Five Favorite Photos – Street Photography Master, Fan Ho

Five Favorite Photos – Street Photography Master, Fan Ho

1643 1147 James Tocchio

For me, street photography is at its best when the image is thoughtful and composed. I’m not a fan of the run-and-gun style of many modern, Instagram-famous street photographers. Shots like theirs often leave me feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed for the subject. They focus on the spontaneity of street-craft and forego the basics of good photography, sacrificing composition and light management for dumb luck and lots of free time. They also seem too often to highlight the ugly side of city life.

In stark contrast is the street photography of the late Fan Ho. The Hong Kong-based photographer who made his work more than five decades ago transcends the “street photographer” label. Take any one element from any of his photos – subject, environment, light, composition – they’re all perfect individually. Put them together and you find images that are instantly recognizable as masterworks of Fan Ho.

He shot Hong Kong during a uniquely transitional period of time as classical China made way for modern, industrial superpower China. The resulting images meld the old with the new, the sleek and shiny with the dirty and dusty. But in all cases, his subjects are photographed with beauty and dignity, and masterful control.

Here is a tiny sample of photos from my favorite street photographer of all time. His work is prolific, and this article barely scratches the surface. Those who are interested should certainly seek more.

On the Stage of Life (1954)

Let’s start with one of the more arresting (and baffling) of Fan Ho’s shots. On the Stage of Life is a masterclass in advanced photo tips and techniques. Repeating patterns, use of silhouettes and symmetry, frames within frames, and artistic exposure; it’s a deceptively simple photo that must have been incredibly difficult to make. It also begs the question, just what are we looking at?

Fan Ho often used candid subjects for his photos, but he was also willing to stage shots with friends and people he’d meet on the street. Whether this shot is staged or not is unclear. In either case, it’s beautifully executed. It’s the kind of shot that makes me want to go out and try to be a street photographer.

The Return (1958)

Less abstract yet no less impactful is his photo The Return. This shot is typical of Fan Ho, who often sat for hours and days in a given photogenic location simply waiting for a subject to populate the frame. In interviews, he recounted that a suitable subject often never came. In these cases the photo never got made, since the serious-minded Ho refused to release the shutter unless his subject touched his heart.

On a day in 1958 Ho’s heart must have fluttered as a subject floated into frame. The painterly result of the photo is perfection. The fog, the light raking off the distant hills, the tiny boat and its riders dwarfed by the largeness of the place and time.

Private (1960)

Ho once remarked that there must be humanity in art. The photo Private shows the photographer’s feeling for humanity. A simple composition and a simple idea, it makes the most of few elements and results in a subtle, somewhat funny, image. Possibly staged, it’s a director’s photo (Ho had a career as a film director for more than two decades). If candid, it’s another example of the fruits of a photographer’s patience.

Her Study (1963)

The photo of the young girl working on her balcony is one that charms me for technical and personal reasons. It’s a surprisingly quiet frame. Hong Kong in 1963 was a chaotic and often dirty place. Ho was a master of finding these quiet moments amid the bustle of the city. Technically, it’s a gorgeous photo. Again he uses frames within frames, and again the shot is cinematic. The light is perfect, the exposure is perfect.

Having two daughters of my own, the imagery of a quietly working young girl is one that I enjoy (especially since I know the rarity of these quiet moments with children). I long to see the paper on which she’s working, have a conversation about the important document she’s crafting.

And then there’s that balcony. It makes a parent’s heart skip. Don’t fall, little kid.

As Evening Hurries By (1955)

If I’m being honest, I struggled to find words to hang off of the shots in this article. Fan Ho’s work really strikes me more acutely than most and he’s certainly the only street photographer whose style consistently makes me feel like street photography is more than just snapshots. I feel that my words can’t possibly add anything of value to his images.

As Evening Hurries By is simply a gorgeous and magical photograph, and perhaps it’s best if we just take a look and keep quiet.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Hooray!, just Hooray!

  • James, it’s great that you featured Fan Ho. I was fortunate in 2000 to see an exhibit of his work in Palo Alto. His love of abstractions, light and shadow always poignantly offset by a caring profile of a human being give his work an almost theatrical feel. Ho is probably one of our greatest street/people photographers that no one seems to talk about. If you’re trying to develop an eye or understand the importance of composition in your work, buy one of his monographs and study it until the pages are dog-eared.

  • These are just gorgeous! Thanks for the introduction to this amazing photographer.

    And as an aside, boy oh boy does film look fantastic!

  • These are stunning. Thank you for introducing me to this photographer!

  • Beautiful and intense photos!! Thanks for sharing the work of this amazing photographer!

  • Thanks for posting this. I’d never heard of him, but now i’m hooked on his work. Hours will be spent researching…

  • It must have been extremely hard to choose only 5 photographs from Fan Ho. I’d have opted for other photos but it’s normal. He is my favourite street photographer of all the masters. More intimate than Doisneau’s, more poetic than Cartier-Bresson’s, more masterful than Brassai’s, I find that his photographs combine every single aspect of what makes a shot perfect to my eyes. They strike me and swallow me inside the frame until I ache to walk these streets, through these clouds of smoke and deep into the maze of Hong Kong. I wish I could have a tenth of his talent for spotting an opportunity, a tenth of his skills for composition, a tenth of his patience and make pictures 10% as impressive.

  • Fantastic!

  • Fan of Fan Ho, but not the price of his books 🙁 He was an incredible urban photographer.

  • Thanks for the great article.

    Apparently, he once said that if his name could be remembered for one picture, he’d want to known for the As Evening Hurries By photo. Just brilliant.

  • I have a look every day to your excellent website such 35mmc, JapanCameraHunter, Emulsive, … and today I stop here :
    whaouuuuu ! Magic, high talent, a real Master.
    Thanks you so much

    • Thank you very much for visiting the site (and those other great resources as well). Happy shooting to you, my friend.

  • What wonderful photos!

  • Fan Ho is one of my favorite photographers. There is something about his work that attracts my eye. It truly is timeless. Great article!

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio