|Hamilton, Peter. "Seeing Anew," artnet Monograph, June, 2012.|
As Frank Horvat says, he is probably the "most European" of photographers — but this is better understood in a cultural rather than a geographical sense. The divisive conflicts of the 20th century meant that his birthplace in Northern Italy would become part of Croatia. A refugee with his family, he spent the war years in Switzerland, and the immediate postwar in Italy. Since the 1950s he has lived much of his life in France, with homes in Paris and Provence - but with significant periods in India, England and America.
Horvat's upbringing conferred mastery of four languages. His eloquence in that of photography supplied a fifth. "By the time I was thirty, I had lived and worked in seven countries: Italy, Switzerland, France, Pakistan, India, England and the US, and I was fluent in all their languages (except Urdu and Hindi, which I only jabbered)."
This rich cultural universe is a clue to what has inspired Horvat to make some of the iconic photographs of the 20th century. He seems always to have "seen" in new ways that sometimes delight and occasionally disturb. And alone among his peers, he was an early and innovative convert to the digital revolution that has transformed contemporary photography. It offered him the means to develop his personal work in surprising and creative directions.
A consummate picture-maker since the 1940s, Horvat has always expressed his cosmopolitan vision in photographs that connect mind and eye in a distinctive way. He has been a traveller for much of his life, but one wandering to a purpose —and always with a camera. Following an early and "decisive" encounter in Paris with Henri Cartier-Bresson, he exchanged his Rolleiflex for the Leica and set off for two years in India and Pakistan in 1952 - sending work back to the magazines along the way.
In 1962, now established as a fashion photographer, reportage called him again, and he undertook "a dream assignment" for the German magazine Revue on the great cities outside Europe. "Eight months' travel, with the freedom to photograph whichever way I wanted so long as I produced 12 photographic reports on 12 very different cities: rather like that game where you join all the dots with a line which ends by revealing a new shape. Similarly, the complete series was meant to yield a kind of portrait of the world - or, at any rate, of the world outside Europe." Though never published at the time, because the commissioning editor was sacked mid-way through the assignment without the knowledge of Horvat and the writer, the project allowed him to produce a telling series of photo-essays, published forty years later as Time Machine (2004).
Reportage, fashion, nudes, still-life, portraiture, wildlife, constructed images — almost all of the idioms of modern photography are present in his work. But its apparent diversity is given an underlying continuity by Horvat's fascination with meaning, with "Zusammenhänge", the making of a visual connection between people, places and things. As he admits, "unlike Cartier-Bresson, who always carries his Leica and seems able to shoot anywhere, any time, I cannot take a photograph without first preparing it in my mind."
Sometimes the connection is direct, sometimes allusive: but the common thread running through this great body of work is the tension between the particularity of the individual image and the universal themes which it might evoke - such as the human condition. In this context Horvat is fond of his dictum that photography is "the art of not pressing the button". He explains this further by stating that his "reason for holding back is not only to spare some film - it's like storing my energy, or rather my expectation; it's letting the image I want take shape in my mind, by the very act of refusing the images I don't want. Until the moment when I recognize, in the viewfinder, the image that I want to see - and then there is no holding back any more."
Much of Horvat's career until the 1990s was divided between the two great domains of modern photography - reportage and fashion. For much of the 1950s he worked for the big picture magazines of the day such as Life, Picture Post, Paris Match on human interest subjects that ranged from strip clubs and prostitution to street markets and city life. He was represented by the major agencies of the time, such as Black Star and Magnum, and Horvat would probably have decided to become a full member of the latter if Cartier-Bresson had not damned his fashion pictures as "pastiche". Since they required direction of the subject, he had dismissed them as being "made" rather than taken.
Yet Horvat's photos for fashion magazines revolutionized the idiom at the beginning of the 1960s - their outdoor realism a breath of fresh air after the studio formalism that ruled the roost from the 1920s. He had in fact made striking style photos right from the start of his professional career in Milan around 1950, but fashion assignments were always the pretext for his photography rather than its goal. Much as reportage has always served as a reason to travel, rather than an end in itself, taking him to places where there was rich opportunity to make a telling image.
Horvat saw fashion work from a very personal perspective. Girls were chosen as his models because "I wanted to get to know them or make love to them". He found their beauty at its best stripped of the artifice of make-up and contrived poses. The backdrops to his photos were real places where they might have gone together as a couple, such as the bistrot Le Chien qui Fume in les Halles, or the backstreets behind Gare St. Lazare.
Horvat's realist approach was far closer to reportage than conventional fashion photography, especially as he refused to use anything other than a 35mm camera - despite initial squeals of protest from the ladies presiding over the magazines. He sought out new ways of humanising the refinement of haute couture. When he worked in England, for instance, his best photos seem far more likely to have been found on the cobbled streets of a northern mill-town than in the chic quarters of London or the studios of Vogue.
Nonetheless as fashion became his main source of work Horvat evolved another and more formal approach. It is one of exquisite and controlled composition - a style almost abstract in its simplicity but often dramatic and ideally suited to the large pages and high quality reproduction of the fashion magazine. It increasingly took him into the studio and towards colour photography. "As someone who started as a black-and-white photographer, colour has always seemed more difficult to handle - and this is precisely why I chose it as the medium of my personal projects."
Beginning in the early 1980s with his study of New York Up and Down, Horvat began to build a series of themed projects that had no immediate client but himself. This period coincided with the time when he began to suffer problems with his sight — a detached retina that forced him to switch his "taking" eye from left to right. He says now that this obliged him to learn anew how to "see" in photographic terms. But it also gave him "the idea of 'photographing with my ears', i.e. exploring reality with a taperecorder, somehow as I had done with a camera. I decided that my first subject would be photography itself - as a creative process, more than as a technique. Hence the idea of 'talking shop' with a few fellow photographers whom I admired. The hardest was putting those records on paper - which in my analogy was the equivalent to editing and printing."
"Seeing anew" could be the leitmotif for each stage in Horvat's career, and the series made 1980-86 that he called "vraies semblances" - usually translated in English as "very similar" though a better and more ambiguous translation might have been "true likeness" — is a case in point. These are sometimes elaborately constructed portraits that refer both to famous paintings of female beauty and particular historical moments with which he feels an affinity. As in other aspects of his work Horvat works here with the tension between the singularity of the photograph and the ways in which it can suggest an archetype. "I like to observe some unknown woman in the street or the subway, trying to imagine what she would have been in ancient Rome or medieval Florence [...]".
The project involved friends and family rather than professional models, and although made with film many of these portraits now have the appearance of being digitally re-mastered. The reality is that they were a mix of make up, posing and careful studio lighting, and inspired selection of subject, to show, as Horvat says "each woman as the ideal beauty of some famous painter at some point in history." Though Horvat admits the guessing game of artistic reference is an amusing one "I am even happier when people look at these images and see something that is beyond similarities."
By the 1990s Horvat was devoting a serious amount of his time and energy to digital photography, a discipline in which he was far ahead of his peers, not to mention younger colleagues. Another form of "seeing anew" was under way. The work was essentially computer based - Horvat being a very "early adopter" of the Apple Mac that would come to revolutionize the medium of photography. The fruits of this project were surprising ones - a book based on Puss in Boots ("Yao the Cat", 1992) demonstrated his skills at digital manipulation using photographs made specially for the project. It was followed by an extraordinary body of work, Le Bestiaire de Horvat (Horvat's Bestiary) that created animals living in imagined landscapes. The project mixed portraits taken in zoos - polar bears, vultures, seals, owls and suchlike— with photographs of their typical environments. Given the limitations of the computers then available, it was an enormous undertaking. This was followed by projects in which Horvat constructed chimerical creatures such as the Phoenix (for "Chimères" 1995) and of human bodies for his version of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" in 1997 — a famous masterpiece of Latin literature. Horvat has always found this "one of the loveliest works of poetry ever", and digital photography seemed the ideal method for interpreting the Greek myths about transformation.
"I selected eleven episodes concerning the love affairs of beautiful goddesses and nymphs. One reason for my choice was that Ovid is at his best when writing about sensual love. The other was that I wanted to photograph Hélène Busnel, a young French dancer who not only has a beautiful body, but also knows how to use it as an instrument for expression."
By the turn of the century Horvat was musing on time and the illusion that photography offers a means of arresting its ceaseless flow. To mark the millennium he tried to take one "significant" photograph on every day of 1999 - and using as his source material, what he found around him in his everyday life. But, as usual, with an eye on the classics, he noted that as Goethe observed, "The most difficult thing is what is thought to be the simplest: to really see the things which are before your eyes."
1999. A Daily Report, offers a very personal panorama of "Horvatland", in which he chronicles his life throughout the year. As always with Horvat, it provides a remarkable mixture of images that skip from family and friends to places and experiences, from the dressing room at a fashion shoot to the sudden epiphenomenon of an accidental still-life glimpsed on the street; from domestic scenes in his homes in Boulogne-Billancourt and Cotignac in Provence, to the many corners of Europe across which he travels: on one page we are at a pig slaughtering in Andalusia, by the next we are in Opatja, Croatia - where Frank was born. Even when he is on familiar ground Frank Horvat is always wandering, and always searching for the image that will make a connection, aligning the particular with the archetype.
His most recent projects seem in many ways an extension of the Daily Report, focusing increasingly on aspects of his life, often at its most intimate. La Véronique (2003) is both a portrait of his house in Provence, and of the woman after whom it is named, his wife Véronique Aubry. An Eye at the Fingertips (2006-continuing) is in many ways an extension of the self-portraiture with which he has long been engaged, but this time it privileges the imagery that is created by using a point-and-shoot digital camera and its screen that has to be held at arm's length.
"Its greatest advantage is that it allows me to undertake the most adventurous trips, in spite of my age and my infirmities: for instance on my breakfast table, where an empty yoghurt pot and a few grapefruit peelings, lit by the morning sun and hazed by a puff of cigarette smoke, may appear on it's screen as a fantastic landscape. Or on floor level, when the foot of a lady friend, slightly swollen by the tightness of her high-heeled shoe, becomes a gigantic metaphor of something - though I don't know what. With a traditional 24x36 reflex camera I would have never found out, simply because I wouldn't have dreamt of lying flat on the floor and viewing that foot from that angle!"
Frank Horvat remains a photographer constantly seeking new forms of expression, an artist and an innovator whose career is remarkable for the clear stages of progression that it displays. He is avid for what the latest technology can offer in the constant search for Zusammenhänge between life and the images that can be made of it. When I last saw him he was like a child with a new toy when the latest Canon camera and a new computer screen arrived. These form the tools for the latest stage in his "Seeing Anew", offering the means to extend An Eye at the Fingertips into the realms of a new type of self-portraiture.
Peter Hamilton, 2012
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