Reviewed by Kenneth Tanaka
I gasped when I first opened Harry Gruyaert's book. And I mean I audibly gasped. As I browsed some of the pages I became slightly overwhelmed and had to set the book aside. It would take me nearly three weeks to work through it once. That sometimes happens to me when I see work that’s so sublime and engaging. I time-out to sip it like a fine wine. Nutty, eh?
Harry Gruyaert’s photography may be the finest candid color photography I have ever seen. Haas, Meyerowitz (some), Penn, Eggleston, all wonderful, all seductive and emotive. But Gruyaert’s work just shot to #1 on my personal hit parade.
In brief here’s why: Harry Gruyaert manages to orchestrate the endless moving variables of candid color photography—form, eye lines, proportions, gesture, tonal relationships, color palette, etc.—with a mastery that I’ve never seen. His frames show more mystery and intrigue with more consistency than any other photographer I’ve seen. Harry Gruyaert is like a fantasy resultant of putting the above-named photographers into a Shake ’N Bake bag along with, say, Ray Metzker and Saul Leiter. Indeed, Gruyaert openly acknowledges the influence that many of these photographers’ works have had on his own work.
Although he was unknown to me, Harry Gruyaert is no Vivian Maier story. Born in Antwerp in 1941, he began his journey as a professional photographer in the 1960s with television work being his first stop after school. That was short-lived. The rest of his career has been devoted to photography, first toward fashion work and then onward into broader commercial work. He became a member of Magnum in 1982 after what is described as a contentious deliberation among some senior members.
Today Harry Gruyaert is apparently still out there clicking along. When Kodachrome, his favorite film, was discontinued, he made the transition to digital capture and printing. Refreshingly, he is quoted as acknowledging that while digital is less structured than film it “allows access to new kinds of light” that film could not record. He is also quoted as noting that digital allows him to “take more risks” with no shot limits.
About the book
This is a lovely Thames and Hudson book that could hardly be better. A centerpiece image is tipped onto the jacketless red cloth cover. Images are presented with utmost thoughtfulness and respect, usually one to a page couple (unless there’s a strong visual or conceptual mate) and no gutter spans. Some images seem a bit too crunchy or crushed to me but I don’t fault the printing. There is a full list of captions and dates in an appendix, mercifully featuring accompanying thumbnails for easy reference.
Whether or not Harry Gruyaert’s work will make you gasp I cannot say. But even if it doesn’t I still encourage you to find an opportunity to see his work. Study how he uses color and palettes to render rich emotive dimensions in his images. Study how many of his subjects exist within his color spaces, rather than being simply rendered by it. You’re looking at a new old master’s work.
Speaking personally, much of my time holding a camera is spent trying to create images much like Harry’s. Harry Gruyaert’s book delightfully, but also maddeningly, shows me how far I’ve yet to go. (Don’t wait dinner on me.)
©2015 by Kenneth Tanaka, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Bernd Reihardt: "I just received my copy of the book yesterday, and I couldn't agree more with what Ken wrote about it. Wonderful. And please stop writing about books, or my wife will block your site."
Michael Gorman: "I was on a book buying moratorium until I read this review."
harmen g.honnef: "I bought the book Harry Gruyaert some months ago in the Museum of Photography in Antwerp. It was the Dutch version of the (kind of) catalogue—in French—of the exhibition in 'La maison de la Photograpie' in Paris, spring 2015. Publisher in France: Les éditions Textuel, Paris, 2015. Publisher in Belgium: Hannibal (Kannibaal), Antwerp, 2015. You can say that the subjects of the photos are 'documentary / street photography' but the work is all about color. Just as the work of Saul Leiter. Best regards, Harmen G. Honnef, Brasschaat, Belgium."