Fan Ho – The Great Master of the East

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Fan Ho (1931-2016) earned his fame as one of Asia’s most beloved street photographers capturing Hong Kong in the 1950’s and 60’s. Fan Ho’s photographic career started in Shanghai at the early age of 14 when given his first Kodak Brownie for his birthday from his father. Within the first year he won his first award. In 1949, the family moved to Hong Kong where the young Fan Ho continued pursuing his love for photography. At the age of 18 he acquired his twin lens Rolleiflex with which he captured all his famous work.

At a time where studio photography was far more common, Ho’s work stood out. What made Fan Ho’s work so intensely human is his love for the common people of Hong Kong: the coolies, vendors, hawkers selling fruits and vegetables, kids playing in the street or doing their homework, people crossing streets. He never intended to create a historic record of the city’s buildings and monuments; rather he aimed to capture the soul of Hong Kong, the hardship and resilience of its citizens. Dubbed the “Cartier-Bresson of the East”, Fan Ho patiently waited for ‘the decisive moment’; very often a collision of the unexpected, framed against a very clever composed background of geometrical construction, patterns and texture.

Ho often created drama and atmosphere with backlit effects or through the combination of smoke and light. His favorite locations were the streets, alleys and markets around dusk or life on the sea. Rather than have his photographs be a mere reflection of reality, Fan Ho preferred to leave room for subjective interpretation of his photos by his viewers. Fan Ho famously once said, “Photography is my passion. I enjoy playing with it. My urge is to enhance, improve and strengthen my images. Sometimes I push away reality a certain distance in my images, and leave the viewers some space for imagination. I like the viewer that can create the illusion with me.”

When asked once whether he ever designed his shots beforehand or were they a fortuitous combination of form and content, Ho replied that “God has designed everything for you, you just have to pick the exact moment to click the shutter.” According to Fan Ho, Cartier-Bresson’s theory of ‘the decisive moment’ is very important and brings photography to a very high level and makes photography stand very strongly and firmly within the realm of the arts. No other art form is as geared as photography is to capture ‘the decisive moment’ and emphasize its importance in storytelling and creating an emotional response from the viewer.

But despite his desire to record spontaneous moments, one of his most famous images, “Approaching Shadow (1964)” -- is deliberately staged. He asked his cousin to don a cheongsam (a traditional Chinese dress) and photographed her against a white wall. In the darkroom during the development process, he introduced a triangular shadow that cuts diagonally across the frame towards its downward-looking subject. According to Ho, the dark half of the photograph represents the imminent end of her innocence."

Fan Ho thought of creativity as an ongoing journey. Fan Ho composed his images in three stages. The first stage was composing the shot while clicking the shutter on the camera during the capture of ‘the decisive moment.’ His second stage of composition was in printing and enlarging his films when he cropped his images. The third stage of composition is when he used to re-crop his cropped images, sometimes many years later. Fan Ho tells us to not throw away our old negatives (or digital RAW files in today’s age) because one may find some hidden treasures from the old negatives. Ho tells us that perhaps today one might not see anything of value in a negative, but after 10 or 20 years when one grows older, one’s philosophy of life may change thereby changing a person’s viewpoint and understanding of the world. That might lead one to discover something unexpected from the old negatives that one had missed in the past when the photo was initially made.

Fan Ho was most prolific in his teens and 20’s and created his biggest body of work before he reached the tender age of 28. His work did not go by unnoticed at his time. He won close to 300 local and international awards and titles in his day through competing in the salons.  His talent was also spotted by the film industry where he started out as an actor before moving to film directing until retiring at 65.

Fan Ho is a Fellow of the Photographic Society and the Royal Society of Arts in England, and an Honorary Member of the Photographic societies of Singapore, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, France, Italy and Belgium. He most recently won a 'Life-time Achievement Award, the 2nd Global Chinese Int'l Photography Award, China, 2015' by the Chinese Photographic Society (Guangzhou).

During his long career, Fan Ho had taught photography and film making at a dozen universities worldwide. His work is in many private and public collection of which most notable are: M+ Museum, Hong Kong, Heritage Museum, Hong Kong, Bibliothèque National de France, Paris, France, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, USA and many more.

All images and content taken from the Fan Ho official website, the PetaPixel website, the Blue Lotus Gallery website, the BBC website and Wikipedia.

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Complied by:

Mustafa Habib Chowdhury

Freelance Travel Photographer by passion

and a Professor of Engineering by profession



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