“I feel technique is not too important. It’s more important to use your eyes, mind and heart…” – Fan Ho
Though lesser known than some of his Western contemporaries, Fan Ho was one of the most important street photographers of the 20th century, the remarkable images he captured of Hong Kong during the 1950s and 60s assert the zeitgeist of the time and continue to influence and inspire today.
Born in Shanghai in 1931, his photographic journey began after his father gifted him a Kodak Brownie box camera on his 14th birthday. Four years later, his family, like thousands of others, migrated from the mainland to Hong Kong, and it was here, shortly after his arrival, that Ho acquired the twin-lens Rolleiflex that would become his trademark thenceforth.
Mid-century Hong Kong was a place in flux: British sovereignty had resumed following the end of Japanese occupation in 1945, and, after the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in the civil war in 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established on the mainland. Furthermore, it stood on the cusp of rapid industrialization, (aided by the wave of new migrants) that would transform it into a modern metropolis over the ensuing decades.
Against this somewhat turbulent backdrop, Ho, armed with his new tool, and the enquiring eyes of an outsider, began exploring the streets of his new home. Drawn to the maze-like alleyways and markets of the bustling Central District, he captured scenes of everyday life: children playing amongst the chaotic urban playground, hawkers and street vendors peddling their wares, with a skill and artistry to rival any of his more ‘iconic’ contemporaries.
His impeccably framed compositions (many the result of cropping during post-production) invariably possess a cinematic quality, permeating with a palpable atmosphere that compellingly engages the viewer. Often shrouded in smoke or steam, or bathed in shadows from the contiguous edifices, the narrow alleyways, metro stations, and markets of mid-century Hong Kong, are immortalized by his lens.
He has frequently been dubbed ‘The Cartier-Bresson of the East’, and comparisons with the master photographer are well-founded. Like Bresson, Ho was, at his core, a humanist, who sought to convey the stories of his compatriots.
Yet whilst the Frenchman’s elusive theory of perception, ‘The decisive moment’ is manifested in much of his compositions, Ho’s work displays his own distinct sensibility, most notably, his masterful, intrinsic use of light, shaped by his autodidacticism on the streets of Hong Kong, and precipitated by its distinct topography.
Though perhaps better known for his monochrome works, Ho also photographed in color. He began in the mid-1950s, long before the format had achieved widespread acceptance, and therefore deserves recognition, alongside US contemporaries like Eggleston, Shore, and Meyerowitz, as a pioneer of chromaticity. As prolific as he was talented, he created much of his most notable work before the age of 30, and later moved to the film industry, briefly as an actor, and later, as a director.
Over the course of his photographic career he won close to 300 competitions and titles, and today his work is held in temporary and permanent collections across the globe, including that of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Bibliothèque National de France. Nevertheless, until later in his life, and indeed in the years following his death in 2016, he remained relatively unknown in the west outside of the most discerning photographic circles. However, thanks in large part to his trust, and their sole representative, Hong Kong’s Blue Lotus gallery, who has facilitated the showcasing of his work to a wider audience, his extraordinary talent is beginning to gain the recognition it so thoroughly deserves.
All images © Fan Ho
Courtesy of Blue Lotus Gallery
A major retrospective entitled, My Passion My Life | Fan Ho will be held at Blue Lotus Gallery, Hong Kong from 21 October – 27 November 2022.