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Sepia-toned photograph depicting a man carrying a basket on a stick slung over his shoulder. He is dressed in casual working clothes. He is walking in front of a large stone wall, on which rectangular light-coloured patches forming random patterns stick out against the dark grey of the stone.

10 Facts About the Photographer who Captured 1950s and ‘60s Hong Kong

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Ho Fan’s striking black and white photographs captured aspects of everyday life in 1950s and ’60s Hong Kong. Today, while much of the Hong Kong that he chronicled no longer exists, a new generation can experience it through his photographs. M+ has twenty-eight seminal photographs by Ho Fan in our collections, providing a unique window into the past.

Ho Fan (American, b. China, 1931–2016) was a photographer, film director, and actor. He spent his early years in Shanghai, where he began taking photographs after receiving his first camera at the age of fourteen. After moving to Hong Kong in 1949, he started taking black and white photographs of everyday moments he saw in the city.

Below are ten facts about Ho Fan, told through his photos of Hong Kong.

Sepia-toned photograph of a line of people making their way through a fresh produce marketplace. On both sides of the line are various marketplace vendors with produce and baskets of produce laid out.

Ho Fan, The Market Parade, 1963, gelatin silver print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

1. Ho Fan started taking photos because of his chronic headaches. As a teenager, he started getting chronic headaches, and had to take frequent breaks from reading and writing. During these breaks, he started wandering the streets and was encouraged by his dad to take photos of what he saw.

Sepia-toned photograph depicting a man walking with an empty rickshaw down a street in front of a hazy sunset. The street is deserted apart from a lone silhouette walking in the distance. The sidewalk on his left has pillars with large Chinese lettering going all the way down the street, with numerous signs hanging about his head.

Ho Fan, A Day is Done, 1957, gelatin silver print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

2. He wasn’t trained as a photographer and instead used his intuition, exploring the optics, physics, chemistry, and machinery of photography himself. He received his first camera as a child in Shanghai, and developed his photography further after moving to Hong Kong in 1949. He ended up winning more than 200 awards, and was one of the youngest fellows of the Royal Photographic Society in the U.K.

Sepia-toned photograph of a stairway. In the foreground there is a man with a cigarette who leaves a cloud of smoke behind him while three men walk up the stairway. In the background there is an old woman standing at the top of the stairway, and two men conversing in the middle of the stairway.

Ho Fan, Market Stairway, 1959, gelatin silver print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

3. Want to retrace his steps? At one point he lived on MacDonnell Road in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels district. ‘When I lived on MacDonnell Road [...] I would walk [downhill] from the Mid-Levels,’ Ho described. ‘Back then there was no MTR. I would take my camera with me, down from MacDonnell Road, walking the backstreets and narrow lanes through the haze, where there were ordinary folk: ordinary, grassroots, and minority people. The kind of “Hong Kong spirit” that they represented is unforgettable. They constantly struggled to survive.’ He photographed what moved him, because that’s what moved viewers of his photographs, and what gave his work spirit and life.

Sepia-toned photograph shot from a low perspective with a monkey on all fours in the foreground. Behind the monkey there are a few men carrying cloth-wrapped packages and baskets as well as three boys.

Ho Fan, Get Along, 1960, gelatin silver print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

4. He preferred black and white photos. ‘I actually prefer black and white. It’s not that I don’t take colour photographs, but I’ve realised one thing: colours do not fit well in my world. Black and white offers me a distance.’ According to Ho, black and white photography offers a sense of detachment from real life. This detachment gives his viewers the space to take in and think about the scenes depicted.

Sepia-toned photograph of an outdoor stone staircase next to an old building. Two adults accompanied by four children are making their way down the staircase, while a third adult is heading up, walking straight through the group.

Ho Fan, Street Scene, 1956, archival pigment print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

5. Ho Fan was also known as a filmmaker, and spent decades making movies. To him, film and photography were like twins. Both mediums use images to replace words (in writing), brushstrokes (in painting), and notes (in music) to express what the author or artist feels.

Sepia-toned photograph depicting several people in an underground walkway. Shafts of sunlight come through a staircase that’s open to the outside. Three women are about to step onto the stairway. One of them looks at the other, with her mouth open and smiling.

Ho Fan, Afternoon Chat, 1959, archival pigment print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

6. He felt that his years making movies made him a better photographer. Ho’s experience in directing allowed him to capture dramatic and poetic scenes. It taught him to know exactly when to click the shutter to capture the emotions on people’s faces. These storytelling skills could also be used in photography. The stories told through his photographs are what make them interesting. His viewers might be from different cultures, but the ‘human feelings’ in the works are universal.

Sepia-toned photograph depicting a view of a Hong Kong Hong Kong alleyway lined by windows and framed by a dark archway. A staircase can be seen in the bottom right, on which a small child is writing or drawing on a piece of paper in front of them.

Ho Fan, Her Study, 1963, archival pigment print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

7. He took photos spontaneously, making use of ‘the decisive moment’. Ho Fan’s style of photography exemplifies what the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson dubbed the ‘decisive moment’. This method—of waiting for the perfect moment to click the camera shutter—remains a practice that is widely adopted by street photographers and photojournalists alike.

Sepia-toned photograph depicting a facade of a building. Silhouettes of three figures stand at three separate balconies of the building. The man on the left is looking down, a woman in the center is resting against the railing and looking to her left, a second man on the right is running to the left. Under the balconies is a series of thin light rectangles. Above the balconies, there are small light squares dotting the facade.

Ho Fan, On the Stage of Life, 1954, gelatin silver print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

8. ...but he also loved to stage his photographs. Ho Fan photographed On the Stage of Life when he was studying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s New Asia College. In anticipation of his future career as a filmmaker, he already showed an aptitude for directing dramatic performances. The characters in this photograph were his university classmates.

Sepia-toned photograph of a sidewalk where a crouching schoolgirl is holding an umbrella and a schoolboy is walking off to the left. In the far background, there are multiple people walking on the opposite sidewalk.

Ho Fan, School is Over, 1963, gelatin silver print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

9. ...and to edit his photographs after they were taken: Ho Fan referred to this photo, School is Over, as ‘a joke that God played on me. In fact, I wasn’t even taking a picture of the children. The negative was in a square format. I was actually photographing the tram lines. My first impression was that the photograph wasn’t any good. But as I looked at it, I found the two children on the side, which was even more fun and interesting.’ He radically cropped the photo to be unusually thin and narrow, creating a kind of rhythm in the composition with the shapes of the children, the tram lines, and the drainage holes. Ho Fan enjoyed cropping and editing his photographs, describing this process as being ‘like making a movie’. He felt that editing could breathe new life into a work.

Sepia-toned photograph of a stairway leading above ground from a dark recess. A woman is walking down in the foreground while many other figures are walking up. The light from the stairway highlights the clouds of dust in the air.

Ho Fan, Smokey Staircase, 1959, gelatin silver print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan

10. Later in life, Ho Fan returned to his earlier works to find new possibilities. He felt that it was like a treasure hunt—the happiness of finding something good was something that money couldn’t buy. In his later works, he also liked to overlay photos to tell new stories, combining and manipulating his old Hong Kong street photos to create something completely different.

All information in this post comes from an interview conducted with Ho Fan by M+. You can see a shortened version of this interview below:

Video interview with Ho Fan.

Video interview with Ho Fan. Transcript here.


Image at top of post: Ho Fan, Pattern, 1956, archival pigment print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan.

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