The work of Harry Gruyaert is featured at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York in an unprecedented exhibition that surveys his long career from its beginnings in the late 1960s. A street photographer and globetrotter, he is best known for his work in color in the tradition of great American photography: his impromptu virtuoso compositions explore the sublime aspects of everyday life.
The highlight of the exhibition are Harry Gruyaert’s street photographs combining architecture and scenes of ordinary life with unwavering attention to obtaining a perfect, self-contained image. In between, there are also occasional landscapes. Gruyaert adopts Henri Cartier-Bresson’s conception of the photographic moment: “I am very happy when things fall perfectly into place,” he was quoted saying in the British Journal of Photography in 2019. Gruyaert is the kind of photographer who roams around, always on the lookout for an image that seems just waiting to be captured. He connects his own approach with the use of color, which he finds less cerebral than black and white: it is more instinctive and primal.
Most of his images evince visual complexity and sophisticated composition. One, taken in Moscow in 1982, shows a little boy marching with determination, a flowering branch slung over his shoulder like a bindle. In the left corner of the photograph a man in a suit seems to keep the same pace as the boy. An old woman seated on the edge of a shop window is watching them walk by: she seems to be waiting for something or catching her breath, while a young man, positioned almost in the center of the picture, is leaning against the corner of a building, gazing pensively beyond the right edge of the frame. The dirty green of the bricks and the windowpane and the drab brown of the pavement are offset by the pink of the flower buds ricocheting off of the men’s shirts. This is often the case in Harry Gruyaert’s photographs: it seems that the color enhances not only the viewer’s aesthetic pleasure but, by dint of contrast, lends the seemingly grey areas fresh tonalities.
In another image, taken New York in 1985, it is the shadow that energizes the colored details. We see a woman walking down the street, her face and the blue of her dress already merged with the shadow even while the red of her shoes and purse pop in the sunlight. She nonchalantly strolls into the shadow, about to blend in with it completely.
Harry Gruyaert also plays with surfaces in the image: in particular, he seems to revel in traffic signs, mirrors, and reflections that enclose other images like Russian nesting dolls.
The beauty of solitude
A curious detail stands out in this collection: the human figure is omnipresent, but people’s faces are frequently either unrecognizable or turned away from the camera. Rather than dehumanizing or using them as pretexts for beautiful images, his approach stems from a certain bashfulness or maybe great tact, as if the photographer were apologizing in advance for working on the sly. Whether photographed in a crowd or from behind, these human figures come to embody existential solitude, not unlike the figure of the photographer, whose practice Harry Gruyaert defines as “a solitary quest.”
By Hugo Fortin
January 23 to March 14, 2020
Howard Greenberg Gallery
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY