10 Facts about the Photographer Who Captured 1950s and ‘60s Hong Kong
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Image at top of post: Ho Fan, Pattern, 1956, archival pigment print, M+ Hong Kong. © Ho Fan.