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If you have been following street photography or photography overall, chances are you might have come across the work of Fan Ho, celebrated for his pioneering use of light and shadows.
Fan Ho began his Hong Kong photography journey amid all the chaos and confusion of Hong Kong’s abrupt economic growth. He was particularly interested in street photography, an anomaly at a time when many were opting for studio photography. Considered to be one of the most influential photographers of his time, his work smoothly merged people with unexpected geometric figures that were amplified by a sense of drama thanks his excellent use of lights and smoke.
Dubbed the Henri Cartier-Bresson of the East, you would be hard-pressed to find an acclaimed photo art gallery that does not display his work or work influenced by him.
Photography was not all he excelled at; he began as an actor in the film industry before moving to the role of a director where he won critical acclaim for much of his work. One of Asia's most beloved creative figures, his life certainly makes for an interesting read.
Afternoon Chat, 1959. Photograph: Fan Ho/AO Vertical Art Space
Fan Ho was born in 1931 in Shanghai. Ten years later, as World War II raged across the world, his parents were stranded in Macau for quite some time, leaving him in the care of the family servant. It was during this period that he came across his father’s camera, a Kodak Brownie. Developing an interest in the camera, he began to teach himself how to use it and developed pictures in the family bathtub.
On his 14th birthday, his father gifted him a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera and within the next year, he would win his first prize at a local art contest, going on to quickly develop an extensive collection of work that focused on the streets of Hong Kong.
Pattern, 1956. Photograph: Fan Ho/Modernbook Gallery
When Fan Ho began photographing in the 1950s, he was living in the poor downtrodden neighborhoods of Central Hong Kong. There wasn’t much to see but, these streets were teeming with activity and it was in these food vendors, cobblers, and porters that Fan Ho saw something.
With this fascination he took to the streets, seeking to document the busy and vociferous life around his neighborhood. At a time when studio photography was all the rage, his approach and focus stood out. With the Rolleiflex in hand, he shadowed the streets, photographing emerging skyscrapers, intriguing streets, and people – even those who weren’t pleased about it.
During an interview, Fan Ho recounted the time when a pig butcher threatened to chop him up, complete with a knife in his hand, for taking a photograph of him!
Not everyone had an issue with it though. The photographer went on to speak about an incident where a group of young girls so enjoyed having their picture taken that they did their hair and asked for a second shoot.
Fan Ho set a personal auction record in 2015 when his photograph, titled “Approaching Shadow” sold in Hong Kong at a Bonhams auction for $48,000.
Ho’s creativity wasn’t limited to monochrome shots of Hong Kong - he was also an acclaimed movie director and actor.
In 1961, he joined Shaw Brothers Studio as he attempted to develop a career in cinema. He secured a role as a continuity assistant in the movie The Swallow, thus sparking his acting career.
He went on to star in several other movies for the studio with critics particularly praising his role in Tripitaka, Monk as well as the Shaw Brothers adaption of Journey to the West. He was however disillusioned with the studio’s focus on revenue and sought creative relief in his photography and working for other studios.
At about the same time, he began work on a series of short movies that helped cement his place in the film industry. The first short movie in the series, a thirty-minute movie named Big City Little Man, won the "Honor Award Certificate" in 1964 at Japan’s International Film Festival.
Five years later, he left Shaw Brothers Studio so he could focus on his career as a director. He made over twenty movies in Hong Kong and Taiwan as a director, with three movies making it to the Official Selection list at International Film Festivals of Cannes, San Francisco, Berlin while five movies were included in the Permanent Collection at Hong Kong and Taiwan’s National Film Archives. He is also attributed with pioneering the erotic movie genre with cult classics such as Temptation Summary, Adventure in Denmark, and The Girl with the Long Hair.
Fan Ho mastered light and geometry and was able to manipulate shadows in ways others could only wish for. His mastery helped draw attention to the subject and controlled the emotional aspects of the photograph. He would also make use of smoke, light, and other backlit effects to enhance the atmosphere of his monochrome photos. Very interestingly (and unusually!), he only used his Rolleiflex camera throughout his photography career.
The important elements of his photographs; the subject, light, composition, and the environments were carefully composed to stand out individually yet manage to highlight the beauty of a scene when put together in the frame.
His dramatic use of light and shadows also helped highlight the fast-paced life in the Hong Kong streets as well as the inevitable loneliness that comes with it. His photographs portrayed the city at its most vulnerable and brought to light the confusion of the Hong Kongese and the chaotic atmosphere that prevailed during that unfamiliar transition. This is much harder to do than it might look like, especially when you take into consideration the dense population in Hong Kong. Fan Ho was known to be very patient, sometimes waiting for hours for that perfect moment when geometry, lighting, and texture all came together.
Experts deduce that his masterpieces were born out of his love for the city and his empathy for the struggles of its people. He is said to have loved strolling through empty alleyways, markets, and neighborhoods during the golden hour, often taking photos of pavement hawkers, children, and vendors as he sought to express his feelings towards the working class through his images.
A day is done, 1957. Photograph: Fan Ho/AO Vertical Art Space
Fan Ho passed away in 2016 after a struggle with pneumonia, but the Fan Ho photography work he left behind serves as an inspiration for many budding photographers, both amateur photographers and those involved in art photography.
During his long life, he taught photography and filmmaking at dozens of universities across the world and his artwork can be found in many collections, both public and private, including San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, M+ Museum, Bibliothèque National de France, and Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
In Hong Kong and China, his legacy is not limited to just an art gallery in Hong Kong; his work as an actor and movie director is fondly remembered, sometimes even overshadowing his monochrome work.
During his lifetime, he won more than 280 awards from exhibitions and competitions around the globe. He has also been honored by being elected to esteemed photographic societies in many countries. He is an Honorary Member of the Photographic Societies of Argentina, Singapore, Germany, Brazil, Belgium, France, and Italy and is a member of the Photographic Society and the Royal Society of Arts in the UK. In 2015, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Chinese Photographic Society at the second Global Chinese International Photography Award.
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