Art

ON THE EVE OF A SOLO EX­HI­BI­TION AND THE LAUNCH OF HIS LAT­EST BOOK, PHO­TOG­RA­PHER Fan Ho REM­I­NISCES WITH Leanne Mi­randilla ABOUT A SEVEN-DECADE CA­REER AS WELL AS HIS FAVOURITE TIME AND PLACE IN HIS­TORY—1960S HONG KONG

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

Pho­tog­ra­pher Fan Ho rem­i­nisces about his favourite time and place: 1960s Hong Kong. 326 Snap up great art for a good cause at Asia Art Ar­chive’s an­nual fundrais­ing auc­tion. 332 The up­heaval of the Arab Spring fed a blos­som­ing of artis­tic ex­pres­sion

Lit­tle did 14- year-old Fan Ho know, as he set out in 1945 to ex­plore the streets of his new home­town with a Rollei­flex cam­era his fa­ther had given him, that he was lay­ing the foun­da­tions of a body of work that would for­ever live in the hearts of Hongkongers. Within a year, the self-taught am­a­teur, who de­vel­oped his photographs in the bath­tub at home, had won his first prize. The Shang­hai-born lad con­tin­ued snap­ping away and hon­ing his skills, ma­tur­ing into the pho­tog­ra­pher who shot the iconic pho­tos of 1950s and ’60s Hong Kong for which he is best known and which earned him the moniker “the great master.” Look­ing back to­day, at the age of 83, Ho proudly sur­veys a ca­reer that has se­cured him more than 280 awards and has seen him named no less than eight times by the Pho­to­graphic So­ci­ety of Amer­ica as one of the world’s top 10 pho­tog­ra­phers.

For Hongkongers, Ho’s shots evoke an over­whelm­ing sense of nostal­gia. The streets and build­ings fea­tured in his pho­tos have ir­re­vo­ca­bly changed, and the ac­tiv­i­ties cap­tured in those streets are rarely wit­nessed to­day. In moody black-and-white photographs, men pull rick­shaws across streets de­void of traf­fic against back­drops of hand-painted wooden signs, with nary a neon light in sight; con­struc­tion work­ers in straw hats nim­bly ne­go­ti­ate bam­boo scaf­fold­ing with­out safety equip­ment; groups of el­derly women gossip in Cen­tral Mar­ket, a wet mar­ket long gone from a build­ing that to­day awaits re­gen­er­a­tion; a labourer teeters pre­car­i­ously down cob­bled Pot­tinger Street with a heavy cargo; a girl does her home­work on top

Look­ing for­ward From left: Fan Ho with a num­ber of his works; Ap­proach­ing Shadow (1954)

“I SYM­PA­THISED WITH PEO­PLE AND THEIR FIGHT­ING SPIRIT—THE HONG KONG SPIRIT. AL­WAYS STRUG­GLING AND FIGHT­ING, EVEN IN DIF­FI­CULT SIT­U­A­TIONS”

of a flight of stairs over­look­ing a shad­owy al­ley. Ho cap­tured the daily lives of or­di­nary Hongkongers with a dis­tinc­tive com­bi­na­tion of tech­ni­cal abil­ity and sen­si­tiv­ity.

“I sym­pa­thised with peo­ple and their fight­ing spirit—the Hong Kong spirit,” says Ho over the phone from his home for the past decade in San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia. “Al­ways strug­gling and fight­ing, even in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions.” In mak­ing his photographs, how­ever, Ho did not fo­cus on the suf­fer­ing of the work­ing class, but on cap­tur­ing glimpses of the or­di­nary mo­ments and joys of life, both at work and play.

While his pho­tos look spon­ta­neous, they’re ac­tu­ally the prod­uct of care­ful plan­ning and count­less hours spent re­vis­it­ing lo­ca­tions to get the per­fect shot. For ex­am­ple, Ho first no­ticed the al­ley­way in Her Study (the above shot of a young girl do­ing her home­work) be­cause he re­alised the arch would frame a sub­ject nicely, but he couldn’t find a com­pelling sub­ject—not un­til he vis­ited the al­ley­way one day and saw the girl set­ting up a stack of boxes to make a desk.

“I don’t have such great ideas,” Ho says humbly. “I just use my instincts. I don’t click my shut­ter un­til I feel some­thing that touches my heart.” His style re­calls that of one of his role mod­els, the French pho­tog­ra­pher cred­ited as the fa­ther of pho­to­jour­nal­ism, Henri Cartier-bres­son. The most im­por­tant el­e­ment for Cartier-bres­son was find­ing the “de­ci­sive mo­ment”—that in­stant when the pho­tog­ra­pher’s recog­ni­tion of the sig­nif­i­cance of his sub­ject co­in­cides with the mo­ment that form, com­po­si­tion, light­ing and cir­cum­stance all come to­gether in cre­at­ing the per­fect shot.

While many of Ho’s fa­mous photographs were the re­sult of such de­ci­sive mo­ments, oth­ers were the re­sult of time spent in the dark­room. Ap­proach­ing Shadow, for which Ho

asked a cousin clad in a qi­pao to pose against a wall, is one such ex­am­ple. The stark, black shadow sym­bol­is­ing the encroachment of old age wasn’t present when Ho cap­tured the im­age; he in­tro­duced it dur­ing the de­vel­op­ing and print­ing process.

As skilled as he was at pho­tog­ra­phy, Ho feared it would not be able to pro­vide him with a liv­ing wage, so he de­cided to join the Hong Kong film in­dus­try, get­ting his start in 1961 as an ac­tor at Shaw Brothers be­fore strik­ing out in­de­pen­dently as a di­rec­tor. But while Ho en­joyed a suc­cess­ful, decades-long ca­reer, pho­tog­ra­phy re­mained his great­est love. He found the com­mer­cial na­ture of the film in­dus­try frus­trat­ing and re­stric­tive. When his early ex­per­i­men­tal films (no­tably 1970’s Mi) failed to find fi­nan­cial suc­cess, Ho turned to di­rect­ing erotic films, which brought pos­i­tive reviews from around the world—and healthy re­ceipts. “But I didn’t like it,” re­calls Ho, who di­rected more than 20 erotic films. “I didn’t feel ar­tis­ti­cally sat­is­fied. They were well re­ceived at some fa­mous film fes­ti­vals, but in Hong Kong, if you talk about erotic films, peo­ple don’t think it’s good art.”

In­deed, many of Ho’s films have been shown at in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­vals, in­clud­ing Cannes, Berlin and San Francisco, and he has won nu­mer­ous awards for them. His work has also found a per­ma­nent home at the na­tional film ar­chives of Hong Kong and Tai­wan. Ho is of­fi­cially re­tired from di­rect­ing, but stu­dios con­tinue to seek him out for new films.

Since mov­ing from Hong Kong to the US with his wife and chil­dren, Ho has been ex­per­i­ment­ing in a new medium— dig­i­tal edit­ing. “Never, never dump your old nega­tives,” he says, ad­vice he has been press­ing on younger pho­tog­ra­phers for some time. “Why? Be­cause when you get old, you may see the world from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, and if you re­visit your old work, you might find some trea­sure there.” Ho takes his old pho­tos and makes dig­i­tal col­lages with them, or in­tro­duces ef­fects with pro­grams such as Pho­to­shop that make his re­al­is­tic pho­tos look ab­stract or surreal.

AO Ver­ti­cal Art Space in Chai Wan, which rep­re­sents Ho in Hong Kong, is ex­hibit­ing a range of th­ese new, dig­i­tally ma­nip­u­lated works in a one-man show, A Hong Kong Mem­oir, that opened at the end of Oc­to­ber and runs un­til Jan­uary 31. Ho’s US rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Modern­book Gallery in San Francisco, is also hold­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion over the same pe­riod. The two shows serve as the launch­ing pad for a book of Ho’s lat­est works, also ti­tled A Hong Kong Mem­oir. It’s ex­pected to be a hit with fans, as Ho’s pre­vi­ously pub­lished books and many of his pho­tos are out of print.

The book will also be on sale from the end of Novem­ber at The Pot­tinger Hong Kong, a bou­tique ho­tel in Cen­tral ad­ja­cent to its name­sake street, which fea­tures in one of Ho’s fa­mous photographs. The ho­tel opened in June and has Ho’s work per­ma­nently on dis­play in its rooms. Ho rarely takes part in com­mer­cial projects, but he ac­cepted the of­fer to work with The Pot­tinger after months of calls and cor­re­spon­dence. The ho­tel has also pro­duced a doc­u­men­tary about Ho that can be watched in its rooms.

Some might ex­pect the oc­to­ge­nar­ian to take a break after the launch of a new book and two exhibitions, but Ho doesn’t rest on his lau­rels. “I want to do ex­per­i­men­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, just like I did ex­per­i­men­tal film,” he says. “I want to try and do some­thing new. My belief in art is that you should never stop try­ing and never stop ex­per­i­ment­ing. You may not gain fame and for­tune from ex­per­i­men­tal art, but you’ll have an artis­tic sat­is­fac­tion that no money can buy.”

Ho’s ex­hi­bi­tion A Hong Kong Mem­oir shows at AO Ver­ti­cal Art Space in Chai Wan un­til Jan­uary 31. aover­ti­cal.com

slice of life From left: After­noon­chat (1959); Her­study (1963)

doc­u­ment­ing his­tory Clock­wise from left: Im­pres­sion ofold­hongkong (2011); Dif­fer­ent­di­rec­tions (1958); Work­ingsky­wards (1961); East Meet­swest (1963)

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