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“The Stage’s a World: Photography and Design in May’s Studio, San Francisco, 1920-1930s”

Chang Tan, Assistant Professor of Art History and Asian Studies

Photography has always aimed to not only document reality but also to create fantasy. Photographic practices in diasporic communities in particular construed worlds that transcended time and space. In this talk, I discuss the surviving photographs, backdrops, and ephemeras of May’s Studio in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the early twentieth century. I show how those elaborately staged and manipulated images performed political and personal connections with the Republic of China while compressing and blending diverse visual and material cultures, resulting in layered sceneries that were spectacular, hybrid, and surreal. The photographers collaborated with local painters and theatres to build such fantastic worlds; used as the background of their sitters, they helped embellish and enrich the agency of the Chinese diaspora, projecting a story of wealth, brilliance, and (almost supernatural) strength in an era that was still governed by institutionalized racism against Asian communities. As part of my larger project that studies the design and staging of studio portraits in diasporic “Chinas,” this talk highlights the importance of vernacular photography in the development of visual culture and in the formation of identities.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021 at 11:00am

Virtual Event

Faculty, Staff, Undergraduate Students, Graduate Students


Humanities Institute
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