“What is the secret to the art of photography?
It’s experimenting, experimenting and endless experimenting.”
Fan Ho was a Chinese photographer. He was born in 1931 in Shanghai and emigrated with his family to Hong Kong in 1949. He started photography at an early age with a Brownie and later with a Rolleiflex twin-lens. He kept the same camera for his whole life.
He was a self-taught photographer, taking photos of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s. He used the family bathtub to develop his negatives.
He started a career in cinema in 1961 as an assistant on the film “The Swallow” then became a director and made over 20 films. He achieved international recognition, and had three films selected in the Cannes, Berlin and San Fransisco festivals.
His wife and children emigrated to California in 1979 and he followed in 1995 when he retired. During the following years, to relieve his boredom, he started working through the archives of his early photography and and started showing his prints and slides. He was exhibited in 2001 and consequently published some books. His last was A Hong Kong Memoir in 2014.
He died in 2016 at the age of 84.
His most famous photography is “Approaching Shadow”, a picture of his cousin leaning against a wall. The diagonal shadow was added in the darkroom and symbolises the fading of youth.
Why should I care about gear?
Fan Ho used the same Rolleiflex K4A for his entire career. It is a simple camera with one lens to focus and one lens to photograph. The lens is a 75mm f/3.5 and the camera takes 6×6 square negatives (60mm x 60mm). The camera has no metering, no autofocus. It can be set to speeds from 1s to 1/500s.
There is something important to notice about this camera :
- The negatives are medium format 60mm x 60mm. This is huge compared to modern sensors. The largest digital sensors found in Hasselblad cameras are 54mm x 40mm but most high-end cameras are “full frame” 36mm x 24mm. This means that the Rolleiflex can capture more details and light than modern cameras.
- The lens has a leaf shutter rather than a focal plane shutter. That means that the shutter is inside the lens and closes in a circular fashion like aperture blades. The shutter is nearly silent and produces very little vibration in the camera body. This allows for the use of slower shutter speeds and also enables flash-sync to any speed.
We have been led to believe by digital camera makers that the most important features of a camera are auto-focus to a ridiculously good precision, the ability to take between 10 to 30 frames per second, stabilised lenses and bodies that allow use to take photos while shaking the body around and that a lens is perfect if it is sharp. These features are great for some types of photography : sport and wildlife.
I feel however it is time to start asking for better images rather than more features, though most gear is reviewed on the internet and these features are a big influence on the commercial success of a brand.
Let’s stop to think, and take into account that I love gear and spend lots of time watching a reading reviews. What if I could get a modern digital camera with a large sensor (I have no idea and no wish to do analog photography) and a good lens that renders “with character”.
- A Hasselblad camera with a 54mm x 40mm sensor costs more than $30,000. Fujifilm has started a line with a cropped medium size sensor (44mm x 33mm) for a more reasonable $10,000 and recently with the GFX100s at $6,500. That is the direction to go in my opinion.
- A modern lens needs to be sharp and corrected for chromatic and spherical aberrations. These corrections have an influence on the rendition of the lens in the less sharp areas. Any internet reviewer will be critical with a lens that is not technically perfect, and this can have an influence on sales… and if the focusing motor is not as fast as lightning, you will read that the lens is unusable to take family photos of your children. What ??? So the lenses are more perfect, they are oversized and overpriced… Give me a lens that is sharp enough in the center, with a decent autofocus (yes, I like autofocus too) and with a good fall-off from the sharper areas and I am sold. What about the colour rendition of lenses? Who cares about that? I have read that some Fujifilm lenses are in that category and the 35mm f/1,4 I own is great but this is for a small aps-c camera.
Don’t get me wrong, the idea of shooting in the dark at 12800 ISO with fast autofocus and getting a great file is tempting to me as it is probably to you, but I wish I could get a digital Rolleiflex and be satisfied with it for the rest of my life… dream on!
Enough with the rant and back to Fan-Ho, the master of Light. Notice how he works with the highlights in his pictures, giving a soft, dreamy look with plenty of detail. He doesn’t hesitate either to use pure whites and pure blacks too. Softness and contrast. The Holy Grail of black and white!
Is Photoshop cheating ?
When I hear analog photographers talking about digital image manipulation and the idea of “pure photography”, as in “what I take is what you get”, I think “what a load of rubbish”.
Fan Ho and many other photographers learned the craft of the darkroom, dodging and burning being a minimum. Ansell Adams, the American landscape photographer comes to mind too.
Photography is an art and a craft, like painting. What I love about photography is the duality. Learning how to use a camera and how to process a photo on a computer but also going out and trying to find a scene worth photographing. The shadow in Fan-Ho’s “Approaching Shadow” is entirely created in the darkroom. That is not a small edit! I therefore believe that most of his prints are manipulated in the darkroom to express a vision he had of each scene.
Back to Cartier-Bresson…
Henri Cartier-Bresson is known for the expression “l’instant décisif”, “the “decisive moment”, an expression he did not like that much. It just means for me that each photographer must decide at what exact moment in time he or she presses on the shutter. It is also a craft that needs to be learned whenever we want to capture a moving scene. The position of the camera, metering and shutter speed being set, all that remains is to take the photo. It is not the easiest thing to do in the world. Like any work of art, the positions of the subject(s) relative to each other, relative to the shadows and highlights of the scene, relative to the camera too fundamentally change the result.
Fan Ho proves time and time again that he has a vision of what he wants to show us. Studying the geometry of each photo is worth a few minutes of our time. We have so much to learn.
Let me know in the comments what you think and in the meanwhile, carry on experimenting !