Décès du photographe Sam Tata (1911 – 2005)

Sam Tata (1911-2005) – L’époque Tata révolue

Bernard Lamarche
Édition du mardi 30 août 2005

La triste nouvelle était jusqu’à maintenant restée sans écho dans la presse francophone. Le photographe Sam Tata, considéré comme un portraitiste hors pair, est décédé le 3 juillet dernier. Il était reconnu pour le charme sans égal qui lui était utile pour tirer le meilleur de ses sujets, même parmi les plus récalcitrants. Il avait 93 ans.

L’homme est décédé à Snooke, tout près de Victoria, sur l’île de Vancouver, où il habitait depuis quatre ans. Né à Shanghai, Sam Tata a longtemps habité Montréal. Il avait rencontré en Inde le photographe de réputation internationale Henri-Cartier Bresson, qui était devenu son mentor. C’est lui qui l’avait amené à s’intéresser au photojournalisme. Entre 1946 et 1948, Tata a documenté l’indépendance indienne et l’assassinat du Mahatma Gandhi. Il a aussi réalisé des images de la révolution communiste dans sa Chine natale.

Après avoir déménagé au Canada en 1956, Sam Tata s’est mis à collectionner les portraits de poètes, d’artistes, de chanteurs, d’écrivains et d’autres photographes. En outre, une image de Leonard Cohen figure parmi les plus connues de Tata, une image prise devant la porte du balcon arrière de la maison de la rue Saint-Dominique où Cohen résidait à l’époque. Dans son catalogue existent ses portraits de Roch Carrier, Michel Tremblay, Gilles Vigneault, Donald Sutherland et Alice Munro.

À Montréal, il a publié ses clichés pour les magazines Maclean’s, Time et Newsweek, puis a travaillé également pour l’Office national du film.

Tata avait reçu un diplôme honorifique de l’université Concordia en 1982. Son premier livre, intitulé simplement Montréal, a été publié en 1963. En 1983, il a publié un recueil intitulé A Certain Identity, en grande partie fait de portraits d’artistes canadiens. En 1989, le Musée canadien de la photographie contemporaine publiait un catalogue accompagnant une rétrospective de son oeuvre. Il était titré L’Époque Tata.


He arrived in Montreal as a refugee from civil war in China and forged a career capturing the likenesses of Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Brian Moore, Alice Munro and many othersBy TOM HAWTHORN

Monday, August 29, 2005 Page S9
Special to The Globe and Mail

VICTORIA — The photographer Sam Tata called on his considerable charm to coax memorable portraits from even the most reluctant subjects. Mr. Tata liked shooting in a setting that put his sitters at ease, preferably at their home, amid their furnishings, using available light.

An artist as soft-spoken as he was persistent, Mr. Tata captured Irving Layton as an Old Testament prophet and Leonard Cohen as a smouldering lady’s man. Both Montreal poets were snapped in iconic poses that contributed to their reputations.

«Taking a portrait seems to be a friendly confrontation,» Mr. Tata once said, «and self-conscious portraits are the end result of self-conscious photographers.»

Mr. Tata had the good fortune of befriending, on a chance encounter in India, the famed photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who acted as mentor and inspiration. A year after their meeting, both men documented the Communist takeover of Mr. Tata’s native China.

After moving to Canada in 1956, Mr. Tata compiled a vast portfolio of portraits of poets, artists, singers, writers and fellow photographers. The rapport he built during a sitting was remarkable.

The writer Mavis Gallant called him «the most agreeable man I’ve met in years,» while Hugh Hood noted his «extraordinary capacity for friendship with his subjects.» An essay John Metcalf wrote about Sam Tata’s portraits was titled Conversations Without Words. «This is not to suggest that Sam is taciturn or laconic. While this silent conversation is going on between photographer and subject, Sam will be talking. He rarely stops. Sam is a Vesuvius of conversation, a walking compendium of quotation and reference, a cornucopia of anecdote.»

A reader with even a fleeting interest in Canadian literature has likely admired a Tata photo on a poster, dust jacket, or Leonard Cohen album cover. The list of those captured by his lens includes Brian Moore, Alice Munro, Roch Carrier, Clark Blaise, Michel Tremblay, Gilles Vigneault, George Bowering, Donald Sutherland, Bharati Mukherjee, among many others.

Sam Bejan Tata was born in Shanghai to a wealthy Parsi mercantile family. In their ancestral land of India, the Tata name is associated with textiles and the British Raj’s first steel mill. In Shanghai, the eldest son was raised amid the splendours such riches afforded in a city of terrible poverty where labour came cheap. As he once said to the author Ian McLachlan, «Who would want to rebel and leave a house so full of servants? What was there to rebel against?»

Evidently comfortable in his own surroundings, he did not move out of the Tata family compound until his marriage at age 40.

Many of the anecdotes with which he later cast spells on his subjects involved life with his father Bejan and his mother Naja. In his 2003 literary memoir An Aesthetic Underground, John Metcalf recalled «stories of his sometimes irascible Gujarati-speaking mother who in fits of exasperation used to hurl at him her tortoiseshell-backed hairbrushes; to stories of his father who by day sternly managed the Tata mills but who by night unbuttoned and sat tall in the saddle with the westerns of Zane Grey.»

While a 14-year-old schoolboy at Shanghai Public School, young Sam joined fellow Boy Scouts in delivering mail during a weeklong strike by postal workers.

His studies at the University of Hong Kong lasted just two years. He took up photography at age 24, snapping shots of the Chinese countryside with a box camera. A portrait of his brother taken with his father’s Graflex won second prize in a newspaper contest. By 1936, he had begun the formal portraiture and studio work that would occupy the next decade.

He used a single floodlight in the studio, avoiding multiple lighting. «I had the idea that you have one sun, and that’s all you need,» he told Ovo Magazine in 1981.

Mr. Tata continued to snap street scenes during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, a dangerous endeavour made somewhat less risky by his quiet and unobtrusive nature.

In 1947, he began a long sojourn in India. He attended a show sponsored by the Bombay Art Society at its salon on Rampart Row, which is where he met Mr. Cartier-Bresson. Mr. Tata was so enamoured by the Frenchmen’s street photography he would later describe the moment as an epiphany. The search for the «decisive moment,» whether the setting was dramatic or mundane, would inform Mr. Tata’s work throughout the rest of his career.

He returned to Shanghai in 1949, a city teetering on the edge as the desperate Kuomintang awaited what seemed like an inevitable siege by Communists. Discreet as ever, Mr. Tata quietly joined crowds at a show trial as suspected Communists were condemned to death. He captured the resigned face of one doomed man being loaded aboard the back of a truck.

On the evening of May 25, 1949, Mr. Tata retired early, even as the city swirled with rumours about a takeover by Mao Zedong’s peasant army.

«Some time after midnight, I heard machine-gun fire. Lying there, I said to myself, ‘What does one do now? Does one roll off the bed and crawl under it?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, the hell with it,’ and the firing stopped and I went to sleep. The next morning I woke up and it was all over.»

Hours later, he photographed three Chinese businessmen intently sharing a single newspaper on a Shanghai sidewalk, one of many striking images published in a 1990 book, Shanghai 1949: The End of an Era. Among these are nuns, only their veils and wimples visible above the gangway, boarding the ocean liner President Polk; the absurd figure of an older man in a bathing cap watching a card game at the Cercle Sportif Français, a club for expatriates; and, a desperate beggar detailing his misery in chalk on a sidewalk.

«You know, the single person in the city is a lonely person,» he once told Ovo Magazine. «Being lonely is one thing, but being alone is another. You can be alone and not be lonely. And I find that very often I am attracted to a situation where my eye picks out that one person — whether he is solitary, or in a crowd.»

Mr. Tata remained in Shanghai for the first years of Communist rule. In 1952, he married Marketa (Rita) Langer, a Sudeten Czech. (Their union would end in divorce many years later.) That October, the couple fled to Hong Kong.

Four years later, the Tatas moved to Montreal at the urging of Heinz and Paula Heinemann, German-born booksellers from Shanghai who fled Nazis and Communists before settling in Canada. Mr. Tata was soon in demand, shooting still photographs for National Film Board documentaries, as well as launching a photojournalism career that would see him published in Time, Weekend and the Toronto Star Weekly. In 1958, his photographs for Maclean’s accompanied Peter C. Newman’s profile of life at Deep River, Ont., home to scientists of the Chalk River nuclear facility.

Mr. Tata’s arrival in Montreal coincided with a revival of the local artistic scene, especially in letters. He became the era’s unofficial chronicler.

Over the years, his work was displayed at countless shows, including at the George Eastman House at Rochester, N.Y. The Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography held a retrospective exhibition in 1988 called The Tata Era/ L’Epoque Tata.

His images has been featured in several books, including A Certain Identity (1983), which took its title from the writings of Cartier-Bresson. A collection of 40 Tata photos formed an exhibit titled Portraits of Canadian Writers at the National Library of Canada in 1991. A book of the same title was published that year.

Mr. Tata was presented an honorary degree from Montreal’s Concordia University in 1982. Eight years later, he received a prestigious lifetime achievement award from CAPIC, the Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Communications.

Sam Tata was born on Sept. 30, 1911, at Shanghai. He died on July 3 at Sooke, near Victoria on Vancouver Island. He had moved there to be with his daughter Antonia Tata after suffering a series of strokes. He was 93. He is survived by Antonia, who is known as Toni. He also leaves a sister, Aloo Daver, of Hong Kong; brothers Phiroze Tata, of London, England, and Jangoo Tata, of San Francisco and two grandsons. He was predeceased by a brother.



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