Harry Gruyaert is a Magnum Photos photographer (from Belgium), whose name is not particularly well-known. He’s not famous in the way William Eggleston is and his name is much harder to pronounce than Andreas Gursky’s (the latter’s photographs also selling for dramatically more $). Nevertheless, I’ve spent more time looking at Gruyaert’s book than any showing the work of either Eggleston or Gursky. It has impressed me enormously, in the main, and the purchase of this book is one of those somewhat blind buying experiences that has paid off. It is here to stay and I know I will be picking it up again and again.
The book is approximately 30cm x 30cm x 2cm and published by Thames and Hudson. It’s crisp, well-made and exudes quality at the middle/upper end of the wider book market. After a series of ‘TV screen’ photographs (which personally did nothing for me), the foreword is mercifully short at four pages. You’re then straight into the content you tend to buy photography monographs for: the photos.
The book contains approximately 100 punchy, saturated and colourful photographs that are quite difficult to describe. Some have a feel reminiscent of Stephen Shore, while others lean towards Eggleston. Other examples lead you to conclude that this is what Cartier-Bresson might have produced had he suffered a bump on the head and been restricted to saturated colour work (the very opposite of what he shot). None of this is meant to sound unkind. In my opinion, there is a singular vision running throughout these photographs that is in no way derivative of the names I have mentioned. Gruyaert arguably deserves to be better known, but for reasons I cannot explain he just isn’t.
Gruyaert’s colour treatment is in many cases highly compelling. I do not know whether these were originally printed as dye transfer prints, cibrachomres or what the explanation is, but they are very unlike anything we see today. There’s a graphic, saturated, high-microcontrast look that combines with the relatively low resolution associated with small format film (he shot with a Leica M film camera, primarily with a 50mm lens). However, the photographs are clearly not the product of simple prints being made from the negatives/transparencies (i.e. C-type prints). There’s something rather special and very distinctive going on.
Harry Gruyaert is clearly a street photographer, but often in a somewhat formal sense. In my opinion, this is a very welcome antithesis to the sort of casual thoughtless snapping that has consumed street photography today. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that street photography is busy killing itself by burying itself underneath vast quantities of poor examples of itself, but it feels like a close run thing. Gruyaert’s photographs present us with a great deal of ordinary subject matter that is (referring to the movement in photography) somewhat transformative in its nature. The photographer is playing a highly active role in shaping the end product that is being shared with us. It is also worth remembering that most of these photos were taken decades ago.
I won’t lie, there are some photographs where I find the colour treatment a bit forced, or at least not to my tastes, but it’s a large body of work and nobody is going to love it all. Some feel rather like hand pained B&W prints, but I daresay they are not. The below photo is one such example.
Harry Gruyaert’s photographs convey a strong sense of him being an outside of mainstream society. He appears to be an observer, a lurker and a quirky one at that. His street photographs are, in general, much edgier than Cartier-Bresson’s. His colours and general style is much less ‘hands off’ and relaxed than Eggleston. Perhaps most importantly, his work is much less contrived than Steve McCurry’s, although at times it feels rather like it tackles similar material. There’s no sense of narrative, or any interest in one, but instead a fixation with the singular photograph. Colour and form rule.
Not all of Gruyaert’s photographs have this saturated, transformative look. There is a consistent smattering of more ‘ordinary’ photographs that carry a more mainstream feel.
This excellent book concludes with a thoroughly useful index of plates with dates for each. One has to wonder why more books don’t do this, because it really helps to understand how a photographer’s work and style change over time.
The print quality is excellent, using matt paper with a slight lustre to the image area. The result is rich plates with enough detail to do the slightly grainy colour film stock justice. Thank you Harry Gruyaert (and Thames and Hudson) for brightening up my otherwise monochromatic world. In particular, I think it will prove truly inspirational for street photographers struggling to see their way out of the pea soup of empty snapping that seems to now characterise the popular manifestation of this genre.
This is a book to buy.