Author Archives: Jing Chen

About Jing Chen

I am a MA candidate of CCT program at Georgetown University.

Hong Kong Street  Photography in the 1950s and 1960s: Through Fan Ho’s Lens

Jing Chen

“In my memory, there has always been a deep yearning of Hong Kong. I particularly miss the location I like to photograph the most - Central Hong Kong.”

–Fan Ho


Fan Ho is a well acclaimed Chinese photographer who spent the 1950s and 60s taking black-white photographs of urban street life in Hong Kong. He is famous for his unexpected geometric construction and dramatic use of light and shadow. In this article, by reviewing the history of contemporary street photography, I try to evaluate the Western influence on Ho’s work. This paper falls into three parts. The first part is about how Ho depicts the city. The second part is about the ordinary people and everyday life under Ho’s Lens. The last part focuses on Fan Ho’s magic composition techniques. It argues that Ho’s works are deeply influenced by European street photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson and László Moholy-Nagy. Meanwhile, Ho also shares similarities with his American contemporaries, especially Robert Frank who stayed as an outsider and witness to document the street. Through researching on several of Ho’s classic images, the article also summarizes his framing techniques.


Documentary and photojournalism became two very influential genres of photography at the beginning of 20 century. And there is one other kind of work that has a close connection with them, but difficult to precisely define—street photography.  As Clive Scott puts it: “ Street photography certainly puts us in a toxemic quandary, not only because it stands as the crossroads between the tourist snap, the documentary photograph, the photojournalism of ‘the news in brief’ but also because it asked to be treated as much as a vernacular photography as a high art one.”[1] Street photography combines a number of genres and practices. Typically, street photography is all about capturing chance interactions of everyday human activity within urban areas. Street photography tells us “something crucial about the nature of the medium as a whole, about what is unique to the images that it produces.”[2] And “the street” is meant any public space, including bars, cafes, parks, dance halls, etc.[3] To explore street photography, we can pay attention to its predominant style and subject matter. There are often photographs from our everyday life, about ordinary people, but sealed in a particular moment which may document the history.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, photography was well used to becoming the visual language it is today, the pervasive agent of democratic communication. [4] Photography began shifting its gaze toward the everyday social arrangements and transactions of men and women. Alfred Stieglitz is regarded as one of the pioneers of street photographers. He attempted to turn the page on the natural development of the documentary tradition in photography. [5]Stieglitz’s works such as such as “Winter, Fifth Avenue” (1893) and “The Terminal” (1893) provide a sampling of early documentary practice in America. However, his work should be viewed more as “artistic” pictorialist shots than genuine street photography.

Between the 1920s and 1930s, with the development of modernity, the birth of department stores and tabloid newspapers, there was an extraordinary outpouring of work made on the city’s street. [6] Several photographers had a significant impact on the development of street photography. They include Andre Kertesz, Will Ronis and Henri Cartier-Bresson who championed the idea of the “decisive moment”. French humanism and populism helped to sustain the interest in the appearance of the ordinary people. These people were not seen as the exemplary subject of some social cause, as they might be by documentary photographers. Rather, the fascination of the street photographer was with the infinite ways of being that were acted out in little monuments in public spaces. [7]

Thanks to the technical improvements mentioned above, the post-war years were a golden age in the history of street photography, both in America and Europe. In the 1950s, street photography worldwide had generally moved on from French humanism, notably with the more ‘hard-boiled’ style to be found in the work of American photographers such as Robert Frank and William Klein. In his collection The Americans, Robert Frank offered his own version of American life in which he eschewed the usual subject of documentary investigation and presented us instead with cool and ironic images of the fleeting moments of ordinary life. Born in Switzerland, Robert Frank brought an outsider’s eye to bear on the 1950s. Around the same time, William Klein was photographing New York in a manner that stressed the disorder and randomness of life in great cities. Works from the street were changing the nature of “realist” photography both by presenting new subject-matter and by treating old themes in novel ways. [8]

Trolly – New Orleans, 1955. From The Americans © Robert Frank

Trolly – New Orleans, 1955. From The Americans © Robert Frank

As cameras became smaller, cheaper, and easier to use in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of amateurs armed with cameras joined professional photographers in recording pictures of urban public spaces not only in the United States, France, and Britain but also in cities across the world.[9] One of the oversea amateurs photographers is Fan Ho, a Hong-Kong-based Chinese photographer. Considered to be one of the masters of black-and-white photography, He is often called the “poet with a camera”. His street scenes and photomontages of the 1950s and 60s left their marks on the minds of several generations.

City through the Lens: Hong Kong Yesterday

Born in Shanghai, Fan Ho and his family settled in a buoyant Hong Kong in 1948. At that time, the flourishing Central was still a poor neighborhood with shabby houses and dirty alleys.[10] The streets, filled with vendors, coolies, and rickshaw drivers, fascinated Ho. Since 1949, 21-year-old Ho Fan began to capture the everyday moments on streets of Central District in Hong Kong through his Rolleiflex lenses. Similar to Robert Frank, Ho Fan documented Hong Kong from an outsider’s perspective.

Cities have always been a ready subject for photography, its accelerating change coinciding with the mid-nineteenth-century invention of the medium. As such, photography has played a constant role in understanding the urban experience. [11]  As a subject for photography, the city has been theorized in many ways, through Walter Benjamin’s claim that new media collapsed the distance between lived experience and art. [12] Jacobs argues in his paper that photographers depict cities in two ways. One kind of city is architectonic, unoccupied and devoid of human energy. Photographers documenting this second city work in a topographically-oriented mode and depict the urban landscape as deserted space. Another kind is about the dynamic environment, and the people and activity within it. Although some of Ho ’s work showed the stillness and empty sides of the architectonic Hong Kong, most of Fan Ho’s photographs portrayed Hong Kong in the second way, making the sense of the city as a complex organism all the more apparent.

It was also what Ho’s Western peers done. From the turn of the nineteenth century onwards photography characterized the city as peopled and purposeful. Photographers such as Paul Strand, Walker Evans, and Robert Frank clearly celebrate the city’s density, industry, and activity. Their photographs show people traversing urban space, their multiple unknowable agendas briefly intersecting, their diverse trajectories underlining the dynamism of the city as a place of purposeful activity. [13] Through their lens, the city remained dynamic – a place of endless and diverse possibility.

Between 1945-1950, 1.5 million Chinese flooded south to Hong Kong. At that point in time, Hong Kong was still under British rule, instead of operating under an autonomous government like it does today. At that time the dominant economy in Hong Kong was still agriculture. It was also the time before Hong Kong became a financial center of Asia.The Korean War had virtually stopped China’s export trade, which severely hurt Hong Kong’s economy. Yet, Fan Ho managed to capture an almost empty city, concentrating on individual subjects.  Robert Frank captured America at a point where commonplace life was about to be turned into myth and the prosaic were soon to be commodified into spectacle[14]. It also applies to Fan Ho’s 1950s Hong Kong. By then, that is largely the turning point of the island: at a stage right before its economy take-off. Fan Ho was also able to capture the chaotic eve before Hong Kong changing into Metropolis. 

A video about the history background of Hong Kong in the 1950s

Ho used his camera to search for the stories obscured by surface details and to find what had been missed by the naked eye. He recorded the most ordinary scenes of the city. People walking across the train tracks (“Lines and Form” 1959); The vigorous urban markets and the small merchants doing business (“TheMarketParade”1963; “Works” 1964,); The narrow alleyways and traditional shop signs (“lost in Centre”, 1951); A group of young children running in the alleyways with clothing overhead.(Children’s Paradise, 1959). A particularly telling example is how Ho capturing the things hanging over the narrow streets and laneways everywhere. At that time, Central is the residential districts of the underclass. It was cramped, crowded and of a mass.  Regarding today’s Hong Kong, full of skylines and big shopping malls, “the 1950s and 1960s everyday life” sealed in Ho’s photographs transformed from “the ordinary into the extraordinary”.

Ko Shing Street Market Parade Harrying home

Market Parade Ko Shing Street
Hurrying home

The Ordinary people on the street

A feature of Fan Ho’s photographs is his focus on the ordinary people and the working life of the street, especially the children in the urban life. As noted in the introduction, the appearance of ordinary people sustains a popular theme in the street photography, especially in the works by French humanism photographers. French humanist street photography, like street photography more generally, centers upon candid pictures of everyday life on the streets’, based on ‘errant details, chance juxtapositions, odd nonsequiturs, peculiarities of scale, the quirkiness of life on the street’ [15]

Between the late 1940s and early 1950s,the Street of China was full the so-called “quirkiness of life”.  After the eight years Sino-Japan war, China soon trapped into another civil war. We can see the “insulted and humiliated” Chinese people through the old photos. Among them, the most famous are the series included in Henri Cartier-Bresson’ The Decisive Moment. In December 1948, Life magazine sent Cartier-Bresson to China to document the turbulent transition from Kuomintang to Communist rule. In these photos, Cartier-Bresson consciously focused on people rather than places; alternated between individual and group portraits; and used some images to suggest movement while capturing stillness in others. Through these pictures, we are able to glimpse the sorrow and happiness of individuated people at a transition point. [16] These photos must have an impact on Fan Ho’s framing.

Working Title/Artist: Shanghai Department: Photographs Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1948 mma digital photo #DP190613

Shanghai 1948 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Different from Cartier-Bresson, many of whose work are resulted from the precise instructions of a magazine editor and which initially appeared in the press. As a young student who is new to the city, Ho Fan’s documentation is spontaneous. His photographs are “records both of the city’s pedestrians and of his own experiences as an adventurous urban walker.” Hence, his concern for the ordinary people seems more precious. Fan Ho once said that “I always have a particular sympathy for the poor and the needy groups in the lower classes. I don’t know why. It’s a kind of intuition. Perhaps I was influenced by the literature works such as Hugo’s “Miserable World” or Dickens’s novels. It was also from the Italian movie “The Bicycle Thieves” by Ladri di biciclett. They are all about the tragic life and struggles of a nobody. I naturally turn my camera towards these people.” [17]

Hong Konger of the 50s and 60s were struggling in the hard environment to earn a living. Hemingway once said that “A man can be destroyed, but not defeated”. It can also be used to describe the spirit of the poor people at that time. In the Hong Kong Memoirs series, we could see a blind singer singing his song (A Sad Sad Song, 1963); a group of old men reading newspaper in the morning lights (“Reading News”, 1963); Customers leisurely having meals in the traditional tea house, the theme also portrayed by Cartier-Bresson (“Old Fashion Chinese Tea”, 1946); A young kid sweeping the street.( “The Mother Helper” 1967); And a series of kids with cats, kids playing instruments and kids waving their hands (“kids and Cats”, 1961, “His Private Life”, 1960; “His Dream”,1964; ).

Although Fan Ho captured ordinal people, the major subject of humanism photographers in his works, we can also find the impact from American ‘hardboiled’ street photography such as Robert Frank in his photographs about people on the street.In images, there is nothing comparable to ‘the cynical, gritty, raw’. [18]  Rather, through his lens, these people are not constituted as “poor” or “workers” or any particular social being. He just captured their most everyday side.   These people are not displayed to shock or earn pity from others. It seems Fan Ho didn’t address any significant meaning from these scenes. He is just a witness. Here, “facts matter less than appearances.”[19]

Chasing the decisive moment: Light and shadow

Looking at Ho’s works, audiences are fascinated most by his geometric constructions and dramatic use of smoke, shadow, and light. Fan Ho creates images that are at once vintage and modern, stark, and laden with symbolism. For audiences who are not familiar with his work, but familiar with the Western photography history, they can easily identify Ho’s framing and composition techniques. His work “felt like direct descendants of the Bauhaus, yet they were made in Hong Kong. They were abstract and humanistic”.[20]

Ho Fan was a sincere believer of Cartier-Bresson’s concept, the decisive moment. The notion of the decisive moment hinged on the split instant when the attentive photographer saw a geometrically balanced scene and clicked the shutter just in time. The decisive moment could be the climax of either a long bout of waiting or a rapid succession of shots, but it always combined timing with formal balance. [21] Fan Ho usually finds the great timing. Ho often shot either first up in the morning or late in the evening – whenever the sun is very low on the horizon to capture the long shadows. Also, some of his work reflect immense planning and thought. “Afternoon Chat”, 1959 is a significant example. He must wait for a long time until the light just right in the stairs and those shadows were going to hit the floors.

Afternoon Chat, 1959. Photograph: Fan Ho/AO Vertical Art Space

Afternoon Chat, 1959. Photograph: Fan Ho/AO Vertical Art Space

To Cartier-Bresson, “photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression”.[22] Cartier-Bresson set the definition in the system of photojournalism, but Ho had never been a journalist. As a film majored student, then director, Ho set many of his photos from a film perspective. Ho fan experimented with camera angles and developing techniques – anything that would get closer to the essence of the internal feeling inside a visual image. Ho looked for unexpected angle and used unexpected portions of the frame to build an image. Also, Ho often used a combination of light edges and clear architectural lines in images.

Sun Rays, 1959. Photograph: Fan Ho/Modernbook Gallery

Sun Rays, 1959. Photograph: Fan Ho/Modernbook Gallery  There are three main things happening in the composition.The Light edge is intersecting with the strong lines of the stairs; The lines intersect on a diagonal plane which gives a strong dynamic feel to the image; Finally, the subjects are moving in different directions along the diagonal plane, towards the outer edges of the image, continuing to contribute to the dynamism of the image. There are multiple parallel lines in the image, running along diagonal planes, strengthening the image.

Besides the setting of composition and waiting for the lights. Ho Fan also took advantage of the darkroom skills to enhance his photographs. He also explores topics in the Asian tradition of painting, like Shanshui (a Chinese word for traditional landscape painting), abstracts and nudes. Distancing himself from “pure photography”, he plays with shapes and compositions,  accentuating areas of shadow and light, combining multiple negatives, altering the perspective, and many other tricks. In the famous “Approaching Shadow”, 1954. Ho Fan actually added the shadow on the wall in the dark room.[23] In this sense, his photographs are not a genuine representation of the reality but the appearance of his artistic imagination.

Approaching Shadow, 1954. Photograph: Fan Ho/AO Vertical Art Space

Approaching Shadow, 1954. Photograph: Fan Ho/AO Vertical Art Space  Ho Fan actually added the shadow on the wall in the dark room


It is not easy to put Fan Ho into any specific genre of photographers. He took advantage of the essences of Eastern and Western cultures and formed his own unique style. Looking back at his photographs in the 1950s, we can experience the old Hong Kong that no longer exists now.  These photos show the power of photography for documenting historic events acted out in public spaces,although documenting history was not Fan Ho ‘s original intention. 


A Video presenting Ho’s works:


Works Cited

[1] Scott, Clive. Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson. 2007. P15

[2] Ibid

[3] Westerbeck, Colin, and Joel Meyerowitz. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. Little, Brown, 1994. Print. P34

[4] Hostetler, Lisa. “The New Documentary Tradition in Photography.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

[5] Department of Photographs “Early Documentary Photography” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2017.

[6] Wells, Liz, and John Forsgren Fund, eds. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Fifth edition. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2015. Print. P119

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Tucker, Jennifer. “Eye on the Street Photography in Urban Public Spaces.” Radical History Review 2012.114 (2012): 7–18.

[10] “Street Life: Hong Kong in the 1950s as Seen through a Teenage Photographer’s Lens.” South China Morning Post. N.p., 10 Aug. 2014.

[11] Hawker, Rosemary. “Repopulating the Street: Contemporary Photography and Urban Experience.” History of Photography 37.3 (2013): 341–352.

[12] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed.

[13] Hawker, Rosemary. “Repopulating the Street: Contemporary Photography and Urban Experience.” History of Photography 37.3 (2013): 345.

[14] Wells, Liz, and John Forsgren Fund, eds. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Fifth edition. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2015. Print. P120

[15] Westerbeck, Colin, and Joel Meyerowitz. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. Little, Brown, 1994. Print. P34

[16] Nadya Bair
“The Decisive Network: Producing Henri Cartier-Bresson at Mid-Century.” n. pag. Print.

[17] Translated from a Chinese interview with him “我对中下层的穷苦大众、弱势群体有比较特别的同情关怀,不知道为什么,就是直觉。可能受到我读的很多文学作品如雨果的《悲惨世界》、狄更斯小说或者电影的影响。意大利电影德西卡的《偷自行车的人》,就是小人物的那种悲惨的生活与奋斗。我很自然的喜欢拍这类照片。”

[18] Scott, Clive. Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson. I.B.Tauris, 2007. Print. P15

[19] Wells, Liz, and John Forsgren Fund, eds. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Fifth edition. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2015. Print. P120

[20] Marzo,Cindi Di “Stillness in Motion: The Photographs of Fan Ho, Studio International.” Studio International – Visual Arts, Design and Architecture.

[21] Nadya Bair
“The Decisive Network: Producing Henri Cartier-Bresson at Mid-Century.” n. pag. Print

[22] Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, New York: Simon & Schuster 1952, n.p.

[23] Ho Fan Biography at

Other Resources 

  1.  “Fan Ho – 9 Composition Techniques.” Inconspicuosity. N.p., 17 May 2014.
  2. Castro, Paul Melo E. “Eduardo Gageiro’s Happy-Sad City: Humanist Street Photography and Lisboa No Cais Da Memória.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 88.4 (2011): 481–494. Print
  3. “香港街头摄影‘一代宗师’何藩,他是情色片导演,世界级摄影大师.” N.p., n.d.
  4.  Stone, Mee-Lai. “Fan Ho: Finding Love and Light in 1950s Hong Kong – in Pictures.” the Guardian. N.p., 20 Aug. 2014.
  5. “Street Life: Hong Kong in the 1950s as Seen through a Teenage Photographer’s Lens.” South China Morning Post. N.p., 10 Aug. 2014. Web. 9 May 2017.

Urban Street Photography in the postwar period_Jing

Urban Street Photography in the postwar period

                                        — Ho Fan and his western contemporaries

My final paper will focus on the urban street photography in the 1950s and 1960s. My primary research interest was Ho Fan. He is one of Asia’s most acclaimed masters of photography. During the 1950s and 1960s, he captured a different kind of life in the city, Hong Kong through his Rolleiflex lenses which revealed urban Hong Kong before it became Asia’s financial center. With the help of Doctor Irvine, I get to know that during the postwar period, there were many street photographers in Western, documenting life, change and the city. Also, we can easily tell the influence of Western pioneers through Fan’s photographs. Fan was a faithful believer and Practitioner of French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept “the decisive moment”.  I find there is very few scholarly research on Ho Fan’s work and its impact.My research will start with a review of the historical introduction of street photography. Then I will focus on Fan’s depiction of Hong Kong. Public urban spaces are not merely the subject matter for photography, however, since photographers themselves are actively engaged in navigating city streets fraught with politics and social meaning.(Jennifer, 2012) As a subject for photography, how was the city Hong Kong been theorized through Ho Fan’s lens?   Also, I will compare His work with his western contemporaries.

d6b4e8bc-f8a4-400c-ae8e-21344c412775-731x1020 u5083p1081dt20150205095254 ( Left) Approaching Shadow, 1954. Photograph: Fan Ho/AO Vertical Art Space

(Right) As Evening Hurries By, 1955. Photograph: Fan Ho/Modernbook Gallery

Street Photography as the city documentary

  •             Fan Ho’s photographs are notable not only for their altered perspectives, dramatic compositions, and surreal abstraction but also for the view they provide of the markets, streets, and slums of Hong Kong. As a chronicle of life in a country that is beginning to experience major political and economic change, the photographs serve as documentation of the effects these changes had on individual lives and on the landscape.

Western pioneers and contemporaries

  •             Henri Cartier-Bresson
  •             Garry Winogrand
  •             Ray Metzker         


A Street in Barcelona, 1961 © Ray K. Metzker

Bibliography so far

Durden, Mark. “On Perfection & Affirmation in Street Photography.” Critical Photography Series (2013): 35–63. Print.

Hawker, Rosemary r.hawker “Repopulating the Street: Contemporary Photography and Urban Experience.” History of Photography 37.3 (2013): 341–352.

Patrick, Martin. “‘Vaguely Stealthy Creatures’: Max Kozloff on the Poetics of Street Photography.” Afterimage 30.3/4 (2002): 6–7. Print.

Liz Wells, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 5th ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2015.

Patrick, Martin. “‘Vaguely Stealthy Creatures’: Max Kozloff on the Poetics of Street Photography.” Afterimage 30.3/4 (2002): 6–7. Print.

Jacobs, Steven. “Amor Vacui: Photography and the Image of the Empty City.” History of Photography 30.2 (2006): 107–118. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web.

Tucker, Jennifer. “Eye on the Street Photography in Urban Public Spaces.” Radical History Review 2012.114 (2012): 7–18. Web.

“The Decisive Network: Producing Henri Cartier-Bresson at Mid-Century.” n. pag. Print.

Photographs and their context_Jing

Photography was a major carrier and shaper of modernism. (Wells, 21) For Non-Western areas, the role photography plays were especially important. When Photography was first introduced to China in the late 1800s, many Chinese villagers were suspicious and afraid of cameras, believing it could “steal their soul”. Decades later, photographs spread the whole country and every major city has studios in which ordinary Chinese Families could take their portraits in. Now, photographic imagery comes to permeate contemporary communication.

Working Title/Artist: Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife Department: Photographs Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1936 mma digital photo #DP109611

Working Title/Artist: Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife
Working Date: 1936
mma digital photo #DP109611

This famous photo, Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife was taken by Walker Evans in 1936. The Medium is Gelatin silver print. “Gelatin silver prints had displaced ALBUMEN prints in popularity by 1895 because they were more stable, did nor yellow, and were simpler and quicker produce.” ( Baldwin and Jurgens) The glossy print surface became the standard for fine art photography in the twentieth century. The higher gloss papers first became popular in the 1920s and 30s as photography transitioned from pictorialism into modernism, photojournalism, and “straight” photography. (BHH Photo) It was the time, photographers were able to use commercial silver gelatin papers in their own dark room.

I first saw this image in MOMA and the sorrow and shyness on the woman’s face caught my eyes. Even not familiar with the context of this picture, I bought a postcard of this Photograph. Now I know Walker Evans is one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. (Met Website) The genre of the this photograph belongs to documentary or photojournalism. One of the central principles of the documentary aesthetic was that a photograph should be untouched, so that its veracity, its genuineness, might be maintained. (Wells, 49) Although Evans was assigned to demonstrate how the federal government was attempting to improve the lot of rural communities during the Depression(Met Website). This pictures just distil the essence of American life from the ordinary. It’s not about ideology agenda. This photo belongs to a series of photos about three families in Alabama. “AS a series, they seem to have elucidated the whole tragedy of the Great Depression; individually, they are intimate, transcendent, and enigmatic.” (Met Website)

the_falling_manThe falling man,r Richard Drew, Associated Press, 2001

The second picture I chose is Richard Drew’s the Falling man. The photo, taken in the moments after the September 11, 2001, attacks, is one man’s distinct escape from the collapsing buildings, a symbol of individuality against the backdrop of faceless skyscrapers. It is an iconic picture which has come to represent the tragedies that occurred on that day. AP is one the biggest news agency in the world and their journalists are always at the scene of the big social events. Another example is the recent awarded image of Turkey assassin. When we read a photograph, especially a journalism photograph, we basically stare at the only moment the photographer captured which may not provide the context and background of the whole story. Looking at “the falling man”, we feel it is breath-taken and heart-broken, it’s not only because the man in the image but also we are acknowledged of the context of 911 Event.

Also, in this case, the medium of the photographs is important. The earliest forms of photography such as the Daguerreotype would have been unable to capture an image such as the falling man as they required hours of exposure to the subject.[i]

However, just because the photograph captures reality does not mean that it is accurate. I found this image is restrained but many readers of that time still find this picture is “disturbing”. The falling man represented the “jumpers” of the 911.  Jumpers in the sense that their deaths were not suicidal they were. We would suspect whether the photographs like the falling man are enough to represent or epitomize an entire group of people? Although the new technology may blur the boundary between professional and citizen photojournalism, I think there are more ethical issues beyond the journalism photos relying on the professional judgments made by the photographers.


I took the image at Rodin Museum in Paris. The marble sculpture captured in the photo is Rodin’s famous masterpiece the Kiss. It’s difficult to define the genre of the picture. This may belong to the still life photography but the main function of this picture is to document my presence of the Museum. Nowadays photographs “are as much an expression of the photographer’s feelings for the subject as they are a reflection of the subject depicted.”[ii] I took this picture to post on my Instagram. Before I took this particular piece, I already set the lyrics I hope to post on my Instagram to match this scene. It takes me some time to find the perfect angle to take the stratifying scene.

“With the modern camera, optics has been associated with and with the projection of three dimensional (3D) onto two dimensional (2D) space.” (Irvine) Comparing with paintings, sculptures are in three dimension which provides the viewers more. space for expression and creativityThe photo I took was a view of one perspective. If I change the angle of the view, we can see different stories. In this picture, it tells about the museum context of this sculpture but  not tell my the aesthetic perception. “The view of ‘the middle brow art form’ in the millions of family and personal snapshots taken every day, records of highly ritualized events, poses, contexts, views.” (Lister)


[i] “Photographic Review: Context within The Falling Man Series.” Camera Historica. N.p., 17 Jan. 2012.

[ii] Hostetler, Author: Lisa. “Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and American Photography | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.



Wells, Liz, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 5th ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. Excerpts.

Gordon Baldwin and Martin Jurgens. Looking at Photographs: A Guide to Technical Terms, Revised Edition. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009.

Martin Lister, ed. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2013.

The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839–1860.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.



Mediation in the digital context_ Jing

The theory of Media and mediation

To discuss the essentialness of media and mediation theory, first look at Debray’s Transmitting Culture in which he researches on “mediology”, the study of mediation and anything that functions as a medium in all its forms. In the early chapters, Debray emphases that one mission of the media is to transform. The transportation of information is distinguished from communication. Debray also links it to transportation through time, ‘if communication transports essentially through space, transmission essentially transports through time’ (Debray, 2000, 3).

He summarizes the relationship between “higher social functions” and technology ( “technical structures of transmission”), that “the act of transmitting adds the series of steps in a kind of organizational flowchart to the mere materiality of the tool or system. The technical device is matched by a corporate agent.” (Debray, 2000, 5) He suggested that “a modification of the networks of communication has the effect of altering ideas” (23). The technical devices here became the presence of these social functions. Hence, we should not separate the technology (acts as medication) when we experience and interpreted art and culture.

The changing relationship between the masses and art

In the Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin provides a general history of changes in art in the modern age. He sees the transformations of art as an effect of changes in the economic structure (In a Marxist historical theory) When discussing the changing relationship between the mass and arts, Benjamin’s prospective seems not that into Marxist theory. The technological reproduction of artworks is something new at his time. He argues that the technological reproducibility of the artwork changes the relation of the masses to art. (Benjamin 2003, P265) When art become reproducible, the aura of art has disappeared. The traditional work of art is experienced mainly through distanced contemplation. The masses contribute to the loss of aura by seeking constantly to bring things closer

He uses the paintings and photographs as an example. Before the born of photographs, the simultaneous viewing of paintings by a large audience, as happens in the nineteenth century, is an early symptom of the crisis in painting. (Benjamin 2003, P264) The painter shows the whole; the camera shows fragments. So even though photographs meet the purpose of establishing evidence, (Benjamin 2003, P258), it lacks the “free-floating” which paintings invoke. What I find interesting here is for Benjamin, the loss of aura not only have negative effects but also positive effects. through the absolute emphasis placed on its exhibition value, the work of art becomes a construct with quite new functions. (Benjamin 2003, P257)

Interface in the digital age

What was new to Benjamin at his time has become “tradition” in our age. When discusses the impact on actors of performing for films instead of a human audience. He suggests it is an uncomfortable experience since the feeling of strangeness of actors, similar to looking in a mirror. Now a in a digital age, the situations for the actors changes into preforming in front of blue or green screen rather than real scenes. Thinking about the recent Disney movie the Jungle Book. The film was shot almost entirely in a warehouse in Los Angeles. The beautiful jungle and all of its animals were created with CGI after shooting ended. Films no longer serve the mission to present “a pure view of that reality” and the camera operators in the films industry have become “the Magician” Benjamin argues who illustrated their world with imagination and talent.


In the new media era,the originals didn’t disappear entirely. With the help of Internet, everyone can find opportunities to publish what he/she wants. In contrast to Debray, Bolter and Grusin argue “New digital media are not external agents that come to disrupt an unsuspecting culture.” (2000, 11) New Media emerges from within cultural contexts, and they refashion other media, which are embedded in the same or similar contexts. The desire for immediacy leads digital media to borrow avidly from each other as well as from their analog predecessors such as film, television, and photography. Media and Mediation in our age are born with immediacy and hypermediacy. Through these mew mediation, arts and  the way we appreciate arts change a lot as well.


  1. Debray, Régis. Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000)
  2. Walter Benjamin,”The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” , Harvard Univ. Press, 2003
  3. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin,Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000

Beyond Caravaggio__Jing

Jing Chen

Caravaggio was the name came into my mind when I consider the topic of my blog of this week. I went to the Beyond Caravaggio Exhibition at the National Gallery in London last December. I thought this exhibition would be about the artist himself but there were only six Caravaggios in the show. The other forty-three works are masterpieces of Caravaggio’s followers, the Caravagesques. Caravaggio was famous for his natural style and chiaroscuro techniques (contrast of light and dark. His techniques were adopted by other masters in this exhibition. They “smitten in Caravaggio’s brilliant wake, darkening their backgrounds and flooding their foregrounds with candlelight”.(Hodges,2016)[i] Caravaggio’s work “is essentially a symbol, not a duplicate, of what it represents”.[ii] (Chandler,24)They are the prototype of the Baroque art and naturism.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610)  The Taking of Christ, 1602 Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 169.5 cm
On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr. Marie Lea-Wilson, 1992

Many works of Caravaggio are on religious themes. Hence, the labels help the audiences to “to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself; it is a matter of a denoted description of the image” [iii] The Taking of Christ was painted by Caravaggio for the Roman Marquis Ciriaco Mattei at the end of 1602. To understand the symbolic figures in the paintings, we are supposed to have the knowledge of the religious background. Reading the label, we can also tell this painting I saw in London belongs to Jesuit Community of Dublin. This painting was thought to be disappeared in 18th and it was rediscovered in the 1990s. Similarly, it was only in the 20th century that Caravaggio’s importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. Look at his name “Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio”.  The name is not only a name of an artist but also a name reminds us of a genre of paintings. “Caravaggio” is not the painter’s last name but the name of a town not far from the city of Bergamo. This name has been used symbolically for many meanings after the success of the painter.

Thinking about the rediscovery of Caravaggio in the 20th century, itself was a symbolic study. As Dr. Irvine said “Signs and symbols are always formed in systems”[iv] (Irvine, P2)Through the time, works of Caravaggio have generated different kinds of responses. People gaze on Caravaggio and get different signs and symbols in different eras based on the different system. People in the Caravaggio’s time regarded him as the most radical painter and people in our time respect Caravaggio as a symbol of western art tradition. Meanwhile, people in 18th century may just ignore him.


Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, Italian (1571-1610). Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604-1605. Oil on canvas, 68 x 52 inches. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 52-25

Caravaggio is known for using ordinary people as his models and putting them in extreme circumstances. My favorite painting in the exhibition is this Saint John in the Wilderness from the Nelson-Atkins museum. “Rather than presenting the saint as an emaciated old man, Caravaggio painted a muscular half-nude youth”(Souter,2016)[v] Looking at the shadow on his neck, we know he will die when Salome demands his head (See another masterpiece of Caravaggio), but now he looks so sexy and peaceful. Caravaggio depicted the saintly scenes in a real-life likeness. His imitators followed his steps. When we gaze on other works of the exhibition, It’s not difficult to find what the followers inherited from Caravaggio. They utilized chiaroscuro techniques; depicted glowing candlelit scenes; ordinal human beings became their subjects.

Understanding the meaning of something is one’s “competence in engaging the available cultural encyclopedia, the whole repertoire of symbolic resources available and known to a culture.” (Irvine P42)  To understand the meaning of Caravaggio’s work require historical background and analysis.


 [i] Michael Hodges, “Beyond Caravaggio Review: A Compelling Tribute to Influential Artist.” Mail Online. 15 Oct. 2016

[ii] Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics.  P 42 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007

[iii] Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, P156 . New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.

[iv] Martin Irvine “Introduction to Visual Semiotics”, P2, 2017.

 [v] Anna Souter. “Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery | Exhibition Review.” The Upcoming. N.p

[vi] Martin Irvine, “Intro to the Grammar of Meaning Systems: Signs, Symbols, Semiosis.” 2017