: 37

  • Author:
    Katya Knyazeva
  • Exile:

    Harbin, China (?–1921); Shanghai, China (1921–1957)

  • Known addresses in Metromod cities:

    73 (later 153) Nanking Road, International Settlement (now Nanjing Dong Lu, Huangpu Qu) (studio); 14 Kiukiang Road, International Settlement (now Jiujiang Lu, Huanpu Qu) (studio) Shanghai

  • Metropolis:
  • Katya Knyazeva. "Semion Markovich Lifshitz." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 20-06-2021.
  • Leonid Skvirsky

    Leonid Skvirsky was one of the most successful photographic artists in Shanghai. His experimental take on lighting and staging of the models ensured him critical acclaim, awards in international competitions and patronage of the elites.

    Word Count: 35

    Vladimir Zhiganov. Russkie v Shanghai (Russians in Shanghai), Shanghai 1936. Sam Sanzetti, Portrait of Leonid Skvirsky at work, photography.
    Victor Sassoon (with a camera), Leonid Skvirsky and model Lulah Thompson, in Skvirsky’s studio, 23 January 1935 (© DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University).Sam Sanzetti and Leonid Skvirsky, portraits of Shanghai society women, Shanghai Sunday Times, 19 February 1935.Stamp of Skvirsky Studio (© author’s collection).