Ho Fan: In Memory of Hong Kong's Iconic Photographer
Lauded as one of Asia’s most influential photographers, Shanghai-born photographer and filmmaker Ho Fan moved to Hong Kong as a teenager and rose to fame during the 1950s and 60s for capturing street scenes and everyday people. He passed away on June 19.
This article was originally published in 2012 and has been updated to reflect the death of Ho Fan.
Dubbed the Ansel Adams of Hong Kong and lauded as one of Asia’s most influential photographers, Shanghai-born photographer and filmmaker Ho Fan moved to Hong Kong as a teenager and rose to fame during the 1950s and 60s for capturing street scenes and everyday people in tender, moving black-and-white prints. He passed away on June 19.
I started to take photographs in Shanghai when I was a very young kid—the first thing I shot was the Bund. That one was taken with a Brownie, a very simple, old-fashioned camera. I am self-taught.
I love Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky. Because I studied Chinese literature, I also get inspiration from Chinese poetry and dramas, and also from Shakespeare’s dramas, Greek tragedies and Hemingway’s novels. I think I accept lots of nourishment from other arts.
People tell me it seems my photographic works have stories, have some drama. That’s why, later on, I became a film director. Both use images to tell their story, to express the emotions of the author. Photography and filmmaking are like sisters. One is still and one is moving—that is the only difference.I wrote novels, short stories and poems during my school days. I hoped to be a writer, but unfortunately I got a headache whenever I read books and I could not continue. So I dropped the writing, and instead used my camera to express myself, to write with my camera.
I saw a white wall near Causeway Bay. I asked my cousin to stand there, and she acted as the girl facing the approaching shadow. I made the composition first, and then I finished it by bringing in the triangular dark shadow in the darkroom. There was no shadow on the wall, actually. It means her youth will fade away, and that everyone has the same destiny. It’s a little tragic.
The second way [I took photographs] was just the opposite. I didn’t plan at all—I would take a photo at the right moment, just like the French great master Henri Cartier-Bresson. You wait for the subject that can move you, that can touch your heart, no matter if it’s an old man or an old woman, or even a kid or a dog. Then when you come to the right position, and combine it with the right background and other people, and also match it with the lighting, you click the shutter at that decisive moment. And you must wait, and wait, and wait, and have patience. Sometimes I waited in the street for a few hours. And sometimes, if I was lucky, I would come home with something.
Most of my prints are from Hong Kong and Kowloon—Sai Wan, in Western District, Shau Kei Wan, Causeway Bay. At that time Causeway Bay was a bay with boats, now it’s a metropolis. Sha Tin, Tai Po, Castle Peak—I would go anywhere I felt there was something to click the shutter for. I last visited in 2006. Sometimes I want to find my old memories. My work includes many alleys... that no longer exist. I love Central Market. I went there for hours and hours, day after day, for many months, maybe years. It was hard to take photographs because of the lighting. It no longer exists.When I came back, I could not find the atmosphere I loved from half a century ago. I don’t know why. Maybe I am old, or old-fashioned. Maybe I am remembering the past too much.
I love “As Evening Hurries By.” It’s a shot I took in Sai Wan. The atmosphere, the mood, no longer exists. It only exists in my dream, in the image. Now it’s all steel ships and Cadillacs. At that time, there were tricycles.
Photography is my first love, and also my passion during my whole life. But making movies was my profession. I made experimental art films, and then I became a professional director for making [movies with] sex and violence. Commercial movies prolonged my career. I didn’t know if I could make a living from my photography.
I was an international salon [amateur] photographer. After I went to New York and San Francisco, I was shown in lots of galleries and photo festivals that were not salon.
I miss the food very much. In America, the food is inferior to Hong Kong. Even a Hong Kong dai pai dong is delicious.
Collectors, buyers, viewers—they all love my nostalgic “Hong Kong Yesterday” images. They call it vintage. But if you take it now, it’s not vintage. So I try to use my old negatives and do some manipulations, including cropping, burning, dodging. Maybe overlapping, maybe montaging, maybe compositing, maybe colorization. Now I use Photoshop to give my old images a a new life—make them modern, contemporary.
In America, some company invited me to direct stuff for them. I’m 81! I have no energy to be a director again. I cannot even walk fast. I don’t even go to a darkroom now—I work at home, and I can stop if I feel tired. In my younger days, I worked 24 hours a day. I moved to the US because of my children. It is Chinese custom—I just want to stay near them. My wife shoots the family. I mix reality with fantasy in my new prints. My wife said, “If you photograph them, you may distort them and make them abstract.”
The only thing [I want to do] is to find, from my thousands of old negatives, hidden treasures from half a century ago. At that time I knew less. Now I know a little more.