Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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Eyes, Mind & Heart: Photography of Fan Ho

Fan Ho’s photography is pure poetry, drama and a journey into a time long past.


“Children’s Paradise” (all b&w photos copyright by Fan Ho)

As a young man he wanted to tell stories and entered St. Paul’s College in Hong Kong to study writing.

As he explains in a recent interview:

I was an exceptional student… I did so well in my writing classes that I earned the nickname the “great scholar”- Bah Gam, even from my professors. Then one day… I couldn’t read because I had a migraine that wouldn’t go away. I found the only way to relieve my headache was to breathe fresh air by walking the streets.


“Mother’s Helper”

It became so boring, so I took snap shots to wile away the time. I entered a contest and got the 1st prize and was encouraged. So I started telling my stories using photography as the medium.


“Back Alley”

The streets offered him imagery to tell his stories. Hong Kong was changing, the old ways cheek by jowl with the new as the streets bustled with activity. Ho Fan learned to blend in and wait for the decisive moment to materialize before his lens.

her study

“Her Study”

It’s actually very hard work. You must see and think all the time. You must use your heart to determine that decisive moment which Henri Cartier-Bresson talks about. At that moment you must care, breathe and love the universe – it’s not just about making a beautiful picture.

"Little Grandma"

“Little Grandma”

I put my whole life into a single photograph. Negative was expensive in my day, when you click a shutter it cost money. I am like a cowboy with one bullet and not a machine gun, looking for that decisive moment.

He would photograph late afternoon when the light was most dramatic, process and print his film at night and do it all over the the next day.


“Evening Ferry”

His images show an extraordinary mastery of composition, timing, light, shadow, geometric angles and framing. They have a classic, almost mythic feel, as if he was holding time itself in his lens. Yet he worked alone, with just one camera and an ability to imagine and visualize what he wanted to capture.


From the website

I took pictures according to my instinct. I just took photographs the way I saw it and didn’t follow any particular master, style or philosophy.

I see the street as a Living Theater. It’s also the title of my book. You can say, I wait for the actors to walk to their marks.


“Afternoon Chat”


“Life in a Slum”

All of these photos were taken when Fan Ho was a young man. Later he became an actor and had a successful career as a film director. You can see his eye for composition and fascination with light and shadow in much of his work.


“Approaching Shadow”

From a commentary in Time Lightbox:

At a time when the Hong Kong’s heartbeat was quickening to a frenetic, “modern” pace, Ho’s patient and deliberate method of working allowed him to see through the bustle and distractions to the true timelessness of place.







Each of Ho’s photographs represents immense planning and thought – not just what the scene should look like, but how it should feel on film.

"Daily Routine"

“Daily Routine”

Fan Ho was asked about his favorite photograph. It’s the one below, Evening Hurries By – 1954:

I studied Chinese literature at the time. I read a poem that greatly impressed me. So I had to find a place that had the same feeling I got from the poem. The mood, the atmosphere and main character — all had to express the same emotion as the poem.


“As Evening Hurries By”

Once I found the location, I went there for many days. Tricycle carts and the men walking home; the silence followed by the surf crashing the walls; the lighting was low… The image still haunts me today and I shot it half a century ago.

I express what I feel at the time and what is in my heart. At first I have an image in my head. I say to myself, I know that it will come out like this.


“Rowing On”

Fan Ho site

From the Fan Ho website


The expression is about a time past. Something along the lines of longing I suppose. I crave for the nostalgia of good days gone by.

I personally love to shoot the old way. I love to hear the sound of the shutter. It’s like music to me. I also love the darkroom. I did all my own prints.



You can see many of Fan Ho’s images at his web site. He has several collections of his work in book form. You can find them here.

South China Post site

From the South China Post website


I feel technique is not too important. It’s more important to use your eyes, mind and heart. Technique is something everyone can do. If you want to take your photography to a higher level, you must tell something. Move something. You must feel it when you make the photograph and that will take you to a higher level. Photography needs to be haunting and worth remembering.



“Hong Kong Slum”

I like his thoughts about using eyes, mind and heart to find the story you want to tell. Of course technique can help you get there, but you need curiosity and a passion for your subject too.

As always, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Street Photography and The Decisive Moment


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

What makes street photography so compelling is the decisive moment.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Street photography is a search for serendipity – so many things must come together in an instant.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

The subject has to be interesting, but also reveal something deeper – emotion, personality, insight into a larger issue, a contrast with the surroundings or a key element in a textural landscape.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Subject matter is key. But also lighting, framing, composition and focus are just as critical. Bottom line, the image has to communicate or reveal something beyond person and place.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

The concept of the decisive moment was coined by the father of street photography and photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson. You’ve probably seen some of his classic images, they are elegant, brilliantly captured moments of a heightened awareness.


photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

They also exhibit an exquisite interplay of light and shadow. In every case the decisive moment was captured in the blink of an eye, even if he waited an hour for that ephemeral instant to materialize.

“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

photo by Jane Bown

Henri Cartier-Bresson by Jane Bown

In that sense, I think good street photographers are able to forecast the future – they sense that something unique is about to materialize and reach out to grab it just before it happens. I’ve had that experience with some of my photography. I like to prowl the streets looking for those magical moments that transform the trivial into little treasures.

Trained as an artist, Henri Cartier-Bresson was greatly influenced by the Surrealists and the intellectual and artistic experimentation that revolutionized our way of visualizing the world during the early part of the last century. Below is the image that launched Cartier-Bresson on his photographic journey. As he put it:

Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munkácsi

Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munkácsi

“The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in a wave I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street.”

There are two videos I’d like to share with you. The first features the master himself, Henri Cartier-Bresson talking about street photography. It’s quite illuminating.


Nina Berman self portrait

Nina Berman is one of many street photographers following in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson. She’s affiliated with NOOR, a Dutch photo agency and foundation devoted to social and political issues. Her work is often quite emotional and political, as you can see on her website and blog. But she also likes to roam Manhattan streets searching for her own decisive moments.

While Cartier-Bresson’s work has a subtle formality – with an elegant sense of composition and interplay of light and shadow – Berman’s street photography is rougher, with a greater sense of immediacy.

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Times Square photo by Nina Berman

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Times Square photo by Nina Berman

It’s not just that she works in color, but you feel closer to her subjects. With Cartier-Bresson there’s a sense of emotional distance – his work is elegant but more studied. Berman’s not afraid to explore working with soft focus as a means of abstracting or pointing you towards the focal point of her image.

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Times Square photo by Nina Berman

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Times Square photo by Nina Berman

She also likes to use foreground as a way to frame her object of interest in the background. These are some of her techniques that draw you into the frame.

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Times Square by Nina Berman

Nikon used her in a marketing video to promote one of their camera. I found her comments about street photography very informative and an interesting echo of Cartier-Bresson. So check out this video to get a more modern view of the essence of street photography.

While Nikon’s video is a little self-conscious – it is trying to market Nikon’s camera – I found it well-crafted and it really gave you a sense of how searching for serendipity can bring its own rewards. I’ve always been drawn to the interplay of skill and chance. When everything comes together, it offers a glimpse of a story in the making and opens you up to the possibilities. So what do you think? Is Nina Berman successfully taking the form in a new direction or do you prefer the quiet formalism of Cartier-Bresson?


Creative Culture: The Sapeurs


photo by Daniele Tamagni

What is a creative culture? You’re looking at men who call themselves Sapeurs.

Screen shot 2013-05-15 at 11.49.15 AM

photo by Hector Mediavilla

The group’s persona comes together at the intersection of personal style, body adornment, manner of dress and social touchstones – they all embrace the same values, stylized behavior and sartorial splendor to form their own creative culture.

Screen shot 2013-05-15 at 11.47.50 AM

photo by Hector Mediavilla

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photo by Hector Mediavilla

The Congolese Sape

photo by Hector Mediavilla

Africa gave birth to this society of well-dressed men who show off their version of street style. But living in poverty, where a year’s salary could go to pay for one pair of alligator shoes, many work for years to afford their elegant outfits.


Scott Schuman from

My previous post explored Scott Schuman, a cool hunter searching for people displaying that sophisticated form of self-expression known as street style. For the most part, the people captured in his lens created their own sense of fashion. The Sapeurs take it to the next level, beyond fashion, to create their own atmosphere of elegance. Sapeurs are part of a creative culture called SAPE – Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People).

At first glance, they remind me of the stylish dancers in Madonna’s video Vogue. Voguing came from dance clubs in Harlem and Madonna’s music video captures the transformative quality that clothes can provide and then celebrates it. It’s all about looking fabulous, knowing you look fabulous, putting that grand feeling out there as you strike a pose and thrust yourself into an elegant ambiance. If you don’t remember Vogue, here it is

When we look at something that seems familiar we “see” it through our own experience, that’s how we make sense of the world. But to do so often means embracing assumptions that are culture-bound. We’re certainly guilty of that in the West when we look eastward – although thinking further – it’s probably a common human trait, to seek understanding by defining and placing what you observe into familiar slots.

So when you look at the Sapeurs, are they voguing or is it something else?


photo by Daniele Tamagni


photo by Daniele Tamagni


photo by Daniele Tamagni

Everyone of them has their own personal style and also a close identification with their fellow Sapeurs. That’s a hallmark of a creative culture. It embraces personal expression and engages you to put it out there, to share it and in doing so, to reaffirm your place in the world and your connection with your creative community.

Danielle from vimeo site

Two photographers have spent considerable time photographing Africa’s Sapeurs. Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni won a number of prizes for his work Gentlemen of Bacongo. 

As he found, being a Sapeur is much more than dressing with style.

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photo by Daniele Tamagni

For what does elegance mean in a land where having a refrigerator is a sign of status?

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photo by Daniele Tamagni

The contrast of Sapeurs living in shacks wearing elegant clothes is so striking – you can see their desire to move beyond poverty and the deadening  struggles of daily life. The impetus for SAPE and the Sapeurs came from modeling French society, or their version of an imagined and idealized French society. With SAPE comes rules about manners, personal behavior, how to dress and carry yourself in public, politics – they’re pacifists – and an effort to create a stylized and idealized ambiance. Sapeurs are also admired by their neighbors and are often invited to weddings and funerals to add a touch of class.

Spanish photographer Hector Mediavilla has also been documenting Sapeurs and offers a detailed history/critique of the group here.


Hector Mediavilla

Hector Mediavilla: “Creativity is very important. It’s not only about spending a lot of money on the clothes, but also the way they speak, the way they move. … It’s a way of presenting their lives and being somebody in a society that doesn’t give you many opportunities… It’s about [being] confident in oneself despite the circumstances… Having the respect and admiration of their community, today’s Sapeurs consider themselves artists.” 

Danielle Tamagni continues the conversation:

In a world where everything is connected, a Spanish photographer’s take on an African creative culture inspired by French elegance was recently featured on America’s NPR and is currently on exhibit in Portland, Oregon. Last year Daniele Tamagni’s photographs inspired recording artist Solange to feature Sapeurs in her music video Loosing You – and she invited him to her video shoot.


Solange and Sapeurs by Daniele Tagmani

The video Solange made with Sapeurs who live in South Africa is just below. It’s joyful and strange at the same time and seeing the Sapeurs in action gives you a totally different view of their sartorial style. My first viewing left me aswirl in the exotica of it all. But when I watched it a second time, I could find some sweet, unguarded moments that made it feel much more lively and fun. Check it out and let me know what think.


Street Style: Scott Schuman’s Search for Grace


photos by Scott Schuman from The Sartorialist

Street style is one way you could define the focus of photographer/blogger Scott Schuman.

Neal Agustin1

Scott Schuman by Neal Agustin

He presents his photography on his fashion blog, The Sartorialist and has two books out featuring his work. But it’s not just prowling the streets for people who dress with style – there’s something more intimate there as well. He’s on a quest to capture that moment when the inner spirit is somehow revealed. What strikes me about his best work is how much his subject’s personality shines through.



I suppose I should add that while I’m not into fashion, I appreciate it – I notice people with a sense of style or who have a flair for presentation. Months ago I watched a documentary about street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. While I enjoyed the documentary and he was a worthy subject, he was quite taken with clothes and accessories themselves and that’s what he searched for. Scott Schuman finds something deeper than fashion.




If street style means more than clothes and accessories for Scott, then what is it? He explains in an interview in Harper’s Bazaar

The only thing I can say that seems to be the thread that runs through all of them is some kind of physical grace. In that sense, it’s very different for each person — some men are very manly, some are more feminine. Some women are more removed, quiet and in a shell, in a way that can be very beautiful. Some are more outgoing. But they all just have some physicality about them that’s not just the clothes, but also the way they hold themselves.



I also like his work because there’s a sense of romance and mystery captured in his images of street style. In his framing and sense of composition – in what’s revealed and what’s abstracted – his images become transformed into portraits. That’s why his work is so fascinating, he plucks people out of their daily lives and places them before you in a revealing moment as if caught in the blink of an eye. Again, from the Harper’s Bazaar interview:

I don’t necessarily get to know the people that I shoot. I shoot them from a distance and see them in the imaginary way that I see them. It’s a dream of who these people are… I’d rather have that mystery.



I’m always drawn to works that open a window into your imagination – it’s the way the photographer or artist draws you into an image that is so appealing.  When everything about the image – the background, the composition, the framing and the lighting serves the subject and reveals some of that inner spirit or emotion – that’s when I get interested in the work. Here’s a bit from another interview where Scott is asked what makes a photo iconic:

 At the end of the day, I think what really creates a strong image is something that doesn’t tell a story but starts a story. So if someone looks at it they are already creating their own ideas, their own images and their own thoughts about the photograph. I think if it tells too much it doesn’t leave room for imagination.



A while ago Intel launched a series about The Visual Life. I wrote about it briefly in an earlier blog post, but didn’t dwell on Scott’s approach to capturing street style. Here’s the video, which I think does a great job of emphasizing the photographer’s quest and the power of the visual moment. It’s also beautifully shot.

One last insight: here’s how Scott describes his journey into photography, from his introduction to The Sartorialist: Closer

Neal Agustin2

Scott Schuman by Neal Agustin

I’ve always felt like an outsider… I developed a sense of distance and isolation from people. This didn’t affect me in a negative way – I actually became more curious about people. I wasn’t interested in knowing facts about them, but in creating my own vision of how I thought they might be. This emotional distance was at the core of my development as a photographer.

That emotional distance is there in his imagery too, since you can go back and look at the images as just fascinating objects who happen to be people well-posed. I realize his work won’t appeal to everyone. What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

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