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.