Fan Ho: Master Street Photographer

by | Updated: May 17, 2021 | Artists | 0 comments

Dubbed as the Henri Cartier-Bresson of the East, Fan Ho was a critically acclaimed photographer, actor, and director. At just 14 years old, Fan Ho took his first photograph using a Kodak Brownie and it won first place in a local competition. Since then, Fan Ho has been documenting the daily lives of Hong Kong inhabitants using his Rolleiflex, throughout the 50s and 60s.

Between 1958 and 1965, Ho consistently topped the list of the world’s best photographers by the Photographic Society of America and received over 280 awards over his career.

Fan Ho expertly utilized smoke and light as well as backlit effects to add or enhance drama and atmosphere to his monochrome images. Throughout the rest of his career, Ho used his twin-lens Rolleiflex camera.

As a master of using light and geometry, Ho has the ability to manipulate the shadows to bring the audience’s attention to the subject, the “star” of the photograph. All elements in his photographs – subject, environment, light, composition – are expertly composed to stand out individually. Yet together, these elements highlight the beauty, dignity, and pensiveness of every scene, showcasing Ho’s masterful control over the emotional element of the photograph.

Photo Credit: Fan Ho

“I liked to concentrate and simplify the world in black and white; it was more suitable to my nature. I could express my emotions more freely, they were more fully under my control, [and the results were] surreal and semi-abstract. I liked this distance: not too close, not too far away…”

His dramatic use of light and shadow within geometric compositions put each individual subject and scenes front and center, emphasizing the frenetic pace of Hong Kong along with the loneliness that comes with it.

Photo Credit: Fan Ho

Through his lens, Fan Ho painted a melancholic and dramatic view of old Hong Kong. Each photo immortalizes the underbelly of the city at its rawest, highlighting the chaotic atmosphere that the city is known for during a difficult transition. This was not an easy feat, considering how densely populated Hong Kong was even then. Ho is renowned for his patience, waiting for hours for that one “decisive moment” when the unexpected happens, framed against an expertly composed backdrop of geometrical construction and texture.

According to heritage experts, Ho’s masterpieces were borne out of the late photographer’s deep love and empathy towards Hong Kong and its people during troubled times. His photographs convey the grit and hardships that made HK the thriving city that it is today. He loved walking around empty alleys, wet markets, and city streets around dusk, often taking snaps of hawkers, vendors, street children, to share his feelings towards the working class to his audience.

Top 5 Iconic Fan Ho Photographs

Approaching Shadow

Photo Credit: Fan Ho


A haunting image that presents all three lines horizontal lines, vertical lines and diagonal lines in one photograph. Although the image was carefully composed (Ho’s cousin posed for the photograph and the diagonal shadow was added later on) as opposed to being spontaneously shot, the image gives an introspective gesture that pulls viewers in.

On the Stage of Life

Photo Credit: Fan Ho

The Return

Photo Credit: Fan Ho

The Return is easily recognizable as a Ho masterpiece. It has all the elements that illustrate the artist’s distinct style. The image shows how the larger boats and the vastness of the sea dwarfed the tiny vessel with its rider, the light from the distant hills and the fog adding drama to the scene. It’s graphic, impactful, and perfectly executed, no doubt a result of Ho’s patience as he sat for hours and days waiting for the perfect opportunity to make the shot.


Photo Credit: Fan Ho

An image that proves how a simple idea and a sparsely composed setting could result in an otherwise arresting image. Private is subtly romantic and somewhat humorous as it pokes fun at the irony of a private, intimate moment bared in such a public way through a small window.

As Evening Hurries By

Photo Credit: Fan Ho

As Evening Hurries By puts emphasis on the quietness of the night as town folks hurry off to somewhere at the end of a long day. The photograph is gritty yet serene, the composition is simple yet the result is nothing short of magical.

Ho died at the ripe old age of 84 in June 2016 but his poignant photographs and his artworks continue to inspire new generations of photographers and art lovers all over the world.

Over to you!

That’s it! Now you know who Fan Ho is and why his work is so celebrated.

Over to you:

Which is your favourite Fan Ho piece of art?

Let us know in the comments below!


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