Fan Ho photos bring mid-century Hong Kong to life

COURTESY FAN HO/MODERNBROOK GALLERY
Evocative montages by Fan Ho are on view at Modernbrook Gallery.
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Known for poetic, radiant portraits of 1950s-60s Hong Kong, photographer Fan Ho looks back at that lost world and brings current perspectives and technologies to the picture. Vintage negatives meet image-transforming digital techniques in a wistful, surreal collection by the San Jose-based artist.

Titled “A Hong Kong Memoir” and presented in conjunction with the publication of a same-named book, the exhibition is on view at Modernbook Gallery in The City through Jan. 31.

The show contains black-and-white prints and montages by Ho, whose works feature striking compositions, dramatic lighting and suggestions of dreams and yearning. Some have compared Ho to Henri Cartier-Bresson, citing how he waits for the “decisive moment” – one that “touches my heart,” is how Ho has described it – before clicking the shutter.

Born in Shanghai in the 1930s, Ho relocated with his family to Hong Kong and took pictures of the rapidly modernizing city. (He developed them in the family bathtub.) He became highly regarded for his images shot in the 1950s and ’60s.

The exhibit includes previously unseen mid-century images, many presented in montages that Ho – a believer in never dumping an old negative – created recently. By putting two negatives together and holding them up to the light, Ho produced fresh compositions, combined images on the negatives using digital technology.

The works contain everyday sights – markets, transit stations, shops with hand-lettered signs – that suggest both a grittiness in the old Hong Kong setting and a quiet dignity in the people there. Often, they feature solitary figures whose loneness gives the picture a poetic quality.

In “The Lone Ranger” (1954), a man rides a bicycle down a deserted street lined with establishments. In “Back Lane” (1960), a woman with a long braid walks away from the viewer, while, in the near distance, a second figure almost blurs into the illuminated surroundings.

The majestic merges with the commonplace in the starkly lit “Hong Kong Venice” (1962/2011), in which a man with an oar maneuvers his small boat up a narrow waterway toward an exquisite flood of light.

The artist’s compositional talent is particularly evident in “Trio” (1956/2000), which features a boatman in the picture’s lower left portion and a brilliant moon at the upper right. A naked tree branch, a bird perched thereon, descends into the foreground at a reverse diagonal. Water and sky fuse at the horizon.

In other montages, such as the aptly titled “Longing” (1958/2014), images of the old city overlap with those of individual faces. Hearts and minds blend with period and place in these dreamscapes.

Ho has received numerous awards. In 2012, Invisible Photographer, Asia named him one of the world’s most influential Asian photographers. He is also a filmmaker whose work has screened in festivals at Cannes, Berlin and San Francisco.

IF YOU GO

Fan Ho: A Hong Kong Memoir

Where: Modernbook Gallery, 49 Geary St., fourth floor, S.F.

When: 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (closed Christmas); through Jan. 31

Admission: Free

Contact: (415) 732-0300, www.modernbook.com

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