HO FAN: ROMANCING HONG KONG STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
When speaking of Hong Kong photography in general and Hong Kong street photography in particular, a name often comes to mind: Ho Fan 何藩 (1937-2016). Although widely known for his career as a film director and actor, Ho Fan is also a renowned street photographer, who from 1956 onwards had won over 280 awards from international exhibitions and competitions worldwide for his photographic works of Hong Kong. The Southern China Morning Post lovingly calls him “Hong Kong’s poet with a camera.” Ho Fan’s photographs explore and chronologise the daily life Hong Kong in the 1950-1960s, offering a distinctive narrative of Hong Kong as it experienced the transition in politics, social order, and economic development. This essay will first examine several significant features of Ho Fan’s work, then provide in-depth analyses of one of his most famous works “Approaching Shadow”, and through which it will propose how his photographs play a significant role in Hong Kong street photography.
As with all critically acclaimed photographers, Ho Fan’s successful photographic career can be attributed to three major factors: the photographic gears, the techniques, and the subject matters. Ho Fan himself showed little to no concern over the first two factors and placed great emphasis on the last. In an interview with Leica Liker, he revealed that throughout his photographic career, he only shot with the Rollei 3.5 K4A model, sometimes with a Leica, and never with any photographic accessories. On giving advice, he maintained that to him “technique is not too important”, what matters is the sentiments and emotions in and evoked by the photographs.
However, it is apparent that the basis of Ho Fan’s magnificent photographs lies in the technical features of his camera. The Rollei 3.5 K4A – a twin-lens reflex camera (TLR) is relatively light built, easy to use, and its special feature of mirror allows the picture to be captured closer to the time the shutter is actuated by the photographer, making it extremely suitable to carry around and used in photographing movements such as sporting activities, dancing, or people walking on the streets. The medium format film used by the camera not only allows for the view to be captured fully and put into great details in print but also makes it easy for the photographer to crop the images vertically or horizontally – his trademark style.
In addition, it is apparent from Ho Fan’s works that he possessed a strong command of techniques, from compositions, architectural calculations, to post-production. His photos are grounded on basic rules of photography, most noticeably the use of the rule of thirds in works like “Approaching Shadow” and “As Evening Hurries By”. The physical structures are aligned and divided into lines and segments, closely resembling the Minimalism school of thought from the post-World War II art movement in the Western Hemisphere, which advocates for the representation of geometric shapes, simple subject matters, and neutral surfaces in visual arts. Lighting, shadow, and smoke are also significant in his photos, as Ho Fan made the most use of natural lighting at its strongest and its longest to dramatise the subject matter in works like “Approaching Shadow”, “As Evening Hurries By”, “Afternoon Chat” and “Evening in Aberdeen”. Finally, to further enhance his images, Ho Fan did edits on his negative clippings and printings, similarly to how modern-day photographers use Photoshop or Lightroom, the effect of which can be seen in “Approaching Shadow” and “Evening in Aberdeen”, where additional shadows are created to establish the mood and vibe of the photographs.
Technical features aside, the most important factor of Ho Fan’s photographic career is the subject matter. His photographs do not portray the Central skyline or the colonial institutions; in true spirit of “street photography” – photographing unmediated encounters in public spaces, Ho Fan’s photographs explore and bring to life the Central District’s streets, structures, vehicles, and slums brought together by human presence and action, which take up the focal point in the frames. As a migrant and an outsider to Hong Kong’s local scene at the time, Ho Fan strongly empathised with the working class of the Central District. The people, therefore, are depicted as they are – poor, living in slums, working on the streets, commuting, tending to their chores, but not aiming to shock, to plead or to beg for pity. They are portrayed against a well-lit background, living in poverty but going about their daily lives, plying their trade, earning their living. The respect for the historical truth places the photographs on par with urban documentary or journalistic photography, recording human life in the period of 1950-1960s, providing factual information for history and offering a narrative of Hong Kong that differs greatly from the business-orientated Central District Values promoted by the 21st-century Hong Kong Government as described by Leo Ou-fan Lee in his book “City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong”. This approach is strongly related to Ackbar Abbas’s ideas in “Photographing Disappearance”, in which he argues that once the attention is shifted from the typical “postcard images” of Hong Kong’s wealth and power to the everyday images of Hong Kong life, the audience will have the chance to look again into the ordinary and familiar to discover new layers of the Hong Kong story.
“APPROACHING SHADOW”, 1954
In the scope of this essay, the photograph “Approaching Shadow” is chosen for in-depth analysis. Created in 1954, “Approaching Shadow” is one of Ho Fan’s most renowned works to date. The image depicts a young woman dressed in the typical cheongsam with her head bowed, standing in a corner against a wall, facing the shadow on the spacious background. She is placed in profile, so the viewers do not see clearly her facial attributes and expression. Her placement, her clothes colour, and her action sharply contrast with the background, highlighting her state of smallness, fragility and loneliness. In turn, the viewers become curious to know who she is, where she comes from, what she is thinking about, or who she is waiting for. Thus, multiple interpretations are borne out of a simple subject matter.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Ho Fan revealed the story behind the photograph: he asked his cousin to pose in a corner of Queen’s College in Causeway Bay, and later added the shadow during post-production to signify that “Her youth will fade away, and that everyone has the same destiny.” This narrative from the photographer himself offers a reading into the title, making “Approaching Shadow” to mean either the subject moving closer to the shadow on the wall, or getting closer and closer to ageing, receding time, and fading youth.
Ho Fan skilfully used Western photographic composition to deliver his aesthetic effect. The orientation is perfectly straight at vertical framing, the angle wide and expansive, the medium format offering a dynamic depth of field. The photo is framed by geometric shapes: the 90-degree angle form by the vertical wall and the horizontal ground, the 45-degree angle formed by the diagonal line separating light and shadow, and the subject placed in the one-third left corner of the frame. The one-third corner, commonly known as the rule of thirds, is the most basic rule in photography, the use of which is meant to make the viewers locate the subject matter faster, focus on the subject longer, and create more tension, energy, and emotion. The separate shapes and sections are linked together by the woman who is placed in the intersections of lines, almost all of her body belonging to the light but her feet planted in the shadows. This calculation does not make the photograph look formulated; rather, it creates an overall tone of well-balancedness aesthetically pleasing to the visual sense. The result presents a space of dichotomy between black and white, light and shadow, human and cityscape, simple representation and complex interpretations, inviting the onlookers to look closely into the content and come up with their own interpretation, regardless of the backstory.
Once the audience looks past the photographer’s backstory or past intervention, like the way Barthes overthrew the authorial rule to make way for readership in “The Death of the Author”, many interpretations arise. From a gender studies perspective, the photograph can be seen as a celebration of beauty and femininity of the Hong Kong girl. From the historical aspect, it offers a glimpse into Hong Kong’s past, derived from clothing (cheongsam) and architecture (the wall of the Queen’s College). From a sociology point of view, the photograph itself and the content of the photograph can be read as an allegory to Hong Kong. The photograph, with its perfect blend of Western logical composition and local aesthetics, is an example of hybridity created in the colonial environment. More importantly, like the content, Hong Kong was a young woman coming of age in the 1950s, burdened with inner issues of post-WWII social unrest, migrants, housing problems, and the outer conflict between the Mainland and the Colonial masters. Hong Kong was also emerging as a developing economy, waiting in anticipation for the changes in the economy to make an impact on each individual and the colony as a whole. Like the girl placed in a corner of the wall, Hong Kong was placed marginally to both the Mainland and the British government in their discourses, slowly approaching its future as if “approaching shadow”.
Although created more than a half century ago, “Approaching Shadow” and other works by Ho Fan still retain their modern touch and historical significance. The modernity is largely due to the way the images are composed by photographic rules and the minimalistic portrayal of subject matters. The photographs depicting streets, slums and daily lives provide information of Hong Kong Central District in a transition phase, providing a “before” clause for comparison with modern Hong Kong Central District Values, and also contributing to the depth of cultural expressions of Hong Kong in addition to written texts and Hong Kong cinema. As the art world witnesses revival in interest in analog photography, Ho Fan’s works are also receiving more interest and admiration, and are cited by many photographers as their source of inspiration. Hopefully, there will be more research carried out to explore his works to encourage academic and artistic discourses.
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Post-scriptum: I want to dedicate this essay to chi Duyen, without whose supply of food and encouragement I would not have made it through the 2 days I spent writing and rewriting this essay. To my friends L and K who share my love for Ho Fan; to em Huy who’s experimenting with black and white photography, and to all of my readers and friends who unexpectedly showed their support for my writing.