Ho Fan ( 1931-2016 ) is considered the ‘grandfather of Chinese photography’. His work on show at Museum of Liverpool depicts life in Hong Kong during the 1950 and 60s in modernist images where the subject comes together with form and light and shade to create his ‘decisive moment’ – here, photographer Adam Lee discusses what this means to him.
What is a decisive moment? My understanding is that it is the moment at which a photograph is taken, so that the resulting image tells the whole story of a scene. For me, this is one of the great powers of photography – that it can allude to an entire narrative in a single frame, free from dialogue, so that it is only the visual that does the work. But how does this visual allusion work, what are the clues that allow us to draw down the story from an image?
In my own work, I seek to create narratives from others’ ideas. To do this, I spend a lot of time working with participants to deconstruct decisive moments in order to understand their elements and then use these to create our own moments. From these activities I have boiled the components down to location, composition, objects, gesture, body language and facial expression. We can also add in the less controllable, but powerful element of what the viewer brings to the image.
Ho Fan (1931-2016) was an award winning Hong Kong based photographer who was active from 1956 until his death last year. In that time, particularly in the 50s and 60s his work focused on documenting the urban life of Hong Kong as it became a major metropolitan centre. If we now keep in mind the elements of the decisive moment we can turn to some of Ho’s images and see how this master of the technique applied them.
For Multifunctional Staircase, while there is perhaps not a direct narrative to this image, the wider story is of life on a Hong Kong street and the multiple uses to which it is put. The location is clearly is a street – we see pavement and lampposts. Central to the photograph are children playing, sliding down a slope by some stairs. We know they are playing from they way they are arranged around the slope – watching one of their playmates preparing to make the slide – it is their body language that tells us this alone, as the slider is partially obscured. To get the emotion we of the play, we can turn to the element of facial expression: the delight is writ large on the face of a toddler leaning against a litter bin, shrieking with pleasure.
So far we have seen one of the staircase’s functional uses, but what are the parts that make it multi functional and how do these add to our narrative or moment? Placed to either side of the image, and creating a diagonal relationship through the image, opposing the diagonal of the stairs, we see two adults at work. On the right we see a woman ironing on a board set up on the stairs, beneath some Chinese script. Opposite her, beneath the stairs on the left our second adult sits behind a cabinet, searching for for something in a bag. Their role is not so obvious, but the cabinet clearly forms a counter of some kind, alluding to an available service.
So far we have seen many of the elements that allude to the narrative I have described above. But there is one final element to this picture, one which in many ways forms the punctum (at least for the British viewer of the image). At the very centre of the image, standing on the steps, eating an ice lolly and watching the sliders is small boy. This boy however is clearly white skinned, blonde haired and appears visually distinct from his playmates. It is here that the final element of our decisive moment comes into play – knowledge of what you see. To an unaware observer this may not have any significance, but for those who know their history the presence of this child speaks volumes about empire, colonialism and ultimately this links this image indelibly to Hong Kong.
Adam Lee is a photographer based in Liverpool