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.
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.