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Sam Bejan Tata

  • Given name:
  • Middle name:
  • Last name:
  • Date of Birth:
  • Place of Birth:
    Shanghai (CN)
  • Date of Death:
  • Place of Death:
    Sooke (CA)
  • Profession:
  • Introduction:

    Sam Tata, descendant of a Parsi family of merchants from India, was a photographer and photojournalist. He is known for his documentary style, his portraits and his documentation of the arrival of the victorious Communist troops in Shanghai in 1949 at the end of the Sino-Japanese War (1946) and the Civil War.

    Word Count: 50

  • Signature Image:
    Sam Tata, Rooftop Watchers, Sino-Japanese War, 1 January 1937, Shanghai, postcard (© authors collection).
  • Content:

    Tata worked and lived mainly in Shanghai, Bombay, Hong Kong and Montreal and worked with famous photographers of the time, such as Lang Jingshan (Chin San Long) and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Descendant of a Parsi family of merchants from India, he was born in Shanghai in 1911. After attending school there, he studied business in Hong Kong. In his mid-twenties he started to work as a photographer and became a founding member of the Shanghai Camera Club. He was interested in the techniques of studio portraiture and Oscar Seepol became his teacher. Seepol, a Latvian-born émigré of Russian descent, arrived in Shanghai from Harbin and ran a successful studio at 156 Hart Road (Chengde Lu), at the corner of Bubbling Well Road. He later moved to Bombay, where he was affiliated to the Hamilton Studio, which was originally founded by Victor Sassoon. He had a portraits studio at 156 Hart Road (Chengde Lu). Besides portraits, he was well known for producing photographic images of industrial sites in Shanghai. Tata also worked with other photographers, such as Lang Jingshan (Chin San Long), who was one of the first Chinese photojournalists to argue that Chinese photographers should develop a pictorial style based on traditional image making. (For some of his photographs he placed objects on photographic paper to have them traced by light, a process similar to that employed by Man Ray for his Rayographs). His somewhat ethereal and hazy images - which can be viewed in stark contrast to the documentary style of photography which made Sam Tata famous - play with the dichotomy between the quasi veristic technique of photography and the kind of mystifying imagery of tradition-based woodcuts, for example. Tata adapted this kind of pictorialist style in his early years and also worked at that time with the photographer Liu Xucang (Liu Shu Chong), who produced photographs for the famous and cutting edge Liangyou (The Young Companion) pictorial magazine.
    Sam Tata soon began to publish in British and American journals and magazines and in 1940 he had a photography exhibition in Bombay, conducted and organised by the Indian pictorialist Jehanghir Unwalla and the Bombay Art Society. He then moved to India, where he met Henri Cartier-Bresson, who introduced him to the so-called street style photography that Cartier-Bresson became famous for and advised him to always integrate the environment with people in his photos. According to Bresson, this allowed for the development of theoretical and practical approaches towards a careful, conscious and unobtrusive way of public photography, allowing the photographer to document the unaltered truth of a moment. Bresson’s photographic images are very consciously composed and later cropped in the darkroom. This way of working the images would characterise Tata's later photobooks such as Shanghai 1949 – The End of an Era and his observative approach to photography. Before returning to Shanghai, Tata photographically documented, together with Cartier-Bresson, the Indian independence movement (1946–1948) and even the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. In the following years he photographed the rise of communism in China. Cartier-Bresson and Tata went to Shanghai together and shared a darkroom, which was regularly controlled by communist censors. Tata moved to Hong Kong in 1952. Before that, he published the aforementioned Shanghai 1949 – The End of an Era, a photobook which can be read as a visual, almost cinematic, documentary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Tata interconnects specific views of Shanghai’s architecture, its inhabitants and the troops of the People's Liberation Army. During his last days in Shanghai, his photographic practice mainly revolved around political events. He considered his 1937 photograph of his friends Georg and Gralia Talbots watching the Japanese bombing of the Chinese-administered parts of the city from the relative safety of a rooftop in the International Settlement to be his first good photograph.
    In 1956 Tata emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where he established a career as a portrait photographer, portraying Leonard Cohen, Christopher Plummer, Buster Keaton and others, while being employed as a photo editor for The Montrealer Magazine and publishing in several other magazines such as Chatelaine and Time. In 1988 he had a retrospective exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. Tata received several honours and awards before he died in 2005 in Sooke, Canada.

    Word Count: 696

  • Media:
    McLachlan, Ian and Sam Tata. Shanghai 1949 – The End of an Era, New Amsterdam Books, 1989.
  • Bibliography (selected):

    Cartier-Bresson, Henri and Barbara Miller. China. Photographs and notes on fifteen months spent in China. Ishi Press, 2020.
    Landscape on Negatives. A special exhibition of Long Chin-San's Photographs Works. exh. cat. Hubei City Museum, Cultural Relics Press, 2012.
    Tata, Sam. Shanghai. 1949: The End of an Era. New Amsterdam Books, 1989.
    Tata, Sam. A Certain Identity: 50 Portraits by Sam Tata, Deneau, 1983.

    Yinxing Liu, Mia. “The ‘Emulative’ Portraits: Lang Jingshan’s Photography of Zhang Daqian.” Composite Realities: The Art of Photographic Manipulation in Asia, vol. 6, no.1, 2015.

    Archives and sources:
    National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
    National Portrait Gallery, London

    Word Count: 92

  • Archives and Sources:

    National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
    National Portrait Gallery, London

    Word Count: 8

  • Author:
    Mareike Hetschold
  • Exile:

    Hongkong (1952–1956), Canada

  • Known addresses in Metromod cities:

    330 Szechuan Road, Hongkou (Sichuan Bei Lu, Hongkou Qu) Shanghai

  • Metropolis:
  • Mareike Hetschold. "Sam Bejan Tata." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 20-06-2021.
  • Victor Sassoon

    Victor Sassoon was a descendant of the Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family. He contributed significantly to a real estate boom in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s and helped European Jews in the Shanghai Ghetto. An ambitious amateur photographer, he produced many images of people and events of the time.

    Word Count: 50

    Photograph of Victor Sassoon. G. L. “Die Immigration – ein Problem.” Shanghai Woche (Weekly Review), 30 March 1939, p. 3.
    Hahn, Emily. China to Me. A Partial Autobiography. BCE, The Blakiston Company, 1944, cover.