Home Feature Articles Street Photography with a Hasselblad: China in the 1980s and early 1990s

Street Photography with a Hasselblad: China in the 1980s and early 1990s


Since its inception, photography has been one of the most effective mediums for transporting us to worlds distant in time or space. In this article, I will return you to a world which existed many decades ago on the other side of the globe. It is a companion piece to a recent story about visiting pre-modern China with a Leica M6. This time, I was accompanied by a very different camera set up.

Before acquiring my Leica M6, I visited China with a Hasselblad 500C/M, with 80mm Planar and 250mm Sonnar lenses. I used a waist-level finder, along with a couple of A12 film backs loaded with TMX 100 film. I usually took a hand-held Gossen light meter, but later preferred a meter prism finder. This combination, while much more cumbersome than the Leica kit to which I later converted, did allow me to take some excellent street shots from a camera more associated with scenic and portrait photography. If I limited myself to just the waist level finder, one film back, and the 80mm lens, it was a very compact system.

Visiting pre-modern China

At the time of my visit, China was just emerging from a primitive state. Visiting pre-modern China afforded great opportunities for photography. Everywhere I wandered, there were many fascinating people and very interesting old buildings and streets. Among the cities I visited with my Hasselblad were Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Even in the mid-to-late 80s, I really had no restrictions on where I went with camera in hand. Most people I encountered on the street did not mind having their picture taken.  

The following images convey a sense of what it was like to visit China at the time. To obtain sharp, hand-held images, I usually shot at 1/250s or 1/500s. I accepted the aperture that gave me the best exposure. In bright sun, the Hasselblad lenses could be set at EV15 for ISO 100 film. That was usually a good starting point for proper exposure. Focusing and framing using the waist level finder was much slower than my experience with previous SLR cameras and, of course, later with the Leica M6.

Note the typical poor atmospheric pollution in some of the images! It was impossible to escape the smell of sulphur in the air.

Beyond Beijing and Shanghai

To get a more complete picture from visiting pre-modern China, I travelled around the country. Chengdu is the capital city of Sichuan Province and is situated on the Jin River. It was and still is the fourth-largest city in China. At the time of my visit, I encountered quite a few older residents, making me wonder if they had participated in Mao’s “Long March” in the 1930s.

Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, has been prominent for over 2000 years and was the maritime terminus for the Silk Road. Located on the Pearl River, it is near Hong Kong and Macau and a very busy port city.

China’s largest city

Shanghai is China’s largest city, with the greater urban area exceeding 40 million people. Shanghai is different from other large cities due to the presence of the Bund, the remnants of European settlement.  Many of the buildings in the Bund were built in European-style architecture beginning in the 1800s, along the banks of the Huangpu River.  Until the 1930s, the area was the centre of foreign activity and trade in Shanghai and operated as a legally protected treaty port. At the time of my visit, the Bund was frozen in time, as it had looked in the 1930s, due to the Japanese invasion. This had caused all development to cease. This is a view from a pedestrian overpass:

As soon as I stepped away from the Bund, Shanghai presented me with sights and sounds like other Chinese cities that I had visited. People were friendly, but I was reminded that many on the street were part of the Chinese government, and I have no doubt I was watched constantly.

My Hasselblad set up served me well on these Chinese adventures. The photographs it produced are rich in detail and incredibly sharp. The same can be said of those produced by the Leica M6, for which I later forsook the Hasselblad. I look back fondly on the trips I made with both systems.

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  1. I’m late to the party, Bill, but I wanted not to forget to thank you for these wonderful images and the great article. A pleasure to read and to look at. It is a widely acknowledged notion that a significant aspect of the magic of photography as a medium is its ability to encapsulate time. You did this masterly. What you have seen and what you are sharing now is a memory of a past that is lost forever. How good that you were able to witness and save it. JP

  2. Love your pictures, Bill. They really do reflect the period. They also bring back memories. I traveled through China in 1979 with my Leica IIIG. I’ve given numerous presentations of that trip over the years since. Like yours, the pictures evoke a time long lost. Thanks for sharing.

    • Douglas, thank you for your comment. Would you be interested submitting an article on your 1979 project? I am sure readers would be interest in reading your experiences and seeing the pictures from a IIIg. Mike

  3. A lovely article and evocative images. I always lusted for a 500cM and 80 planar in my film days but could not afford one at the time. I love the square format and have been cropping images to that format that suit it.

  4. Lovely work, as usual, Bill. The extra image quality from the larger film format, used together with the Zeiss lenses, really shines through. You have used the square look very well. The most astonishing thing about your photos, though, is the way that China has changed in such a short period of time. In recording life as it was just 30 or 40 years ago you have done a really great job and, as is ever your style, you managed to get people to interact with your lens. Your job gave you many opportunities to travel around the world, but you used it very well.


  5. The Hasselblad square look is what got me into photography and a few decades later that really hasn’t changed. I still like it a lot and the images in this article are excellent. I traveled a few times with the Hasselblad 503CW as my only camera. Without a prism (I normally the PM5 prism) it is a surprisingly compact camera.

  6. Lovely pictures, great article. I have long been an advocate of the Hasselblad with the 80mm Planar as producing some of the best images in the history of photography and yours certainly confirm that. It gives sharp pictures but still with a beautiful tonality.
    A great demonstration of the importance of recording seemingly ordinary scenes as you pass – before you know it they have changed and none more so that modern China I imagine.


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