Shanghai’s Story, Told From the Skies
Long before drones revolutionized the art of aerial photography, Lu Jie faced a more daunting task in the 1980s: Capturing images from the sky meant hanging from an aircraft with only thick straps for support, and no parachute.
Clutching his camera while flying through frigid temperatures at high altitudes, Lu could carry only 12 films with him on each trip. “Attempting to shoot through the aircraft’s glass would only result in blurry images,” he says, adding that his entire first batch of films turned out unfocused, marred by the plane’s speed and his inexperience in such extreme conditions.
Determined to document Shanghai from above, Lu gradually adapted to the demands of this style of photography. To prepare for each 30 to 45-minute flight, he would dress in two sweaters and a military coat for warmth, spending hours near a fire both before takeoff and after landing to acclimate to the temperature changes.
In the air he relied on two sets of cameras, providing him with more options for capturing the scenes below. “I treated every time I went up as if it might be my last. It was very dangerous, but I would make the same choice again,” says Lu, who’s now in his 60s.
Over the decades, Lu amassed a collection of more than 200,000 films, all now stored in bank safes where constant temperatures are maintained for preservation. They serve as a candid chronicle of Shanghai’s evolution, capturing the changing cityscape and its impact on the daily lives of its inhabitants.
Lu brought this extensive journey into the public eye with an exhibition at his studio in Shanghai. Titled “From Guajingkou to Waibaidu Bridge: Suzhou Creek Photo Sharing Event,” the exhibit, which concluded Dec. 17, offered a glimpse into the city’s evolution over the past 40 years.
Beyond his aerial pursuits, Lu devoted countless hours to exploring Shanghai at ground level. He often drove up to 100 kilometers, using five to 10 rolls of film in a single outing.
It offered glimpses into the lives of ordinary residents, from their dwellings in shanty houses to the daily routines of queuing for water, and even the now-vanishing urban village in the center of Beicai Town and its neighborhood, once a prominent feature of Shanghai’s landscape.
One such photo from the 1990s captures a scene at the Xizang Road Bridge: people feverishly unloading watermelons from boats, with fragments of smashed melons floating in the river and anxious crowds lining up along the banks.
According to Lu, this harbor was once a thriving hub for the watermelon trade in Shanghai, where the fruit, though affordable, was difficult to obtain. “Some people would even feign illness to secure a prescription to get a watermelon,” he recalls.
Lu’s collection features numerous photographs that capture detailed moments of Shanghai’s history. His interest in photography began in childhood after being introduced to National Geographic by relatives living abroad, which, along with learning to use a camera, led him to appreciate the power of visual storytelling.
“The images alone told the stories; no extra words were needed,” he says about such magazines, underscoring that this approach greatly influenced his own photographic journey.
And since National Geographic magazines were not available locally, his relatives abroad began sending them to him. This continued for years until Lu was able to buy the magazines from local bookstores himself.
Over time, Lu recognized the value of his photographic films in preserving Shanghai’s history. Since retiring, he’s dedicated himself to organizing this extensive collection.
He frequently revisits locations he previously photographed, capturing new images for comparison and arranging them alongside the old ones in a timeline. Lu hopes to one day compile these into a book.
“Shanghai has undergone significant changes over the years,” says Lu. “By capturing these moments, I hope to provide a clearer understanding of the city’s evolution and our journey to the present.”
(Header image: An aerial view of the Bund and Huangpu River, 1981. Courtesy of Lu Jie)