Life is an act: Fan Ho’s cinematic street photography

Black and white photos with great contrast between light and shadows, as if the sky is always clear; common everyday scenes of Hong Kong, nothing historic yet historical in itself; dramatic leading lines whether by staircases and railings or the tram tracks. These are the characteristics of Fan Ho’s photography, a legend in photography and filmmaking, a marriage between the two.

Fan Ho was a writer, photographer, actor and movie maker. Born in Shanghai in 1931, his photographic career started at the early age of 14 with his first Kodak Brownie from his father. Within the first year, he won his first award in 1949 in Shanghai. Then, he moved to Hong Kong with his parents, where he captured all his famous work using his newly acquired Rolleiflex, continuing his pursuit for photography, and expanding the love to filmmaking.


“Photography is the art of and for the people” – Fan Ho

What made Fan Ho’s work so intensely human is his love for the common Hong Kong people: coolies, vendors, hawkers selling fruits and vegetables, kids playing in the street of doing their homework, people crossing the street. He also loved portraying the mundane and overlooked elements of everyday such as the fog or mist under sunlight, how the sunlight hits the walls at a certain angle.

He never intended to create a historic record of the city’s buildings and monuments; rather he aimed to capture the soul of Hong Kong, the hardship and resilience of its citizens, essentially portraying life in Hong Kong during his time.


“If the photographer’s thoughts and feelings can be conveyed to the viewers, enabling the viewers to have the same thoughts and feelings, then the mission of art is accomplished, thus realising a form of artistic beauty” – Fan Ho

One thing Fan Ho did which set him apart from most photographers in his time is that he was not afraid to crop his photographs. Many of his works are captured and cropped later in the process.

He loved capturing people on the move with a play of juxtaposition of subjects and the use of dramatic leading lines, which made his photographs look like they come from a scene in the movies.

In Fan Ho’s photographs, it is as if everyone is an actor, and the street is their stage.


“My belief in the art creation is to try anything” – Fan Ho

Fan Ho achieved his “artistic beauty” not just with extensive cropping, but also by turning his photographs upside down, as if challenging people’s conventional view, and the result was surprisingly astounding.

He was also not afraid to combine old and new technology. He experimented with his old film photos in Photoshop to create double exposure to keep pace with new technology in photo editing. He added additional layers to his photographs by applying creativity that the latest technologies provided him. Indeed, he tried everything.


“I don’t only get inspiration from photographers. I studied Chinese literature in university. I especially loved Chinese poetry. Many of my photos are influenced by the great masters of poetry in China from a thousand years ago. They have soul. I also get inspiration from music. I love Brahms’ symphonies, Mahler, and Debussy, and Stravinsky. I love classical music. They give me inspiration, especially during my work in the darkroom.” – Fan Ho

Many would agree that the art world, no matter the field, is interlinked, and Fan Ho personally embodied it. It could be the very mechanism that made his photographs extremely soulful, full of life and emotions. A legendary artist in his time and continually relevant at this age.

Browse more of Fan Ho’s photographs here.

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