Trio
Hong Kong Venice
Her Study
Approaching Shadow
Private
As Evening Hurries By
The Omen
Woman Gossiper
Street Scene
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Hong Kong’s beloved street photographer of the ’50s and ’60s

Finding lasting beauty in the ordinary is a rare talent. Fan Ho had that ability. He saw dreary streets and alleyways as canvases that could be transformed into grand narratives. Because of that, his photographs have a long lifespan, that is, they are images you could live with for decades if not a lifetime.

Henri Cartier-Bresson of the East

Fan Ho was self-taught and learned his craft by reading photography, painting and film studies books, entering numerous photography competitions and emulating the winners. He printed the photos at night in the family bathroom while listening to classical music. His style was heavily influenced by French photojournalist and street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Fan Ho won close to 300 local and international photography awards and titles. From 1958 to1965, he was named one of the top ten photographers of the world, as compiled by the Photography Society of America. His talent was discovered also by the film industry, where he started as an actor before moving into directing until his retirement at age 65.

Hong Kong streets and alleys

What Ho learned from Cartier-Bresson was an understanding of “the decisive moment”, a moment one needs to wait for patiently. It is very often a collision of the unexpected framed against a very cleverly composed background of geometrical construction, patterns and texture. He often created drama and atmosphere with backlit effects or through the combination of smoke and light. His favourite locations were the streets, alleys and markets around dusk, or life on the sea.

Creative darkroom techniques

Where Ho differed from Cartier-Bresson was in the darkroom, where he had a second decisive moment with cropping, enlarging, dodging and burning (lightening and darkening). Occasionally he even layered two images on the same print (double exposure).

I love Hong Kong and I love Hong Kong people

Fan Ho

Light, shadow and stunning historical photos

Ho’s photos are memorable because there are precious few images of Hong Kong at that time of this artistic quality. He could tell a story with a single image. He had mastery of his equipment and was innately talented. He shot in black and white to avoid the noise caused by colour. To aid in focusing the viewer’s eye on the subject, his compositions are geometrically composed with lines made either by light, shadow or a physical object to draw the viewer’s eyes to the subject. His human subjects are frequently small, adding a grander scale to the image. Many of his photos are taken against a bright background, with hard light, high contrast and heavy shadows. These effects take out irrelevant elements to tidy up the visuals and strengthen the themes so that they are more like a painting and less like a snapshot.

Fan Ho in private and public collections

Some 70 years after these images were captured, they are still poignant and relatable. Many are in famous private and public collections worldwide including M+ and the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Fan Ho passed away in 2016, leaving a legacy in books, photographs with long lifespans and a family committed to honouring his life’s work. The Blue Lotus Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition titled: ‘Fan Ho – Photography. My Passion. My Life.’

Text Blue Lotus Gallery & Martin Wray / Photos Fan Ho