Today the idea that a famous photographer might work in colour is uncontroversial. Yet this wasn’t always the case. An exhibition of photographs by Harry Gruyaert, a Belgian photographer, at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, takes us back to a time when colour photography was something daring, even subversive.
Henri Cartier-Bresson famously declared colour photography to be “something indigestible, the negation of all photography’s three-dimensional values.” Cartier-Bresson was a founding member of Magnum, a prestigious photo agency, which represented some of the best photographers in the post-war era, and his dogmatic views were shared by most of the agency’s members. For them, colour was frivolous and more suited to advertising than the gritty, hard-hitting monochrome photojournalism that most of them specialised in.
These ingrained attitudes meant that Magnum only admitted its first colour photographer, Gruyaert, in 1981. His entry caused a stir; certain members of the old guard, like Phillip Jones Griffiths, a formidable photojournalist who covered the Vietnam war, protested vigorously. It didn’t help that Gruyaert had won acclaim in the Seventies with a series of colour pictures he had taken of his television screen over the course of a year. For many this kind of work – conceptual, stylised – seemed about as far from the worldly concerns of Magnum as it was possible to get.
But it was clear by the Eighties that Magnum needed to embrace a new generation of photographers in order to stay relevant. “We would have died, already, years ago, if we wouldn’t have opened things,” said Gruyaert, who is still a member, in 2015. William Eggleston’s show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976 had demonstrated the exciting artistic potential of colour photography, and a generation of serious photographers working in the medium followed, from Luigi Ghirri and Stephen Shore to Joel Meyerowitz and Gruyaert himself.
The images in this exhibition date from the Eighties when Gruyaert went travelling through Egypt, America, India, Mali and Europe, often living out of a Volkswagen van. His membership of Magnum afforded him the financial stability to maintain this itinerant lifestyle, and he exchanged the conceptual experiments of the Seventies for a kind of street photography that was charged with an obsession for colour – so much so that his pictures sometimes tipped over into abstraction. Later, he would revisit some of these countries, sometimes returning to exactly the same spot decades on because of “a certain colour”.
Los Angeles, 1982
Many of Gruyaert’s images feel like collages because of the flat fields of colour he captures, and because of the striking ways he combines people and objects from different planes and heights all in the same photograph. In this image of a petrol station in Los Angeles, advertising hoardings, bright buildings, signs and the brilliant blue sky all compete for attention.
Trivandrum, India, 1989
Gruyaert’s skill was to combine all these elements – figures, structures, signage and colour – in such a way that they never fall apart into incoherence. This crowded street scene from the south of India features eight figures all on different trajectories. They are knitted together by the many patches of white in this image, and by an authoritative traffic policeman standing in the middle. Above, a bizarre poster of Lenin bursts out of its own frame.
Santiago de Compostela, 1988
All the images in this exhibition were shot with the now-discontinued Kodachrome film, which gave Gruyaert a particularly punchy, high-contrast colour palette. In this almost psychedelic scene of a picnic in Santiago de Compostela, the contrast has been dialled up to create verdant greens and yellows and intensely dark areas of shade.
Ouarzazate, Morocco (1982)
“To me, people are not the most important thing in the frame,” Gruyaert once said. He is more interested in presenting his human subjects as part of a landscape than capturing a sense of them as individuals. The two figures in this image face away from the camera, and slot perfectly into the composition, with its shards of light illuminating the straight lines of buildings.
Photographing figures with their faces obscured often allows Gruyaert to create an uncanny sense of mystery from seemingly banal situations. Here, a group of locals from the Belgian town of Boom, in the province of Antwerp, await the arrival of a parade on a swelteringly hot summer’s day. So far, so normal – yet the brooding shadows of their umbrellas and balloons transform it into something altogether less penetrable.
Harry Gruyaert: Western and Eastern Light Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, until June 27th