(Original language: Cantonese)
FAN HO: 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. What kind of distance? A kind of distance from real life. I think this distance is very important. Real life is multicoloured. Black and white offers a sense of detachment. It allows audiences and viewers to develop their responses and offers the space and depth to ponder and contemplate my ideas.
I like the colour black. It has a kind of power, one that is great and mysterious. It’s like a power that rules over the world. I take photographs casually, with spontaneity. For example, when I lived on MacDonnell Road in the Mid-Levels in Central district, I would walk down from the Mid-Levels. 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.
I always pay attention to the light. I consider photography as the art of light. The light needs to fit my needs, not to mention achieve contrast. So it’s important to wait for the right light. When I am inspired, I can express my state of mind at that moment, the way that I feel. The great writer Honoré de Balzac once said that art is nothing but to move. What a great way to put it.
This one, I have to be honest, I cannot claim credit for. Rather it’s a joke that God played on me. In fact, I wasn’t even taking pictures 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. They were keeping each other company after school. It’s as if there is a kind of rhythm.
I enjoy cropping photographs. It’s like making a movie. I really enjoy the editing process. What’s it like? It can breathe new life into your work. The same goes for photography. That side is lifeless, and this side is alive? Cut that side off, then.
Truly good photographs are not taken with the camera. They come from inside you, your eyes, your brain, your heart, not some cold piece of equipment.
While much of the Hong Kong of the 1950s and 1960s captured by Fan Ho no longer exists, it can still be experienced through his photographs of the time.
The Early Years
Fan Ho (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. He moved to Hong Kong in 1949, and from the 1950s onwards gained considerable attention for his striking photographs of everyday life in Hong Kong.
From Photography to a Career in Film
Fan Ho’s skills in image-making in photography made him a natural fit for the emerging Hong Kong film industry. From the 1960s to the 1980s, he became better known for his work in film, in particular with the famous Shaw Brothers studio. In addition to his role behind the camera as a director, Fan Ho occasionally appeared in front of the camera, debuting as an actor in Love Without End (1961).
After a number of acting roles, Fan Ho produced his first independent short film, Big City Little Man (1963), which won an award at the Japan International Film Festival in 1964. Soon he was approached by commercial film studios and became highly successful in producing a new genre of films: erotic features. Films such as The Girl with the Long Hair (1975) and Temptation Summary (1990) were huge commercial successes.
Fan Ho’s Legacy
Fan Ho’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—is today considered a rather old-fashioned and even purist approach to photography. It remains a practice that is widely adopted by street photographers and photojournalists alike.
This video was originally published on M+ Stories. The English-language version of this article has been updated to reflect the artist’s name as Fan Ho, instead of Ho Fan, at the request of the artist’s estate.
- Produced by
Kenji Wong Wai Kin
- Curatorial Research
Alexa Chow, Winnie Lai, Tina Pang
- M+ Video Production
Lara Day, Chris Sullivan
- Special Thanks
Fan Ho, Sarah Greene, Yung Ma