Fan Ho : China

3 Influential Ways Fan Ho Inspires Todays Street Photography Artists.

Fan Ho

Born in 1931, Fan Ho began his extradentary career documenting the streets of Shanghai at a very young age. Progressing from a Brownie, he began capturing the bustling urban life, markets, streets and stairways of China using his fathers Rolleiflx Twin-lens reflex camera at the age of 14.

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Brownie Camera
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Rolleiflx Twin-lens reflex camera

His most iconic work, Approaching Shadow, featured his cousin standing against the wall of Queens College in Causeway Bay.

This piece is particularly inspiring to me. The use of Shape, Shadow, Geometry and grandeur stopped me in my tracks. The scale of the image is equalled only by the scale of shadows that befall upon it.

It was not until researching Fan Ho in greater detail that I realised the geometric shadow was in fact added as part of his developing process – the dark room.

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Approaching Shadow

In a world of Instagram, instant gratification and instant images, Fan Ho’s work seems a lifetime away. Very rarely do I find myself truly drawn into in image wondering how he found himself in those situations.

Maybe its me, maybe trying to follow the old way is less progressive. But if photography has taught me anything… its that you, your story is all that matters – not what you hope will be picked up by an algorithm.

Fan Ho used light, and the absence of it, to show what was already present for everyone to see – if only they looked.


Light plays a fundamental role in photography. We often pay consideration to light to determine our camera settings, be that the speed of the shutter, the circumference of the aperture of the sensitivity of the sensor through ISO.

Fan Ho understood the need for light from a technical perspective but also from an artistic one. Take his “Afternoon Chat 1959” as perfect example.

Afternoon Chat

Here we see how light can be utilised as a leading line. The beams of light draw your eye from foreground to the distant horizon.

Dark blacks, truly white highlights and a range of tones in between provide the signature of a genuine black and white piece.

And a timeless piece – if only you omit the dim clock which serves as a reminder that in this moment time has stopped. A piece of time, an insignificant piece of time, added to the history books.

Highlights on the railing, contrasted against the opaque wall upon which it lends its full support to, provides an opportunity for the eye to navigate up and through the image.

Shadowy figures ascending towards a wall of light conjures ethereal notions – made more harrowing by the little boy looking directly at the camera.

I wonder if his eyes had gazed upon a camera before this moment. I wonder where he is now.

Ability to find characters

Finding characters in street photography could be considered an essential element. Finding the correct character to tell the story, however, is a completely different matter entirely.

Private, 1960, personifies this notion with intent.


An otherwise innocuous building, plain and uninviting lends itself to a moment. The absence of humans can leave architecture cold and detached. The couple in the image evoke emotions of passion, secrecy, lust, and temptation.

Fan Ho is known to purposely add human elements to his work. It is unclear if the moment was staged. I’d like to think he walked past, looked up and gazed upon this very real and very personal moment.

Photographing a person or persons in a street setting, without context, without intention even, can be as useless in the story telling world as forgetting to charge your camera batteries.

Finding a moment, however brief, can be the difference between a good image and a great one. And I suspect he knew this.

Of course there will be many great images which never made it past the development stage – equally, im sure, many images that even with the perfect subject just did not quite fit the bill. I know how that feels.

The subtle use of black in this image adds to the story and perhaps leads it down a storyline. The white innocence of the wall contrasted by a black sign which sits below a silhouetted couple provides a balance – yet leaves you waiting around long enough to wonder…

Use of Geometry

Geometry, shapes, lines, and patterns play a large role in Fan Ho’s style.

Like all chaos, order will ensue.

Looking at this image, my eyes struggle to find a place to rest. This intentional style is a great way of leaving your audience pondering – and like I’ve said before, in a world of continuous scrolling, that’s some feat.

I invite you to take a moment to place your hand Infront of the image. Block out the two children and the man holding the buckets.

Sun Rays

If the gentleman in the upper left corner was the only person present, this image would have been equally as successful. However, it would lack the story telling element. Sure, it would have been a great example of light, shadow, and context, but would it have revealed a story? I’m not entirely sure.

Fan Ho has an exceptional ability to contrast light and emotions with the same purpose. It would not be a stretch to suggest there are at least three generations in this one image. The light cast on the two generations walking up the stairs has a remarkable way of creating depth between them. The innocent in the light walking up towards the inescapable future, walking in the footsteps of the travelled, informed and survived.

A sense of impendent becomes them.

The shapes that divide the generations also guide you through the image. The highlighted edge of the dark scalene triangle, in the lower left, chaperons you to the curved banister which leads you swiftly from the lower third of the image to the upper, where sharp contrasting lines move you up out and away.

A journey. Much like the younger generation is yet to embark.

My Take Away

Light, Characters and Geometry. Three aspects which when used together, when used correctly, can create a sensational story. A moment to behold.

I often wonder what elements I needs to combine to make the perfect image. I guess the truth is all of them and none of them.

Finding the truth in the image will allow you to unconsciously combine the elements needed.

Having a set of skills that can be called upon when the moment requires is more beneficial than that one lens you think you need, or that camera upgrade because that’s what Instagram influencers recommend.

So should you look to recreate Fan Ho’s work? Yes – because it will add a set of skills to your bag. Should you publicly post that work? I don’t think so.

You should find your own style. And you should share it with the world because it is yours and you are proud and because the world deserves to see it.

The great photographers of this world don’t photograph to become great. They live without expectation. Their work speaks for them.

It speaks their truth.  

Fan Ho

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