This week’s post is another photography book recommendation. I’d like to re-introduce you to one of my favorite photographers of all times. Fan Ho. I’ve already done two book review on Fan Ho: Hong Kong Yesterday and The Living Theatre, just a few weeks back. All three books are simply amazing and this week I’d like to give you an in-depth view of the third and final of the series: A Hong Kong Memoir. Parts of this review are exactly the same as for Hong Kong Yesterday and The Living Theatre – that’s because the photographer’s biography hasn’t really changed. So if you’re in a hurry and want to skip to the part that’s brand new, head on down to the How’s the book? section.
I never tire to say this: Next to actually taking pictures yourself, the best way to improve your photography skills is looking at great photography, analyzing the composition and trying to understand what makes these pictures so great. Well, at least that’s my opinion. It’s something I’ve done for a time now and still enjoy doing. So getting a good photography book is always a good investment – getting a great photography book like this one is a great investment. Let’s start: Who was Fan Ho, what makes him special and what should you expect from the book.
WHO WAS FAN HO?
Fan Ho was a man of many trades. He was a Chinese photographer, director and actor. He was born in 1931 in Shanghai, China and unfortunately passed away just about a year ago in San Jose, California. Although being born in mainland China, he moved to Hong Kong with his family in his early years where he spent some very productive years photographing the Hong Kong of the 50’s and 60’s. For some reason (I don’t know why), all the photographic work we see today was created in that time period. I haven’t come across any pictures created in the later years, I assume he simply focused on directing films.
In almost anything Fan Ho did, his genius was quickly remarked (and rewarded): During his career Fan Ho won a total of around 280 photography awards. His photographic works earned him the nomination as one of the Top Ten Photographers of the World by the Photographic Society of America eight times between 1958 and 1965. In addition he was elected Fellow of the Photographic Society of America, Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, England and Honorary Member of the Photographic Societies of seven other countries. It’s the same story for his work as film director: Some of the films he directed were chosen as “Official Selection” in international film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin. In short, he was a very, very gifted individual and people noticed.
WHAT MAKES FAN HO SPECIAL?
Obviously, Fan Ho was a very accomplished individual and that alone makes him a very special photographer. But to me, there’s more to him than simply his genius and success. To me, there are three reasons why Fan Ho is a very special photographer and also one of my favorite: First, when it comes to photography, he was entirely self-taught. Second, Fan Ho had a very different approach to composition and third, his entire photographic work is very much focused on one particular genre / time period.
FAN HO, THE HUMBLE SELF-TAUGHT PHOTOGRAPHIC GENIUS
When you look at Fan Ho’s work, it’s hard to believe he had no formal education in photography. His pictures demonstrate such a deep understanding of composition and aesthetics that it’s hard to believe that a person could acquire such expertise all by himself. But Fan Ho did. The story goes like this (he described this early time in an interview in a very entertaining way): When Fan Ho was 13 years old, his father gave him a Rolleiflex which later became the only camera he would ever use. With the camera in hand, he wandered through Shanghai harbor (at that time his family had not yet moved to Hong Kong) when he “accidentally” (as he put it) came across a scene he liked. He fiddled around with the camera and “accidentally” (again his own words) pressed the shutter. The picture below was the result (included in the book The Living Theatre).
When his father saw the picture he was immediately impressed and encouraged Fan Ho to send the picture to an art competition. Sure enough, Fan Ho won the first prize. From then on out, he would wander the streets, take pictures and develop the pictures at night in the family bath tub. Fan Ho never enjoyed a formal education in photography. When asked how he taught himself about photography, he named three sources: First, photography and art books. Second, participating in photography competitions and third, fellow photographers. So here we are with a person who has gathered almost 300 photography awards and who has never taken a single photography class. This is the stuff movies are made of – you know, the really cheesy ones. In addition (and that’s what impressed me the most with Fan Ho) he remained a very humble, down-to-earth man, far off from bragging about his talents or showing off. This mix of being entirely self-taught, very successful and extremely humble as a person is deeply impressive to me.
Now, although Fan Ho didn’t have a formal photography education, he did study Chinese literature, and literature or poetry plays a significant role in some of his photography (especially in this book). When asked what his favorite picture of all times was, Fan Ho quickly pointed to the photograph below, called “As Evening Hurries by” (which is included in Hong Kong Yesterday).
Obviously this is a beautiful picture but the reason why Fan Ho considered it his favorite is the connection it made to a certain Chinese poem in which the line "as evening hurries by" plays a significant role. Although I don't know that poem, I can relate to that. I imagine this poem created a certain picture in Fan Ho’s mind. When he encountered a scene in real life that came very close to that imaginary scene it must have been a very rewarding experience.
FAN HO, THE CREATOR OF THE “SECOND DECISIVE MOMENT”
The “decisive moment” is a well-known term in photography, coined by no lessor than Henri Cartier-Bresson. In short, it’s the idea of that perfect moment where simply everything falls into place (and you’re there to press the shutter). It’s the climatic event when all the elements in your composition line up perfectly, just the way you want it, and you take the perfect picture. When looking at Fan Ho’s images, one can’t help but think that his work captures exactly that, the decisive moment and Fan Ho has often been heralded as the “Asian Cartier-Bresson” or the “Cartier-Bresson of the East”. This comparison is certainly merited, although these two men had vastly different approaches to composition and if you ask me, I prefer Fan Ho's approach (I know, it’s such a heretic thing to say).
For Fan Ho, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a great idol and he admired his work. Many of Fan Ho’s pictures reveal that hunting for that right moment was a large part of the creation process for Fan Ho. He would visit a location, revisit the location, wait for hours for the light to change or people to come and go and then finally (if he was lucky) capture that one perfect moment. But when it comes to creating the final picture, his approach was vastly different. Henri Cartier-Bresson was obsessed with creating the final picture in camera – he would at times even hand off the development of his pictures to others. There was only “no go”: cropping. It was frowned upon. For Fan Ho however, the picture taken in camera was only the starting point: He would take a picture, dodge and burn parts of it during the development process and crop the picture to eliminate any distracting elements or adjust the composition. For Fan Ho, creating an image was a twostep process.
This becomes evident when considering the film Fan Ho used: He deliberately used square film, knowing that this would give him enough freedom to crop the final picture. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s interpretation of such a procedure might have been a lack of talent as he was adamant about never cropping his pictures (exactly for the reason to demonstrate his incredible skill in composing pictures). For Fan Ho however, this was simply a different approach to creating pictures: He never wanted his pictures to be a “mirror of reality” as he put it. His pictures were meant to create journeys together with the viewer: The image would be the starting point, only a glimpse of reality. The rest would be left to the imagination of the viewer. In a way, there were two moments of composition for Fan Ho: One in camera, when the shutter was pressed and one during the development of the film, when the final crop was made. In a sense, he was capturing two “decisive moments” or composing his pictures twice.
FAN HO, THE ARCHIVIST OF A TIME LONG LOST
The last aspect I find so immensely fascinating with Fan Ho is his body of work. It’s not so much the impressive quality (which by itself is fascinating), it’s more the restriction that fascinates me. As stated earlier, Fan Ho created all of his images with one camera, in one (geographic) place and within two decades. He used his Rolleiflex until the end of his career and the pictures we now admire were almost all taken in the Hong Kong of the 1950’s and 60’s. I guess it’s the ability to create such a varied, impressive body of work with such restrictions in place that baffles me.
Through Fan Ho, we are able to witness a society which is long lost: I guess there are few places on Earth in modern history that have changed so significantly: The Hong Kong of today has little to no resemblance to the Hong Kong of Fan Ho’s days. But through his body of work we can still witness that long lost time and that alone makes his work special.
HOW'S THE BOOK?
I purchased my copy at the modernbook shop over two years ago for $75 (regular edition) which to me is a good bargain. I believe the prices are still at these levels and if you have the money to spare I highly recommend you get a copy, you won’t regret it. At 24 x 28 cm the format is perfectly sized to sit back and flip through it. The book is clothbound and generally very well made, the paper quality is without fault. In total, you will find 101 pictures spread over 128 pages.
With these boring facts out of the way, let's dive into the pictures. The book includes a wide array of pictures which makes it difficult to categorize the different themes and motifs in terms of compositional elements. In many ways, the categorization I came up with for the other two books of Fan Ho is applicable for this book too – well, to a certain extent. This book has ideas and styles which are very similar to those found in his other two books, but it also has some completely new ideas – some of which I have not encountered in his other two books. So it’s probably best to have two categories: First, the “old” ideas (although that word really doesn’t do the pictures justice) and second the “new” ideas.
Old: IMMACULATE SCENERY, Lines and the Decisive Moment
As I mentioned above, I’ve called these themes „old“ because we’ve already seen them in the other two books – there’s nothing negative to that. Just to recap the themes: First, there are pictures that seem to be taken out of a theater scene – everything included in frame is perfectly aligned and in the exact spot it should be. Second, there are pictures which heavily rely on lines and create journeys for the viewer. Third, some pictures are a manifestation of that perfect “decisive moment” – the shutter couldn’t have been pressed at a more perfect time. Now, of course, most of the pictures don't necessarily fall into just one category but in many cases there is a clearly recognizable dominant theme – that’s what I’m referring to.
Some of the pictures you will find in the book seem to be taken directly out of a theater play – the people in them seem like perfectly placed and scripted actors – standing at the exact perfect spot and the entire scene is framed / surrounded in a way which reminds me of a stage – again with perfectly placed objects. The two pictures below are prime examples.
Another common theme with Fan Ho (and something I admire very much) is the exemplary use of leading lines, just like in the examples below.
Although these scenes are very similar to the ones in the other books – the train / tram tracks are a common idea – it never gets old for me. Finally, there’s the decisive moment: Pictures which couldn’t have been captured at a better moment, like the examples below.
It took me a while to notice the flute player on the left hand side, but when I did the picture became even more interesting to me. On the right, the story is similar: What are the chances of the dog running by AND the little child looking into the frame? Now that we’ve covered the well-known (old), let’s move on to the newer stuff, the themes we haven’t encountered in Fan Ho’s other books.
New: Double exposures, landscapes and graphic elements
In this book, Fan Ho introduces a couple of new concepts / ideas which I would like to point out. If you’re thinking of buying some of his books, I’d recommend you get two: Either Hong Kong Yesterday or The Living Theatre and definitely this one, A Hong Kong Memoir. Simply because this book introduces a couple of fresh themes which aren’t present in the other books (or at least not to the same extent). One of these new themes is double exposure like the examples below.
Some of these double exposures are a little bit more subtle (like the example above on the left), others are quite dramatic like the two examples below.
I really like the blending of these portraits and the sky /clouds. It adds a certain drama to the composition and often adds an element of contrast (again the example on the left were the portrait of an elderly man is contrasted against children playing below). Another group of pictures display a more drastic approach to double exposure, like the examples below.
Next to double exposures, the book includes some landscape scenes. Personally, this was something I was longing for in the other two books. I’m a big fan of landscapes and I was eager to see how Fan Ho would compose a typical landscape scene, just like the example below.
This is a beautiful scene, perfectly executed. I especially like the faint silhouettes of the mountains in the background. Another group of pictures seem to merge different elements into one beautiful scene, just like the examples below.
I’m not sure, but I think these scenes were also created as double exposures. If so, the execution is simply amazing. Just imagine the work that had to go into these pictures: Placing the branches and boats at the exact same spots must have been a painful process.
Finally, there are some abstract compositions of graphic elements, Chinese signs in particular, like the example below.
Unfortunately I don’t know Chinese, but I can only imagine the beautiful poems or words of wisdom that are written here. For Fan Ho, Chinese literature and poetry was an essential source of inspiration in his photographic work and I believe that clearly shows.
DISCLAIMER: All of the pictures included in this blog entry were taken by myself. However, the photos in this book are of course copyrighted by the respective author. The information presented in this blog entry was either obtained through public sources (e.g. Wikipedia) or was included in the book. I have no interest (financial or otherwise) in the photographer, publisher or others mentioned above.