Sunday 5 February 2012

Don Hong-Oai - Photographer

Don Hong-Oai (1929 – 2004) was born in Canton, China in 1929, but spent most of his life in Saigon, Vietnam. At the age of 13 he began an apprenticeship at a Chinese photo and portrait shop. During this time he learned the traditional ways of photography from the masters. Everything was done the old-fashioned way from exposing the glass negatives in sunlight to using instinct rather than timers. Don would photograph landscapes in his free time and his style was heavily influenced by the legendary photographer Long Chin-San and his technique of layering negatives to create one composite image.

In 1979 he was able to get to the U.S. and settled in San Francisco’s Chinese community. Don started making a living selling his landscape photographs in front of Macy’s and began to receive more and more recognition for his master craftsmanship. He would create these images by taking three negatives, foreground, middle ground and far ground, and selecting a subject matter from each negative to form one composite image. All parts of the image do exist in life, but the photograph as a whole is an image that only existed in Don’s imagination. Each photograph is a unique handcrafted piece of work.

The photographs of Don Hong-Oai are made in a unique style of photography, which can be considered Asian pictorialism. This method of adapting a Western art for Eastern purposes probably originated in the 1940s in Hong Kong. One of its best-known practitioners was the great master Long Chin-San who died in the 1990s at the age of 104) with whom Don Hong-Oai studied. With the delicate beauty and traditional motifs of Chinese painting (birds, boats, mountains, etc.) in mind, photographers of this school used more than one negative to create a beautiful picture, often using visual allegories. Realism was not a goal.

He never had an assistant or had his images put together in a lab. Each piece had to be put together by Don as he saw it in his mind. His work has won scores of international awards and is included in hundreds of personal and corporate collections worldwide.. Only in the last few years of his life – he died in June 2004 – was his work discovered by a wider public, and he was kept very busy making prints for collectors across the US and worldwide.

Don Hong-Oai was one of the last photographers to work in this manner. He is also arguably the best. He was honoured by Kodak, Ilford and at Fotokina in West Germany and was a member of the International Federation of Photographic Art in Switzerland and the Chinatown Photographic Society.

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  1. These are absolutely stunning!! I love how painterly they are and how much they draw from the Chinese painting tradition in their aesthetic, but modernizing and pushing the tradition with the use of photography. Thanks for introducing this artist!

  2. Extraordinary! Thanks so much for the introduction. Personal favourite is number 18, of the tower. Beautiful images, remarkable artist.

  3. Poul Webb: I stumbled upon your blog as I looked for images to complete a posting about Hilton Kramer, crusty but significant.

    Your profile is impressive and I enjoy what you are sharing with us. I can be located at my food/art-oriented blog pr

  4. Thank you for the kind comment Willard

  5. I have been collecting the work of this master photographer for many years. I adore his work. Thank you for sharing. I, in turn, will share. I will return to your blog again and again. Thank you!

  6. It is my honor to visit a blog post of this master photographer and I really love your work.Thank you so much for sharing.


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