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October 01, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 01, 2004

The 'Fan' club The 'Fan' club (October 01, 2004)

Modernbook showcases a career retrospective of photographer Fan Ho

by Marge Speidel

A t first glance, photographs by Fan Ho appear arresting, worthy of deeper study. On second look, the 70-year-old Asian photographer's works reveal themselves to be more like paintings, the work of a master artist.

Case in point: "Approaching Shadow," one of Ho's most widely reprinted images. A lone woman in dark silhouette stands at the left lower corner in front of a textured pale wall. For dramatic contrast, Ho added a dark triangular shadow falling from the top right corner to just in front of the standing figure.

The photograph has won six first places in international competitions and is included in numerous books of collected photos. It won the grand award in Hong Kong almost 50 years ago in a competition represented by all media -- including paintings, ceramics, sculpture and photography.

"I added the shadow in the enlargement process," Ho explained. You expose that part differently, four or five times more than the rest."

"Approaching Shadow" is one of 72 pieces that will be on display through Oct. 7 at Modernbook Gallery in downtown Palo Alto. The exhibition is a career retrospective that dates from the mid-1950s, when Ho began winning international prizes for his work.

Commenting on the portraits in the collection, Ho described his subjects as just regular people, often poor people. A wrinkled woman with downturned lips wears a pair of glasses held on by a piece of string. A weary worker bends under a heavy load.

"Childhood," is an ironically titled portrait of a young girl with tired eyes selling mangoes on the street.

"Look at her face," Ho said. "If she were the daughter of a king, she could be a princess."

The Shanghai native has won 268 awards from international exhibitions and worldwide competitions in Brazil, Argentina, Singapore and most western European countries. Many international photography annuals carry his work.

"I started taking pictures as a hobby in the l940s as a young student," Ho said. "My camera was a Rolleiflex, which produces square negatives. But I did not want to limit myself to a particular shape, so I have experimented."

Among Ho's innovations are tilting the enlargement paper during developing to create elongated figures; swinging his camera from side to side while shooting to blur images; and blending multiple negatives to create interesting compositions. In recent years, he has used computer technology to achieve his vision.

Ho's sense of humor shows up in "Rickshawmen's Dream," where a group of weary workers lie in front of their empty rickshaws, as a full-colored nude beams down from a billboard above.

"She was added from a live model in the studio," Ho explained, "with the help of the computer."

In one early rectangular photograph, "Serenity," a lone figure carrying an umbrella walks beside what looks like a long sea wall. The print is barely an inch tall and about 16 inches wide.

"A lot of it is how you crop it," Ho said. "Sometimes I will feel I captured nothing at all, and then I think of a way to present it that is totally different."

Ho's older photographs are in black and white, but look again, and it isn't quite black or white.

"That's from the chemicals over the years," Ho said. "Some people call it a vintage look. It shows it is genuine and true, not duplicatable [sic] on a computer. As a technique it improves the value, some collectors say."

Also noteworthy is the historical value of Ho's work, according to Modernbook gallery co-owner Mark Pinsukanjana.

"If you are of Hong Kong or Taiwan heritage, it's important to see these photographs," Pinsukanjana said of the exhibit. "Many of them are of places that still exist, but are completely different today. Younger people would not recognize them. I think of Mr. Ho as the Ansel Adams of Hong Kong. Where Adams captured Half Dome and other Yosemite landmarks, here are buildings, street scenes and people. You have to look at Mr. Ho as a painter with a brush."

In a photo titled "Early Dawn," bare branches provide stark contrast to the pale image of a lone figure poling a boat.

"That place is still there, but you would not recognize it with all the development, " Pinsukanjana said.

Ho explained: "The branches are from a separate negative. They were fused with another image -- the man and the boat. The effect is of a Chinese brush painting, complete with red seal."

Ho is also an acclaimed director of Asian art films and his work in this medium has received honors from the Cannes, San Francisco and Berlin film festivals, among others. Both endeavors, he acknowledged, require the eye of an artist. He has taught film-making and photography at a dozen universities in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

"My time is divided between San Jose, where I live, and Hong Kong and Taiwan, where I go to direct films. I have a son and a daughter here who work for Silicon Valley companies. Soon I will be traveling to Taiwan to direct two more films," he said.

Three of Ho's films are being shown at the gallery, running continuously on a player in the front window. When asked how spectators hear the sound, Pinsukanjana said, "With Mr. Ho's films you don't need sound. In art films the story is complete without."

The effects in his photographs, Ho said, come "sometimes by chance, sometimes in the darkroom, sometimes by patient waiting." For one shot showing a person crossing the track behind the train, Ho rode the train many times, hoping for someone to appear in just that spot.

Another photo, "The Search," has a cat crossing an alley below open windows above.

"I waited three hours for the correct lighting," he said. "For the cat to appear when it did was just from heaven."
What: A 50-year retrospective of photographs by Fan Ho

Where: Modernbook, 494 University Ave. in Palo Alto

When: Through Oct. 7. Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Although the complete retrospective of Ho's work will end on Oct. 7, the gallery plans to have about half of the photos on view in its loft gallery until the end of October.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Call (650) 327-6325 or visit



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