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photo-eye Gallery: Don Hong-Oai


photo-eye Gallery Don Hong-Oai Currently on exhibition at photo-eye Gallery is a very special collection of images by Don Hong-Oai. These photographs are among the very last Don prints outside of private and museum collections.
Spring Bamboo Boat (horizontal) — Don Hong-Oai

Currently on exhibition at photo-eye Gallery is a very special collection of images by Don Hong-Oai. These photographs are among the very last Don prints outside of private and museum collections. My love affair with the work of Don Hong-Oai started over nine years ago after finding the images on photo-eye’s website, years before I was employed by photo-eye Gallery. As I embarked on my new vocation at photo-eye, I immersed myself in all of the wonderful stories of the artists represented by the gallery, and in this process concluded that the story of Don Hong-Oai is almost as remarkable as his images.


Don was born in Canton, China in 1929 but spent much of his life in Vietnam. At age 13 he took on an apprenticeship in a portrait photography studio — and continued to make photographs until he passed away in 2004. Working in the portrait studio Don learned basic darkroom skills and mastered the art of printing from glass negatives. He eventually found that the images he was moved to make were landscapes. In pursuit of that passion he devoted his time to studying under master photographer Long Chin-San. Long was a key figure in this history of Chinese photography and taught Don the art of combining multiple negatives in the darkroom to create a composite image, the process Don used to create the photographs that he would be remembered for. Inspired by traditional Chinese painting, Don’s images depict romanticized landscapes inhabited by fishermen and farmers. Realism was not the goal, rather Don sought to create a quite, dream-like, idealized image.

Spring Covers the River, Vietnam, 1971 — Don Hong-Oai

Pagoda, Hunan, 1990 (no calligraphy) — Don Hong-Oai
In 1979, a few years after attending Vietnam National Art University where he continued to engage in photography, Don immigrated to San Francisco where he settled in Chinatown and continued to create his images. He didn’t speak a lick of English, but found a home and a community darkroom in a basement in Chinatown that he was able to use. For years he made his living by selling prints at street fairs and occasionally shooting weddings, making just enough to get by. It was at the San Francisco Street fair in 1986 that everything changed. Renowned curator and photography dealer Ruth Silverman who was visiting at the time, attended the fair and recognized the work as being remarkable, so she picked up one of his cards. A few years later Silverman contacted Don after she moved to the Bay Area to start Photos Gallery. With Silverman’s mentorship, Don’s work was finally exposed to a larger audience across the US and beyond, his photographs finding homes in public and private collections as well as in two books. After Don passed away in 2004 Silverman continued to shepherd the work as the head of his estate.

Napping Guangdong, 1984 — Don Hong-Oai
Ruth Silverman passed away in June 2015. Among other ambitious activities in Silverman’s last few years, she donated her remaining inventory of Don Hong-Oai prints to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and in her last few months organized an exhibition and auction “Good Dog Art” to support animal shelters in San Francisco, many of the photographs coming from Silverman’s exquisite personal collection. Now, in honor of Ruth Silverman and Don Hong-Oai, photo-eye is working with the trustee of the Silverman estate and trust to sell the remaining Don Hong-Oai prints from our inventory. A percentage of each print sale will be donated to animal rescue organizations that Silverman supported, including Compassion Without Borders, Animal Legal Defense Fund and PAWS, among others.—Anne Kelly

View images by Don Hong-Oai 

For more information or to purchase prints please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly at 505.988.5152 x 121 or anne@photoeye.com

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