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March 5, 2013

Beautiful Shanghai Studio Portraits From the 1920s

In 1921, Sioma Lifshitz, also known as Sam Sanzetti, a Russian of Jewish heritage, jumped on a British boat from Vladivostok, beginning an incredible journey to Shanghai.

Born in 1902 on Russia’s Crimean Peninsula, Sanzetti never attended school, but received education from his schoolteacher father. At 13, he followed his parents to Harbin, China, where he worked two years as a delivery boy in a department store. When his family moved back to Russia, Sanzetti began working construction rebuilding a demolished foundry, and his employer dispatched him to Vladivostok to acquire some parts. “There,” said Sanzetti, “I was prevented by the Japanese from carrying out my mission and was forced into hiding. The day after Japan’s ‘slaughter night,’ I escaped to Shanghai.” At that point, he was 17.

In the years that followed, Sam Sanzetti made a living shining shoes. Eventually, he opened a photo studio, and business expanded until he was operating four Shanghai branches and employing 41. The studio was first located on 73 Nanking Road (today 73 Nanjing Dong Lu), near the Bund and just behind the Palace hotel (today Swatch Art Peace Hotel).

Construction on the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel) was on-going at that time very and the opening in 1929 certainly also helped his business. The central position in the business center allowed him to become the photographer of the rich and famous in Shanghai, surely meeting with other successful business people of the time.

Over three decades, he took more than 20,000 photos and attracted celebrity clients, including the Italian envoy to Shanghai during the Mussolini regime, the local representative of the Pope, India nobles, the mother of Soong Tse-ven (1891-1971), a prominent businessman and politician of early 20th-century China, movie stars, and tycoons.

As the most successful photography studio in Shanghai at the time, he catered primarily to the middle class and above, who could afford such an expense.


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