The last issue of The Chinese Historical Review “New Lenses on China: A Symposium on Foreign Influences and China’s Photographic Frontiers” is a special issue on photography in modern China. It derives from the symposium Wiles Colloquium hold at Queen’s University, Belfast in June 2017.
My own contribution offers a photographic archaeology aimed to explore the material, visual and social impact of outdoor advertising in early twentieth-century Shanghai. Combining statistical analysis with photographic series and multimedia sourcing, the archaeological approach helps excavate the multilayered texture of advertisements. As material artifacts, advertisements are interwoven with urban spaces and municipal policies, closely tied to the social life of commodities and the companies’ strategies. Although outdoor advertisers played a significant role in reshaping commercial cultures and urban society in early twentieth-century Shanghai, photographic evidence complicates the picture of the growing commercialization of the city, the increased commodification of residents’ everyday life and the rise of a “consumer society” in modern China. The photo-archaeological method offers a fresh perspective on modernity, consumption, urban culture and visuality in modern Chinese history.