Fan Ho, Iconic Hong Kong Photographer, Dead at 84

Chinese photographer , whose images of Hong Kong street life in the 1950s and ’60s have come to define the city, died on Sunday at the age of 84. A master of light and shadow, Ho captured a dramatic vision of the Chinese metropolis by translating its bustling streets and alleyways into meditative tableaus populated by solitary figures. Ho was named one of the world’s top 10 photographers by the Photographic Society of America eight times throughout his career, and his work resides in major museum collections across the globe.
Left: Fan Ho, Approaching Shadow, 1954; Right: Fan Ho, White Windows, 1962. Images courtesy of Blue Lotus Gallery.

Left: Fan Ho, Approaching Shadow, 1954; Right: Fan Ho, White Windows, 1962. Images courtesy of Blue Lotus Gallery.

Born in Shanghai in 1931, Ho relocated to Hong Kong with his family at the age of 18. By that point, he was already an avid, if self-taught, photographer. His father surprised him with a Rolleiflex on his 14th birthday, and a just year later he took home the grand prize in a local art contest. In all, the artist would go on to win more than 280 awards for his work.
Ho simultaneously maintained a career in film, getting his start as an actor in a handful of movies by the Shaw Brothers. He later transitioned to directing and was responsible for 20 feature-length films. Ho drew parallels between his roles as filmmaker and artist, once noting in an interview with TIME that the people who surround him serve as actors of sorts for his photographs. The artist later described his time-intensive photographic process for the Independent: “At the beginning you must find the ideal location. Then you must be patient to find the right subject that arouses your interest, even if it’s just a cat. You must have the precise moment to catch the spirit, the essence, the soul of the person.”
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The serene and contemplative nature of Ho’s work is particularly remarkable considering the tumultuous state of Hong Kong during his most prolific decades. The artist and his family were among the many hundreds of thousands of refugees that flowed into the city in the 1950s, fleeing the reignited Nationalist-Communist Civil War that was ravaging mainland China. Between 1945 and 1951, the city’s population more than doubled. However, Ho’s photographs reveal nothing of that chaotic historical context; instead, they present timeless scenes of life in Hong Kong. The marriage of old and new—a traditional Chinese sailing vessel bobbing alongside a battleship in the harbor, a wooden rickshaw being pulled across steel train tracks—was a consistent feature of his work, as was a fascination with the natural geometry of urban alleyways and markets. And now, when the city ranks among the most densely populated locations in the world, Ho’s reflective photographs offer an experience unattainable anywhere else—solitude on a Hong Kong street.

Abigail Cain