The photographs of Chinese Fan Ho capture the lives, dreams and hard labour of individuals in an expanding metropolis.

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Approaching Shadow 1954 from “The Living Theater” 2009

Fan Ho passed away this summer. He inhibited a special sensitivity for light, lines and composition, something he expressed already as a 14-year old when his father gave him his first Rolleiflex-camera. This was in a 1950s Hong Kong – when Fan Ho’s family, along with millions of other Chinese, in 1945, fled following the creation of the Peoples Republic China with Mao as its foreman. Due to its British colony status, the city experienced a huge growth in trade and industry. Fan Ho roamed around this seaport with his camera – a city in a constant span between East and West – communism and capitalism.

The consciousness of modernity. His youth spent as a roaming photographer resulted in a large collection of photographs which were exhibited and distributed in salon exhibitions and photo competitions across China and abroad, and he won several prizes. There was also a huge number of unpublished negatives, which Fan Ho retrieved when he, at the age of 75, retired from a long career in the film industry, and decided to take up photography again. This resulted in two books being published on his Hong Kong period: Hong Kong Yesterday (2006) which focused on shapes and shadows, and where people appear as silhouettes in a composition piece; and Living Theater (2009) which reflected the way he viewed the world; as a stage where the theatre of life is played out. With his eye for light and dynamic composition, he uses the photographic surface to frame potential stories.

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Construction, 1957

Over a period spanning 20 years, he observed the visual life in this city, the markets, at construction sites, back alleys and in the harbour. The starting point seems to be the individual, whilst the perspective shows us some of the totality we are part of. He was simultaneously formalistic and humanistic – in line with the Bauhaus-tradition. The references to how Bauhaus-photographs play with shapes and perspective is obvious. The interbellum look at the photograph as an explosive force which would form modern consciousness – with László Moholy Nagys new vision of the camera as an experimental instrument that could reveal what the naked eye cannot – is also visible in this teenage gaze at a Chinese city in explosive development. Fan Ho was remarkably switched on to the prevailing aesthetics and intellectual undercurrents of the time with regards to the position of the photograph from both the West and Russia.

Bittersweet longing. Time and development never cease – but by being completely present in the now, visual truths can appear, like carefully extracting essences as pefume from a flower. This requires patience, care and time, all of which Fan Ho was a master: waiting for the perfect combination to appear so the photograph can create itself, whilst he is there to preserve it.

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East meets west, 1963

After 20 years carrying a photographic camera around Hong Kong, Fan Ho moved into a 35-year film career, both as actor and director of more than 20 films. These were first and foremost commercially-oriented films, some erotic, but several were been screened as part of the official film program at the Cannes, Berlin and San Francisco film festivals.  Especially worth mentioning is his debut Lost (1969), which follows a lonely and lost man in a chaotic Hong Kong. He is surrounded by beauty, but does not notice, and remains forlorn.

Fan Ho’s last published book Hong Kong Memoir (2012) was another nostalgic project, where he returned to his youth and carried on photographing. In these images, I detect a bittersweet longing – a yearning for youth, for the city and for the photograph the way it was. It is also an homage to Hong Kong which was created by all its individuals working to fulfil their dreams.

Here, it is not the ability of the photograph to freeze a moment as it appears, but rather the timing between these images, the time passed, life lived and Hong Kong’s development from the 1950’s till today.

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Journey to Uncertainty, 1956

The unredeemed. With a basis in double exposure – positioning two negatives on top of each other – has Fan Ho worked with digital montage and created images over time of Hong Kong. Here, it is not the ability of the photograph to freeze a moment as it appears, but rather the timing between these images, the time passed, life lived and Hong Kong’s development from 1950s till today. By going through his 1950-60s negative archives thoroughly, Fan Ho found photographs not copied at the time. These images are more questioning and function, to a greater extent, as question marks rather than narrators. At the same time, this project is searching, as if all his life, the photograph has had something unredeemed. Something he never finished.

In the monthly column Focus on Photography, artist Nina Toft introduces a new photography project or book.


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