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His Camera Captured Mao's Conquest of Shanghai : Exhibits: Photojournalist Sam Tata didn't realize he was witnessing history. "I just photographed," he says, of works going on display Saturday in Fullerton.

January 11, 1990|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1949, when photojournalist Sam Tata watched Communist troops take over his home town of Shanghai, China, recording the events was evidently more important to him than any recognition he might later receive.

"At that time, I wasn't presumptuous enough to say, 'Well, here I am, witnessing history,' " said Tata recently. "I was in my city of birth, I had a camera, and I just never left the house without it. That's what I did. I just photographed."

But Tata, now 78, made a significant contribution with his Shanghai photographs, according to Ann Thomas, who organized an exhibit of Tata's images that opens Saturday at the Fullerton Museum Center. It is the only scheduled United States stop for the show that has been touring Canada.

Tata's documentation "is the only visual record of the actual arrival of the Communists in Shanghai that I've come across," said Thomas, an assistant curator at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. The museum is an affiliate of the National Gallery of Canada, the country's government-supported art museum.

"End of an Era: Shanghai 1949" features more than 80 black-and-white photographs taken just before Shanghai fell on May 25 and in the days and weeks afterward. Among the images are scenes of frightened hoards cramming train stations to flee Mao Zedung's approaching troops, brutal trials of suspected Communists before the takeover and patriotic parades led by the People's Liberation Army.

Tata, who has lived in Canada since 1956, was the son of wealthy Indian immigrants. He began dabbling in photography in his early 20s, while employed in the offices of his father's cotton factory.

Though his first photographs showed Shanghai's bustling city streets, he later took up pictorialism, creating mostly posed portraits in a controlled studio environment. But in his late 30s, on a lengthy trip to Bombay ("My father was very indulgent, I didn't have to support myself"), he met and befriended photography great Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Known for capturing life's fleeting moments and for his loathing of staged photographs, Cartier-Bresson greatly influenced Tata, who, temporarily at least, gave up his studio work and returned to the streets of Shanghai. There, with his hand-held Leica camera, he captured the events of 1949 as they unfolded.

"I had nothing set in my mind," Tata said during a telephone interview from his Montreal home. "I'd go out into the streets and whatever I saw I photographed. I didn't avoid anything or seek anything out."

That left plenty of fodder, however.

As the Red army neared, toppling the Chinese Nationalist government in city after city, many of Shanghai's residents panicked and thousands fled. The takeover proved to be swift and practically silent. The Communists met with little resistance, mainly because the corrupt Nationalists had caused raging inflation. But the population feared the collapse of their economy nonetheless.

"People didn't know what to expect, where to go and what to do, and there was a great sense of panic and rushing around," Tata said.

"North Station, Shanghai," taken just before the invasion, shows a train, about to depart, on top of which sit hundreds who couldn't find seats inside. "Many of these people were swept off by the first bridge they came to," said Tata, whose work has appeared mostly in Canadian magazines since he settled there.

Similarly, in "Young Foreign Refugee Waiting to Embark on the 'Hoosier Victory,' " a well-dressed Caucasian girl clutching a doll waits anxiously amid a crush of suitcases. Several photographs depict the flight of Shanghai's wealthy foreigners.

In sharp contrast to these frenzied scenes, however, are photographs shot after the Communists' quick and nearly bloodless takeover during the night of May 25. Many residents learned of the takeover only in the next day's newspapers, as illustrated in "Men Reading Newspapers on the Morning After the Liberation of Shanghai."

"That night, I was awakened by machine-gun fire and I thought, 'Should I seek refuge under my bed?' " Tata said. "But I said, 'Oh, never mind, to hell with it,' and went right back to sleep. The next morning it was all over. . . . Shanghai went out not with a bang, but a whimper."

"The End of an Era: Shanghai 1949" runs Friday through Feb. 11 at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton. Featured are more than 80 black-and-white photographs by photojournalist Sam Tata depicting the 1949 Communist takeover of Shanghai, China. Among educational programs offered in conjunction: "Image Makers: Traditions in Documentary Photography," a slide lecture on Feb. 4 at 2 p.m., and "Beijing '89: China and the Media," a panel discussion on Feb. 7 at 8 p.m. Information: (714) 738-6545.

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