F11 Photographic Museum: Best in Show

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Recommended Critics' choice
Sep 18-Nov 30

Photography lover and founder of F11 Photographic Museum Douglas So speaks to Ysabelle Cheung ahead of the museum’s inaugural retrospective show of Elliott Erwitt’s classic shots

A photographer composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action... if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.” This iconic statement, passionately articulated by photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson in the 1952 essay The Decisive Moment, became the springboard for a movement in which a circle of artists embraced the instinctive spontaneity and experimentation of photography. Many of these artists were founders and members of the prominent collective and organisation, Magnum Photos. Among those is Elliott Erwitt, a New York-based photographer still active today. At 86 years old, the amiable photography savant has framed notable personalities, from Marilyn Monroe to Nixon and Che Guevara, in his inimitable black-and-white style (he also shoots under the pseudonym André S Solidor, a humorous response to the art world he calls ‘absurd’. This month, he opens his first solo show in Asia at the newly opened F11 Photographic Museum, the first in Hong Kong dedicated to photography and the camera.

Dog Legs (1974)

Some 50 photographs from Erwitt’s portfolio make up the exhibition Best in Show, opening concurrently with the launch of the photographer’s latest tome, Regarding Women. Erwitt’s images, rendered in huge prints, fixate on distinctive as well as hidden moments and narratives in time: the tear-streaked face of Jackie Kennedy at John F Kennedy’s funeral, Nixon pushing a finger against Nikita Khrushchev’s lapel, Marilyn Monroe’s white dress flying up at the premiere of Seven Year Itch, as well as equally iconic images such as his shots of a couple seen in the wing-mirror of a car or a humorous assortment of dogs. These images were procured as part of a larger collection numbering 150 in total, from the collection of Douglas So, the Hong Kong-born and based founder of F11. A lawyer by profession, So’s previously private archive bursts with over 10,000 prints by luminaries such as Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton and Steve McCurry as well as literature on the art form plus an enviable and rare assortment of vintage Leica cameras. Much of that collection is now housed in F11’s lovingly restored Grade III heritage art deco building. The museum is a visual and physical library of photography’s history, culture and evolution, astonishingly comprehensive not just for Hong Kong but indeed the world.

Erwitt in front of André S Solidor's Smoking FIsh

“I’ve always wanted to see a place where I could go to for photography exhibitions, and then I hope that place could also offer cameras, books, education. So I could meet my friends there with similar passions and interests,” says So. “Somehow, in Hong Kong, with so many people interested in photography, we didn’t have a place like that.” Within a year of planning and restoring the building in Happy Valley – which So says came on the market quite by coincidence around the time of his idea of creating the city’s first dedicated photography museum – F11 came together. The three-storey building shows photo exhibitions on the ground and first floors on a rolling basis three or four times a year, although photography lovers are also welcome to browse the second floor private museum as well. In this space, a library co-curated by Magnum Photos holds over 1,200 books – some first edition, some signed, some already out of print.

“We will also have gatherings of Friday drinks where we can chat and talk and exchange our views about photography,” says So. “That’s the idea – to group everything about photography under one roof.”

Along with Erwitt’s two floor show, F11 also presents a Leica M3 60th anniversary exhibition, celebrating the 35mm rangefinder camera introduced in 1954 – the most popular of all the models made. Other details scattered throughout the museum reveal So’s dedication to photography not just in print, but holistically, as a culture, a movement and art form. A sculpture by artist Yiao Libai referencing different models of Leicas sits on the ground floor along with an antique wood camera, complete with bellows – a juxtaposition of the old and the new. Even the door pays homage to the camera, featuring Leica anatomy.

As So mentioned, Hong Kong as a city has always been interested in the medium of photography. This much is even more evident in the flurry of photography shows and events coming up. Along with the opening of F11, photography geeks can anticipate local photographer Ho Fan’s 1950s snaps at AO Vertical next month, and a newly released photobook by Julian Lee features his iconic photographs of Hong Kong stars. As Bresson might have said, the opening of F11 is a decisive moment in framing photography in the city.

Best in Show
Sep 18-Nov 30, F11 Photographic Museum, 11 Yuk Sau St, Happy Valley, 6516 1122; F11.com.


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