The photographer behind some of the most iconic images of Mao Zedong died yesterday in Beijing after a long life filled with snapping countless images of The Great Helmsman without his shirt.
Lü Houmin was born in 1928 in Heilongjiang Province and began working as a photographer for the Chinese government in 1950. Soon he became Mao’s full-time photographer, a position he held for 12 years until 1964, a time he recalled as the happiest period of his life.
Many of Lü’s images portray Chairman Mao in a somewhat different fashion than what most of us are accustomed to: a family man who loved nothing more than a good game of ping pong.
While Mao might have struck some as harsh and demanding, in a 2001 interview with People’s Daily Lü describes him as the most carefree of photo subjects. “The easy-going leader never complained about the pictures I took,” he said. “He did not make any affected poses nor did he order me to take photographs. I was given complete freedom in my work.”
The photo of Mao sitting on a stone bench gazing off into the distance on top of Lushan Mountain in 1961 is Lü’s favorite. At the time things hadn’t been going quite the way Mao had hoped and Lü said that after an early morning meeting Mao went for a climb. After reaching the top, the Chairman stood still and did not speak for more than 30 minutes before finally sitting down, when Lü took the photo.
As for Mao’s favorite picture of himself? Lü said Mao wasn’t one to care about his own picture.
Another of Lü’s most notables images of the Chairman was taken in 1953 after Mao had received the news that his son had been killed by an airstrike in the Korean War. When Mao was out welcoming back Chinese volunteer artists from Korea, one crying artist approached Mao and embraced him.
In a 2009 interview with Shanghai Daily, Lü characterized Mao as a friendly person who cared deeply about all of his staff. In 1961, Mao allowed Lü to travel to Cuba to receive an award for his photography. Not exactly the most convenient time to travel abroad for either country.
Lü became targeted during the Cultural Revolution and was sent down to the Jiangsu countryside to be reeducated where he stayed for seven years. Ever the optimist, Lü doesn’t look back on the situation with anger or sadness. “I stayed there for seven years,” he told Shanghai Daily, “but to tell the truth, I didn’t feel tortured as I loved the peace and harmony of the countryside where one could be close to the nature.”
Later, he wrote a letter to Mao describing his situation. He soon got a new job in Jiangxi. A second letter to Mao got Lü out of the countryside and back to Beijing.
Lü said that he clearly remembers the day that The Great Helmsman died and each year he would go to Mao’s mausoleum on the dates of Mao’s birth and death
Along with being nice, charming, and easy to work with, Lü also said that Chairman Mao was extremely thrifty owning a well-patched blanket and just one pair of leather shoes. Take note current and future leaders, on how to leave a lasting impression.
by Alex Linder
[Images via CRI English, China Daily, China Daily]