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