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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

Abstract

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.

Introduction

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

Conclusion:

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. rhr.dukejournals.org

[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  http://photographyofchina.com/blog/ho-fan

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. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2014/aug/20/fan-ho-hong-kong-street-photography-in-pictures
  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.
    http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1570201/photographer-ho-fans-pictures-old-hong-kong-go-display-new-hotel

Unpacking Kerry James Marshall’s “mastry” of meaning-systems

 

kjm

A few weeks ago I saw Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at the Met Breur. One work that I kept coming back to was 7am Sunday Morning (2003). Marshall seamlessly weaves together a wealth of cultural symbols, ideas, references, ideas, moments into one cohesive canvas, and I the readings for this week provided me with a vocabulary and a theoretical context with which to articulate Kerry James Marshall’s “mastry” at work here.

The scene being depicted can first be situated in time and place. The time (as the title of the work indicates) is 7am on a Sunday morning. Marshall also locates us in a moment in time: the walking man, the speeding car (that narrowly misses the man?), and the bird that have just taken flight. Interestingly, despite this specificity, we are not told the year that Marshall envisions this scene to have taken place. The right half of the canvas is largely consumed by what appears to possibly be refractions of light or the flash of a camera – the ambiguity of this destabilizes the iconic associations that we strive to make and forces us to understand the aesthetic as well as symbolic significance. Regardless, there is an instantaneity to these refractions, and they seem to deconstruct light and technology, much the same way that we are asked to deconstruct the larger scene. Marshall is conveying not only what the viewer can clearly see, but also conveying what is happening that we cannot see with the naked eye (the interplay of light and color, creating refractions and hexagons).

The location is Bronzeville in downtown Chicago near the intersection of Pershing and Indiana streets, in front of Rothschild Liquors and Your School of Beauty Culture. Below I have attached a GoogleEarth rendering of this same street corner.

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-11-11-59-am

The neighborhood of Bronzeville has a symbolic significance in the racialized history of Chicago, but these storefronts and specifically their titles (“Your School of Beauty Culture” and “Rothschild Liquor”) also carry symbolic meaning, both in Marshall’s cannon of work and also linguistically in his re-writing of an art historical and cultural narrative around black bodies. The capacity for language and words to carry multiple significances at once is expertly shown here.

The title of the artwork is a reference to Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930), and Marshall’s decision to make a direct reference to both Hopper, this specific artwork, and the 1930s cannot be overlooked. Once again, language takes on a duality of significance, as 7am on a Sunday morning can also be more superficially understood as a time of relative peace and silence: the city just waking up and too early for the hustle and bustle of the day to begin, and the religious significance of Sunday as the day of rest. One of Hopper’s most iconic painting, Early Sunday Morning is easily recognizable of Hopper’s ability to seamlessly integrate realism with symbolic representations, quietly inserting his ideas into the scenes he depicts.

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-11-21-46-am

Within the scene itself, Marshall has quietly inserted references to numerous other art historical moments and figures, contributing to the larger iconography that composes this visual essay. One artist that I kept mentally jumping back to was Gerhard Richter (even the way in which Marshall is playing with the technological/scientific interaction of light with our environment reminds me of Richter’s manipulations of photographs). This of course depends entirely on a preexisting cultural vocabulary, and this meaning-system is only apparent to individuals who have a specific knowledge base. I imagine that there are numerous other meaning-systems that I was not able to pick up on. Marshall also includes musical notes emanating from the windows of one of the buildings, allowing him to include reference to another form of sensory communication, and using iconography in order to convey a sound rather than a sight.

What is ultimately most exciting to me about this work is the recognition that I have only just begun to peel back the technologies of meaning that Marshall has included; the symbolism and iconography that compose the visual narrative here are incredibly complex and are always evolving. For example, in 2012 – almost 10 years after 7am Sunday Morning was completed, Marshall painted School of Beauty, School of Culture. This work challenges the marginalization of black people in the American cultural narrative of beauty, and itself is overflowing with references to theory, philosophy, art history, culture, and historical figures. Returning to 7am Sunday Morning, we must now understand the storefront “Your School of Beauty and Culture” in a different way: Marshall has added another chapter into the essay of 7am Sunday Morning. As the readings indicate, meaning chains are open ended and unlimited, constantly being reconstructed based on context, language, and capacities for expression.