JTF (just the facts): A total of 31 color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against light grey walls in the main gallery space, the book alcove, and a smaller side room. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 1981 and 2007 (and printed later.) Physical sizes are either 16×23 or 27×37 inches (or the reverse) and all of the prints come in editions of 8. A documentary film about the photographer (Harry Gruyaert Photographer, from 2018) runs on a video screen in the side room. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When the history of color photography is summarized, it is typically the contributions of the American photographers from the 1970s and early 198os that get the most attention. All too often, we tick off the usual American names (Eggleston, Shore, Sternfeld, Meyerowitz, and a handful of others) and then conclude we have hit the high points of the story. But a closer look reveals notable concurrent histories of early color photography from both the United Kingdom and Europe, creating aesthetic parallels and echoes across geographies that are worth investigating further.
That the Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert (b. 1941) isn’t widely known in America should tell us something about our narrow understanding of photographic history, but hopefully this first US solo show will help rectify that imbalance and introduce American audiences to his consistent inventiveness with color. After studying at the School of Film and Photography in Brussels in the early 1960s, Gruyaert moved to Paris, and then a few years later, on to London, and by the end of the 1970s, he had followed photographic paths all over the world, including Morocco and North Africa, India, and the Middle East, as well as the US and Europe. He joined Magnum Photos in 1982.
This show largely centers on his work from the 1980s, with a few detours to work made more recently. Largely working in the streets, Gruyaert has a particular eye for composition where color isn’t an afterthought (as if he were “seeing in black and white”), but a primary instigator. In most of his images, he seems to have been ready for a Cartier-Bresson-like coalescing of a decisive compositional moment, and that magical instant revolved around the placement and dynamics of color inside the frame.
In the simplest sense, this aesthetic approach presents itself as contrast, where an otherwise muted and grey scene is enlivened by an unexpected pop of color. Gruyaert notices the visual spark of colored lights strung between trees, the cheery pastel tones of painted beach cabanas, and the intense red and yellow of a gas station sign and a painted car, all three set against ominous murky skies, the colors seeming to jump out with even more vitality when wrestling with more subtle tones.
More often, at least as seen in this edit, Gruyaert uses a single standing figure as a focal point, which is then surrounded by other insistent verticals provided by the flattened lines of nearby architecture and spatial arrangements. Sometimes this isolated figure provides intrusion or dissonance, as with a woman in an orange striped blouse jostling with a spray of red roses in Spain. In other cases, the figure becomes part of an inadvertent harmony of colors, where the clothing and chance surroundings seem to fit together perfectly. Gruyaert sees the connections between a yellow raincoat and the offerings of a covered market in France and brown overcoats and the decorations of an orthodox church in Russia, the pairings matching with surprising fidelity. And still other compositions push the verticals more prominently, using the strength of the available color to balance the strict geometries. Gruyaert does this effectively with a man in a phonebooth and a vertical orange sign (in Belgium) and a silhouetted group of dark figures seen through doors (again in Russia.)
The density of humanity and the intensity of colors in places like India and Morocco likely frustrated Gruyaert’s attempts at this kind of controlled isolation. His images from these locations are more fully filled with people, as they crowd onto buses, into shrines, and in markets, oftentimes hiding their faces from his camera. A bus image from Calcutta does find momentary structure in the form of the regular rhythm of windows and the paired yellow taxicabs in the foreground, but most of the works are more fluid and organic, with pastel drapery covering a thick mass of women praying and brightly patterned fabrics decorating a frieze of evasive women sitting on a rock wall.
When people fade from view and he has more time to organize his frames, the precision of his color balancing becomes more sophisticated. He uses the angles of cast shadows to highlight a red chair in Mali, and uses receding lines of architecture to structure geometric color studies of light green (in Nevada) and sandy brick (in Morocco.) Cars provide static blocks of color to incorporate into his pictures, from a light green Cadillac hiding behind hydrangeas and roses (in Washington) to two cars (yellow and red) seen through squared off tints and security grates on the streets of Los Angeles. And in a particularly layered city scene (in Brussels), the back of an orange arrow provides a jaunty focal point for various graphic elements (verticals, stripes, repeated geometries) that build up and overlap like a Precisionst painting.
What this well-edited sampler proves is the Gruyaert wasn’t just the happy artistic recipient of the chance arrival of a red balloon. In places all over the globe, he saw color in ways that most overlooked or underappreciated, in a sense, pulling color out of seemingly everyday circumstances and celebrating its transformative vibrancy. Gruyaert’s color sense is slightly more distanced and poetic than that of his American counterparts; it is generally less arch, knowingly clever, and confrontational, with more kinship to Saul Leiter than any of usual 1970s American suspects. Handling color with care and understatement is no easy feat, as the temptation toward exaggerated boldness is so strong. As seen here, the best of Gruyaert’s photographs find a unique timbre, their colors quietly remarkable.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are generally priced at $3500 or $7500, based on size, in rising editions. Gruyaert’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.