Fan Ho’s “A Hong Kong Memoir,” on display thorough Sept. 3 at Modernbook Gallery, might seem at first look like the work of an Asian Eugene Atget — documental (bordering on sentimental) images of a city and a life that has since been subsumed by political, social and economic changes, leaving this quaint black-and-white version unrecognizable.
However, examination of certain photographs yields an unexpected playfulness of composition and medium, and an unabashed theatricality that make these images notable for more than their simple beauty and value as a visual record of an altered world.
In “Journey to Uncertainty,” an aged woman walks, suitcase in one hand, cane in the other, down an alley dark but for the shaft of light reaching her from beyond improbably tall tenement roofs, an effect Ho created by tilting the easel he was printing on in the darkroom.
Like the buildings, her own body is elongated up to the sharp turn of her hunched shoulders, where direct sunlight hits them, the brightest point in the photograph.
The image could have been composed by Fritz Lang, so reminiscent is Ho’s evocation of this Chinese back alley to the symbolic distortions of the Expressionist director’s Metropolis.
“On the Stage of Life” presents three figures silhouetted against the doorways to what appear to be their balconies. Despite their proximity in the darkness, the three figures seem oblivious to each other, preoccupied by their distinct and private stories.
These vignettes, set against a dramatic black backdrop punctuated with squares and rectangles of light, could have been at home in any of the stylish Hollywood musicals of the ’50s.
It is not surprising that Ho is as well-known in his native country for filmmaking as he is for his photography. Also displayed are montages he created by scanning several negatives and fusing them at odd angles together in Photoshop.
The results are as emphatic as constructivist propaganda, yet their subjects are the same mundanities Ho captures in his simpler compositions.
Some of those are as quiet as a brush painting. All share an economy of detail and a skillful manipulation of bold geometric shapes and perspective, a deft handling of moods and styles to render this both real and imagined memoir of a fascinating island.
Where: Modernbook Gallery, 49 Geary Blvd., fourth floor, S.F.
When: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes Sept. 3
Contact: (415) 732-0300, www.modernbook.com
Note: “An Afternoon Chat with Fan Ho,” featuring an artist talk and walkthrough, runs from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday.