The striking thing about Ho Fan's photographs of mid-century Hong Kong is how little the
city has changed in the last 60 or so years.
In elegant black-and-white shots, he captured images of fishermen at
work, tall-masted junk boats, street markets and construction sides swaddled
with bamboo scaffolding -- all sights that are still common today. And more than 70 of Ho's pictures from the 1950s
and ‘60s are on display through mid-December at the AO Vertical Art Space, marking the
first solo Hong Kong exhibition by the famous 81-year-old photographer, who
spent his formative years here.
The Shanghai-born, self-taught artist started shooting with a basic Rolleiflex as a teenager and fell in love with the art
after one of his first photographs, taken
at age 13, won a prize -- a shot of Shanghai's Bund, an
iconic strip of European-style buildings. When his family later moved to Hong
Kong, Ho's fascination with street scenes deepened. He would spend hours each
day skulking around the now-defunct Central Market, waiting for the perfect combination
of lighting and composition before he pressed the shutter.
But despite his desire to record spontaneous moments, one of his most
famous images, Approaching Shadow (1964) --
which appears in the exhibition -- is deliberately staged. He asked his cousin
to don a cheongsam (a traditional
Chinese dress) and photographed her against a white wall. In the darkroom
during the development process, he introduced a triangular shadow that cuts diagonally
across the frame towards its downward-looking subject. According to Ho, the
dark half of the photograph represents the imminent end of her innocence.
Ho’s vintage prints have recently evolved through the use of Photoshop,
re-jigging thousands of negatives to make his prints border on the abstract,
surreal and fantastical. "The only thing [I want to do] is to find, from my thousands of old
negatives, hidden treasures from half a century ago," he told HK Magazine. "At that time I knew
less. Now I know a little more." Both the
vintage and reinvented works are on display.
His works also offer modern-day viewers glimpses of a few bygone Hong
Kong sights: old-fashioned tricycles; coolies hauling their wares; gentle waves
lapping against a harbourfront promenade that is now a large highway. Best of
all, they're affordable by fine art standards, ranging anywhere from 5,000 to
20,000 Hong Kong dollars.
Despite his age and his long career, Ho wants to make Hong Kong
nostalgia accessible and appealing to a contemporary audience. It makes sense,
then, that his old photographs are on display in a new gallery (located in a stairwell with the frames mounted along
the walls and on landings) within a worn-down industrial part of town called
Chai Wan that's becoming increasingly artsy and chic -- it's a marriage
of the old and the new.
Hana R Alberts is the Hong Kong Localite for BBC Travel