Celebrated Chinese street photographer Fan Ho’s early life and influences provide a glimpse into his formative years, steeped as they were in a rich cultural milieu of both Shanghai and Hong Kong. Fan Ho’s family was very much interested in the arts, which helped to shape his perceptions of the world and set the stage for his future as both a photographer and film director.
Early 20th century Shanghai was a frenetic metropolis where old school China and the new intersected. His father, a painter and art lover, and his mother, a passionate aficionado of traditional Chinese operas, infused in him an appreciation for both the classical and the contemporary. The interplay of these influences can be seen in the ethereal yet grounded quality of his later photographic works.
Born in Shanghai in 1931, his photographic journey began after his father gifted him a “Brownie” box camera on his 14th birthday. (It was not a Rolleiflex, as often reported. He would turn to that later on in Hong Kong). The Brownie, an Eastman Kodak camera first sold in 1900, is well known as the first camera for other such luminaries as Henri Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams, Mary Ellen Mark, Vivian Maier, and director Stanley Kubrick. If I may digress a bit more here, it has often been credited as the camera that ushered in the age of modern photography. Its ease of use and affordable price tag made the Brownie the choice consumer camera from the turn of the century until its final run in the late 80’s.
To Ho, this camera was much more than a light capturing device. It was a window to the world through which he could frame into his own way of seeing it, both in realty and imagination. It was a pivotal moment his father provided. What if he chose something else to give his son, a pair of silk socks or a chess board? We may have never known Fan Ho, the photographer. This gift marked the beginning of his lifelong love for photography, despite the fact that most of his best images were made by the age of 28.
In the mid 1930’s the family relocated to Hong Kong, which further catalyzed his artistic journey. It provided him a unique dynamic to his nascent exploration into the world of image making. Inspired by traditional Chinese painting, European art, and the cinematic world, he developed an approach that was both evocative and dramatic. He developed a keen eye for composition and a deep understanding of light and shadow, which became the signature elements of his unique style.
In his teenage years, Fan Ho immersed himself in the world of art cinema. The emotive storytelling and innovative cinematography of the movies of that era deeply influenced his photography. He saw his photographic frames as stills from a movie, each telling a story, freezing a moment, and evoking an emotion. This blend of art cinema and traditional Chinese aesthetics gave his work an inimitable character, a sense of narrative that went beyond the visual.
Hong Kong, a city teeming with life and culture, became a central muse for Fan Ho’s photography, detailed in The City Through His Lens: Hong Kong. The narrow alleys, bustling markets, and lively street scenes provided an ideal canvas for his image making, capturing the essence and energy of the city. The dynamic interplay of light and shadow in the crowded streets fascinated him. He saw poetry in the ordinary—the dance of light on wet cobblestones after rain, the play of shadows in a busy marketplace.
Growing up in a culture deeply steeped in Taoist and Confucian philosophies, Fan Ho imbibed a reverence for the impermanence of all things. He saw life as a fleeting dance, and his photography was an attempt to meaningfully capture moments of that dance. He often spoke of how photography, for him, was not just about clicking a button, but about freezing the essence of life in a decisive moment, as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it. Usually in French though! Ho saw beauty in imperfection, in the fleeting expressions of people, in the passing clouds, and the changing seasons. His work was an ode to life’s transience.
Fan Ho’s mastery of lighting was painter-like. He saw light not just as an illuminating element but as a character in the story of his photographs. He often shot into the light both to create silhouettes and to flood the scene in diffuse illumination, adding a sense of mystery and drama to his images.
His photographs were like silent poems, each resonating with a different emotion. He was especially drawn to solitary figures against a backdrop of a bustling city. These figures, often lost in their thoughts, brought a sense of introspection. His multiple exposures were his way of blending moments, creating a composite of emotions and actions.
Movement also fascinated him. He saw life as it was, which is always moving and ephemeral. He sought to freeze movement while giving a sense of movement. A motion still-frame if you will, that helped lay the groundwork for his eventual movement over to directing motion pictures.
Techniques and Equipment
A crucial aspect of Fan Ho’s work as we know, delves into his unorthodox use of light and shadow. Backlighting and multiple exposures were techniques he mastered, breathing life he felt, into his compositions.
After 4 years of practice with his Brownie, it was then the family relocated to Hong Kong. Shortly thereafter he discovered the camera that would become his stock in trade – a twin-lens Rolleiflex reflex, 75mm f3.5. It was a strategic choice. He used the symmetry inherent in the square frame to his advantage, creating harmonious and visually appealing compositions. It was the only camera he used professionally as a still photographer, as far as I can tell. It afforded him the advantage of composing and focusing images through a top lens while capturing the photograph through a bottom lens. This innovative setup made for a more natural, eye-level interaction with his subjects compared to traditional cameras.
Fan Ho often utilized a handheld light meter to measure the intensity of light, enabling precise exposure control. He was known to be meticulous in calculating the correct aperture and shutter speed to achieve the desired effects, emphasizing his commitment to technical excellence.
The camera produced huge 6×6 inch negatives. In short, this old camera could produce more detail than most cameras of today. There was no autofocus and it had speeds ranging from 1/500th to 1 second. The shutter is inside the lens and closes like aperture blades, which makes it very quiet with little vibration.
Fan Ho was not content with being a solitary photographer – he wanted to share his knowledge through teaching. He took great satisfaction in seeing the light of his passion reflected in aspiring talents, and watching them develop over time. His workshops were technical for sure, but he also shared his philosophy and personal experiences. He encouraged his students to see beyond the lens, to capture not just what is visible but the emotions that lie beneath the surface. His legacy as a teacher and image maker lives on in street photography today. (Check out the remarkable work of Jason Au and figure out who might have been a major influence on him).
Recognition & Legacy
Fan Ho’s published works and exhibitions offer a glimpse into his artistic evolution and the captivating city he so ardently captured. His work is shown in both temporary and permanent collections around the world, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Bibliothèque National de France. He won close to 300 international competitions and awards during his lifetime. Among them are the Excellence Award from the Photographic Society of America, and winning the International Salon of Tokyo. He viewed winning competitions as validations to be sure, but for the most part he entered them in order to get his work seen by the most people possible. Viewer’s appreciation, the chance to move them in some way, and to transport them to the Hong Kong of his youth, were much more important to him.
Despite his photographic fame in the East, Fan Ho remained a largely unknown photographer in the West right up until his death in 2016. This has changed to a fair degree now, largely due to the work of his trust, The Fan Ho Foundation, and the great work of Blue Lotus Gallery, his sole representative. And of course, this mighty blog! Hi Mom.
All images © Fan Ho, Courtesy of Blue Lotus Gallery
His Book – Fan Ho: Hong Kong Yesterday (7th Edition) 2021, is available here:
His main website: https://www.fanhophotography.com
The Photographer, a documentary film about his life: https://www.fanho-forgetmenot.com