Personal snapshots construct a bigger picture of China

Some brittle and warped, others as smooth and flat as the day they left the processing shop, the 35-millimeter negatives trickle in to Xiao Ma's dank recycling depot in north Beijing, collected by a network of trash pickers. Stuffed into old rice bags and sugar sacks, they pile up nearly to the ceiling, along with X-rays, compact discs and other trash.

Whether it's hospital film of a broken rib or a snapshot of a baby's first steps matters not; with the help of a little chemistry, Xiao Ma can turn both into cash. Week in and week out, he dunks his haul into vats of acid to separate out the silver salt he can resell to laboratories.

So when a young Frenchman showed up in 2009 and asked if he'd be willing to part with some 35mm negatives for a premium, Xiao Ma didn't really care why he wanted them. It meant more profit and less work, so he sent Thomas Sauvin packing with more than 130 pounds.

Back at his studio, Sauvin began poring over the tens of thousands of images. A photo collector and editor, he was searching for pictures taken by everyday folk, because a London publisher was interested in vernacular Chinese photography. "I thought it would be a one-time thing," said Sauvin.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

But soon, Xiao Ma unexpectedly phoned Sauvin with mountains of photos and more mountains. Four years and 500,000 frames later, Sauvin has amassed an archive of the ordinary that's nothing short of extraordinary: a people's history of life in China spanning from 1985, when consumer cameras became commonplace, to 2006, when digital photography began to take off. The photos chronicle China's political and economic opening, its transformation from the ashes of the Mao Tse-tung era into a society embracing capitalism, consumerism and leisure.

Organically, patterns began to surface. Sauvin found scores of women posing with their first refrigerators. Dozens of families on outings to the same newly opened theme park. Countless kids hanging on statues of Ronald McDonald after the burger chain arrived in Beijing. Couple after couple vacationing in Thailand, even visiting the same transvestite show on group tours, as overseas travel became possible.

"Themes and stories arise that you couldn't possibly think about, dream about," said Sauvin, who is not a photographer himself but is now exhibiting images from the project, called Beijing Silvermine, at a Hong Kong gallery.

There's a surprising amount of whimsy in the Beijing Silvermine. A woman in an apple green dress, posing with a giant shark and octopus at a nautical park. A cat with a McDonald's bag stuck on its head. A young man trying to look tough in front of a poster for Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo."

PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times

Sauvin has a whole series of shots of Beijingers with Hollywood worthies — Chinese grandpas posing in front of oversized Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth wall calendars, young girls making kissy-face to Marilyn Monroe prints on their bedroom walls.

"You see a lot of humor, people having fun," Sauvin said. "I'm not saying they were having fun every day or that the '80s or '90s were always a fun time, but when they were having a good time, they had these photos taken."

Sauvin and others believe such images are a necessary counterpoint to more familiar pictures from the same period — journalistic shots of the Tiananmen Square massacre, formal portraits of leaders in suits, art photos that focus on social tensions and anxiety.

"A lot of photography can exoticize the other of a population, and this really is kind of something that is grounding, something we can relate to," said Louise Clements, who invited Sauvin to exhibit Beijing Silvermine at the Format photography festival in Derby, England, this spring. "It's not just an exotic-other view."

Although the photos may be down-to-earth, they're rarely spontaneous — in fact, there is a striking formality in their composition that Sauvin sees as a legacy both of the expense of film photography and the staged propaganda shots these Chinese grew up with.

CHEAT SHEET: Spring Arts Preview

"You can almost hear the 3-2-1," said Sauvin. "In Europe or the U.S., we have the feeling that a true and beautiful picture is a picture taken when the subject is not aware they're being shot. Chinese photography really involves consent — you don't take a photo without having the person knowing it, or at least you didn't at that time, and I don't think things have changed that much."

But because the photographers were almost always intimates of their subjects — parents, spouses, friends — "there's something very personal … something a professional photographer can never capture."

Salvation in Chinese

In 1985, the year the first photo in Sauvin's collection was taken, Beijing's population was 9.7 million — half of what it is today. Per capita income was $900, compared with more than $11,000 now. McDonald's wouldn't arrive in Beijing for seven more years. Sauvin was 2 years old.