Sam Tata’s life and photographs

By Andrea Kunard

Throughout his life, Sam Tata (1911-2005) created unique and powerful bodies of work that contain some of the most iconic images in Canadian photography. His enormously successful career also reveals a diverse and changing history of photography, from the period of the mid-twentieth century on. Tata assumed many photographic roles. He worked as a pictorialist, a peripatetic street photographer, a concerned photojournalist, and truth seeking documenter. His dedication to the medium generated numerous images of personalities and records of pivotal historical events.

Tata was born in Shanghai, the son of a Parsee mercantilist. At this time, Shanghai was large, prosperous and very cosmopolitan. The city was comprised of European expatriates, rich mixtures of Asian cultures, and great inequities of wealth, both between foreigners and the Chinese, and among the Chinese themselves. Tata took his first photographs with a box camera when he was twenty-four. He won second prize in a newspaper contest with a photograph of his brother, taken with his father’s Graflex camera. After meeting the well-known portraitist Oscar Seepol, Tata devoted himself to portraiture. Seepol encouraged him to purchase a quarter plate Thornton Pickard camera. Through the use of a single light source and reflector to depict facial features and articles of clothing in an even soft light, Tata created classic renderings of his subjects. His attention to careful composition and high detail produced very sensitive depictions of the elite, well-educated, and successful cultural class of Shanghai. Tata sometimes emphasized the sitters’ sophistication through the inclusion of environmental elements. For example, in his portrait of Mulk Raj Anand, he depicts the prominent Indian writer dressed fashionably in a Nehru jacket, seated with hands clasped, directly engaging the camera. Beside him is a bookshelf testifying to his literary interests: the poetry of William Blake, the novel Rickshaw Boy by Lao She, and numerous weighty tomes on European art. The portrait, Tata realized, was a composite art, as any picture is a mixture of both the sitter and photographer’s personalities.

Tata devoted himself to photography in Shanghai and helped found the Shanghai Camera Club. Clubs such as this were critical to the practice of photography at this time because they provided dark rooms, meeting places, and exhibition opportunities when few established art galleries were interested in the medium. Through the network of exhibitions, salon activities, publications, and slide exchanges the clubs provided, Tata became known to a broader, international public. He absorbed the work of the celebrated Australian photographer Julian Smith. He met the distinguished Chinese photographers Chin-San Long and Liu Shu Chong, exhibiting with the former in a two-person show in 1946. Throughout the thirties, Tata applied himself rigorously to studio work, a productive and safe activity because during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, to be caught outside with a camera had dire consequences. However, Tata did venture out at times, as seen in his work Rooftop Watchers, Sino-Japanese War, Shanghai (1937), where an elegantly dressed couple is framed in a formally exquisite setting. The woman appears slightly bored, but the man looks out intensely at the bloody fighting taking place as the Japanese invade the city.

In 1947, through the efforts of noted Indian pictorialist Jehanghir Unwalla, Tata had his first solo show in Bombay. Several months later, his life took a dramatic turn when he met Henri Cartier-Bresson who was working in India, and who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. Cartier-Bresson coined the term “decisive moment” to describe what he felt was the photographer’s capacity to recognize the precise moment when the dynamics of an event are in harmony with the pictorial elements that best express the event. Tata took up the mobile Leica again (he had used it prior to his portrait work) and started roaming the streets of Bombay in search of his subject matter. This exercise prepared him for events in Shanghai when he returned in 1949 to record the Communist takeover of the city.

When the Red Army entered Shanghai in 1949, there was widespread panic. Tata saw and recorded the kangaroo courts set up by fleeing Nationalists who tried and summarily executed “undesirables.” He also recorded the hordes of troops and citizens perched on top of crowded railway cars who, he observed, would be swept off by the first bridge they came to. Many had nowhere to go. For Europeans and Americans, there was a press to leave the country by any means possible. One photograph shows a worried Caucasian girl, neatly dressed in a jacket with white tam, knee socks, and penny loafers, clutching her doll, surrounded by a crush of people, luggage and deck chairs. Other photographs depict the entry of the troops into the city, and the sea of banners, flags, posters and street entertainment that came with them. The takeover was celebratory and terrifying.

In 1956, Tata came to Canada and settled in Montreal. He first earned a living doing portrait work, taking photographs of Canadian literary and artistic figures such as Michel Tremblay, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, George Bowering, Donald Sutherland, Alice Munro, and Gilles Vigneault. Eventually he moved into photojournalism, working for the National Film Board, corporate publications and magazines such as Macleans, Weekend, Chatelaine, and Time. For Tata, photojournalism was both a blessing, in that he could earn a living, and a limitation because he felt that in Canada photographers were hired to simply illustrate stories. In addition, photographs were often cropped to fit the page design. Photographers, Tata believed, could contribute as much to a subject as writers, and their work in its entirety should be respected.

Tata’s works are now shown in art galleries where their mixture of artistry and documentary value can be appreciated. In 1988, a major exhibition, “The Tata Era/l’Epoque Tata” was assembled by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography and toured the country. In all his works, Tata was a totally engaged photographer, seeking to visualize through his subject matter what he knew, thought, and felt, always desirous to take, as he put it, “the camera out to life.”[1]



[1] Sam B. Tata, “With a Camera in Shanghai,” Illustrated Weekly of India (31 December, 1950), n. pag.


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