The man responsible for our image of Mao Zedong never actually took a photo of the founder of the People's Republic of China. He worked in the dark room, where he retouched the State leader's photos or negatives to create the iconic images we are familiar with today.
Chen Shilin is not as famous as those photographers who took the shots, but his influence remains from the portrait of Mao hanging in Tian'anmen Square, to his image on 100-yuan bills.
"I can tell you one thing I never told anyone else before," the 79-year-old Chen says in his tree-room apartment in Beijing. "You know the poster of Mao in a field of wheat, with straw hat? There was someone else in the original photo.
"It was Liu Shaoqi (then vice-president of China). I removed Liu's image and drew some wheat plants in his place so the picture could be made into millions of posters. Before this, the photo had been dumped among the discarded files."
The photo was taken in 1957 and heavily used for political propaganda during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
Chen started his career as a darkroom apprentice in 1944, after he was expelled from a leading middle school in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, for failing to learn Japanese well during the occupation of Japanese invaders.Two years later he went to work at a big photo studio in Nanjing.
He came into contact with many famous people, including artist Chang Dai-chien (Zhang Daqian) and Yang Yanxiu - one of the leaders of the Communist Party of China.
"I did a lot of leg work for them," he says.
Between 1948 and 1949, Chen worked in Hong Kong and Taiwan for the then famous Hong Kong Daguangming Film Company and received training in retouching film, or editing photos.
He returned to the mainland in July 1950, from Hong Kong, and joined the Photo Department of the national news agency Xinhua, to become a leading figure in photo processing.
He retouched the four official portraits of Mao. The first one was cut from a group photo taken in 1950 when Chairman Mao posed for photos with a group of model workers.
"I scraped out the figure over his shoulder and drew curtains as a background." This became the first official portrait of Mao. The image can be seen on today's 100-yuan bills.
"Mao was too busy after the foundation of New China. You could not ask him to sit for a photo and listen to your directions, ' look this way, that way'," Chen says.
In 1949, four photographers were commissioned to take photos of him, but the quality of the photos was not suitable for a large-scale circulation because of their poor equipment and technique. "Our only option was to select one from group photos."
The tools Chen used in those times were quite primitive.
"I used sharpened clockwork springs and doctors' scalpels to scrape photos," he recalls.
Other tricks included special paints, brush pen and chemicals for photo or negative film processing.
The second official photo was also derived from a group photo and was repaired and retouched.
"The only shortcoming was that I repaired them so well that the hair looked a little fake," Chen says.
The third official photo was processed at the end of September, 1959 after two photographers had been dispatched to take pictures of Mao - but again the pictures were considered unsatisfactory.
Nevertheless Chen chose one and began working on it, drawing in "heavy shades, creases on coats and even a lampshade visible in the background."
The fourth and the final official portrait photograph was shot in 1964 and is the basis for the reproduction currently on show in Tian'anmen Square. The photos were shot in bad light, Chen says.
"The heavy shading on the nose made Mao look aged and tired. They gave me the photos without saying a word. Who dare say anything? If you spoke bad words about the photos, you were taken as talking bad words about Mao. I didn't say a word either, and shut myself in the dark room for a week."
"There was too much retouching that needed to be done. There was insufficient light, the shadowing and highlights were blurred and the layers were indistinct. ... Even the eyeballs and the eyelids were not clearly defined."
Chen magnified the contrast and improved the image. When Chen met Mao's daughter Li Na in 1998, she said the fourth official photo was processed so well that "whatever direction you were looking at it from, you felt as if Mao's eyes were looking at you."
"She told me Mao liked it very much and chose the photo himself."
Chen also developed a method of replicating negative films, and helped copy tens of thousands of negatives used by national media.
Today, Chen's hobby is collecting antique porcelain. He said the coloration of chinaware has something in common with photo processing.
Also, Chen says, he collects china because he wants to show his former friends and colleagues in Taiwan that he is doing well.
"They were my childhood friends. They said you should have stayed in Taiwan in stead of returning to the mainland. You look poor and live in such a small apartment.
"I decided to show them I am not as poor as they think. I arranged lots china in my study so no one could say the owner of so many antiques was not well off.
"I have just one shortcoming: Whoever says bad things about the Communist Party of China, I will argue with them."
Each time when the Tian'anmen Square painting of Mao changes, Chen says he visits and takes a photo with the new painting. But he had no apprentice, and none of his three children has followed his steps into the profession.
"It demands practice from childhood, sensitivity towards art and shrewd eyes to discern shade and contrast on a picture. People do not use these crafts today, they have computers."
Chen also uses computers and digital cameras, but he is currently working on pictures of Mao using his traditional paint and pen and scalpel.
"Computers are good because they can reduce human labor, but they cannot reproduce the original scenes," Chen says.
(Xinhua News Agency February 7, 2008)