Film, photography, darkrooms, how exactly does that all work again? I find myself wondering how a tiny negative becomes a large photograph. Viewing Fan Ho’s black and white photos of 50’s and 60’s Hong Kong street scenes for the first time takes my breath away. The Felliniesque photos are semi-abstract works of art due to strong contrast, geometric composition and masterful cropping. Fan Ho was a huge fan of Chinese literature and poetry. His aim was to create visual poems to the people and landscapes of urban Hong Kong. His literary and cinematic sensibilities allowed him to create pictures that are Chinese and yet very modern at the same time. Just like Hong Kong was back then.
Fan was born in Shanghai to a well off merchant family. Living under Japanese occupation, Fan remembers a happy childhood until 1941 when the war officially started. He was ten when his parents went away on a business trip in Macau and were not able to return home. Fan was left in Shanghai for years on his own in the care of an old family servant. This was when he picked up his father’s old Brownie and began taking pictures like “Wet Day in Shanghai”. Submitting one of his early photos to a school competition, and winning, set him on a lifetime path of seeking fame and recognition, Fan liked to joke. During this lonely time, Fan would binge on cinema, seeing as many as three new films a week. He had no idea he would go on to be a successful film director and chat about movies with Fellini himself one day.
What happened next is not clear. In interviews, Fan says he ran away to Hong Kong. Other sources say he spent time in Canton. But in 1948, when Fan was 17, the family was back together again. Moving into an apartment in the mid-levels, Fan attended the illustrious St. Paul’s Academy. He was such a star student of literature and poetry, he says, that he wasn’t required to attend class. However, reading began to give him terrible migraines, which could only be alleviated by taking long walks. When the walks became boring, he bought the Rolleiflex he would use throughout his life. At night, he would turn the family bathroom into a dark room, developing pictures until dawn. He joined photographic societies or salons to learn more and began winning international photo competitions. In 1958, at twenty-seven, Fan was named the best photographer in the world by the Photographic Society of America. He made their top ten list eight times. He would go on to win almost 300 photography awards and be inducted as a fellow into the US and UK photographic societies and gain honorary membership in many others. In the 50’s and 60’s, Hong Kong salon photographers ranked well internationally, especially for such a small place. Perhaps this was due to the enthusiasm and generosity amongst the salons. Fan Ho was often called the Cartier-Bresson of the East and had a global influence on the art of photography, but he was known to be willing to share his knowledge and techniques with anyone who was interested.
Fan Ho’s most prolific period for photography was during his late teens and twenties. There were no jobs for professional photographers then, so at twenty-eight, he approached the famous Shaw Brothers Studio to be a director. They suggested he become an actor, instead, and sign an eight-year contract. His movie roles included the monk in a serialized Journey to the West. After Fan won a UK film festival award for an experimental film, Shaw Brothers decided his skills could best be put to use making commercial films. In the 70’s and 80’s that meant steamy, violent, category III kungfu movies. Although these were not the art films Fan dreamed of making, they were commercial successes and he set some box office records for this type of movie. Post Shaw Brothers, Fan would go on to direct some films chosen to be official selections at international film festivals in Cannes, Berlin and San Francisco. Over time, his directing and writing skills were increasingly appreciated by his peers. He was invited to sit on the judging panels of the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards. Fan retired in 1995 with twenty-seven films to his directorial name. After leaving Hong Kong for California to join his family, Fan missed his busy work life terribly. So, he began to delve back into his first love, photography. Working with his early photo archives and negatives, Fan approached galleries and began to show his work again in the US and Hong Kong, which of course was met with great acclaim. Fan was working on cataloging and reworking old negatives for his new book “Fan Ho: Portrait of Hong Kong”, published June 2017 (bilingual), when he succumbed to pneumonia last summer at 84.
This exhibition has piqued my curiosity in many ways. What are we missing out on without analogue photography? What would it be like to live in a time straddling old and new China, and be in a war, and love Chinese poetry and Fellini, and discover photography, and become an artist. What a great time for Hong Kong photography clubs and salons worldwide. And, I definitely want to see some of those movies. Where is my old film camera? I want to be like him. Original photographs can be seen at “Visual Dialogues: Hong Kong through the Lens of Fan Ho”, until 30 June at Sotheby’s Gallery, One Pacific Place.
Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery
14–30 June 2017
Monday – Friday: 10am–6pm
Closed on Sundays and Public Holidays