Blind Magazine : photography at first sight

Best Regards, Frank Horvat

They are the successors of time held in suspension, and their images continue to enrich the world history of photography and our own impatient eyes. Blind shares the memories of some magical encounters with these virtuosos of the camera, soloists in black & white or in color, artists faithful to gelatin silver photography or bewitched by digital technologies. Today: Frank Horvat and his manual to happiness.

Frank Horvat (1928–2020) was a man of dialogue: he was a big talker, always straightforward, no beating around the bush. Never self-aggrandizing, “he did take credit where credit was due.” He could be very critical of himself and his photography, sometimes measuring up against his ultimate role model: Henri Cartier-Bresson. Horvat met him in 1950, when he was twenty-two: HCB received him at the Magnum agency, then located at 125, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris (“He was a god, he still is.”). A funny situation: on the one hand, a full-of-himself polyglot who expected to be welcomed at Magnum “with open arms”; on the other, Cartier-Bresson, examining — believe it or not, upside down — Rolleiflex photographs of a religious procession in southern Italy handed him by the young Horvat. The master’s verdict: “This is total crap! You work with a square camera that sits on your stomach, but your eyes aren’t on your stomach. The square does nothing for the composition, only the rectangle allows you to apply the golden rule. Get yourself a Leica, and go to the Louvre to look at Poussin’s paintings to see what composition means….”

Although he never went to the Louvre, “not feeling mature enough for painting,” Horvat did buy a second-hand Leica, which brought him luck and “a bit of reputation,” and he traveled to India. His first fashion photographs already evince his vivid style tinged with mischief, rather unusual at a time when a sort of manic gallantry ruled the day. Preferring energetic shots, Horvat took to the streets in the company of models of “real beauty, a turned up nose, wrinkles, a small scar. (…) Photographing Miss Universe or her avatars was of no interest.”

Even later in life, Horvat talked with enthusiasm about his years as a fashion reporter. Thus in 2018, preparing an exhibition for the “in camera” gallery in Paris, he insisted on mixing staged photographs and those taken on the go, unexpected, “a gift from on high.” He enjoyed fashion photography, but shooting indoors bored him: “It was difficult… Trying to get something unexpected in the studio, you had to get up early. And that’s what interested me, the unexpected, even a dog barking in the frame…” On the fashion side, his idols were Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. He spent an afternoon in New York with the latter, without photographing or recording him; this was “one of the highlights of [his] life,” noted Horvat. He also appreciated portraits by Helmut Newton (his Ava Gardner!), whom he met early on in his career. Their mutual affection led to a collaboration at the magazine Jardin des Modes, a true gold mine, brilliantly curated by Jacques Moutin between 1948 and 1961. 

Horvat’s book Entre Vues, published by Nathan in 1990, has been my personal gold mine. It is probably the book that I have quoted the most in my journal articles: Horvat’s sincere, even raw, interviews with figures like Jeanloup Sieff and Sarah Moon, Mario Giacomelli and Édouard Boubat, taught me a great deal. “I am a slave to money,” he once told Koudelka, who replied, “I am a slave to my head.” Horvat would invariably describe himself as destitute; for example, speaking to Don McCullin, he evoked his adolescence: “The war had just broken out in 1939, and we were refugees in a small town in Switzerland. The locals made us feel like we owed them our lives, which gave them the right to bully us a little. My high school classmates, in particular, had ganged up on me, motivated in part by pervasive anti-Semitism, and in part simply by the dislike they felt for this big, awkward boy who didn’t understand their dialect and who always avoided confrontation.”

These rough school years gave Frank Horvat an appreciation for happiness and freedom. He would later enjoy photographing sculptures by Degas and trees (walnut trees in Dordogne, lime trees in Yorkshire, willows in the Jura, etc.). He became passionate to the core about the digital image. “I’ve never done anything that’s very consistent, reportage, color, portraiture: when I show my work, my fashion photos or my New York photos, no one ever said they liked it all.” His non-exclusive passions annoyed him a little, like Paris, which he hated (“everything is a cliché there”), preferring Cotignac and the surrounding hills of the Var department, or New York, in color and snowed-in, some of his most sensuous works. “I photographed in color without thinking too much about it. The color itself did not motivate me, but I took it into account. I am not like Saul Leiter, whom I admire, a committed colorist. I love New York with all my heart, I feel at home there, even if this metropolis hasn’t done me any favors. Everything is about money and laced with brutality, but I like that. There is also exuberance, it’s impossible to take in everything, you have to retrace your steps, and that’s what’s beautiful, this unexpected profusion, like a Pollock painting.”

We met at his home in Boulogne-Billancourt, in his photo studio, a space that seemed immense. “Here, nothing is aesthetic, everything is calculated to take advantage of the light.” He had not changed over the years: the same tone of voice, combative and lucid; the same hunger for a lively conversation. He tolerated no half-heartedness, no whining, always ready to pick a fight. He did not want to become invisible or to be without photography. With him, you couldn’t avoid forming an opinion (“But what do you think of these photos?”). Frank Horvat was human through and through. A sense of solidarity? Solitary is how he described himself at the time of the release of his book Entre vues, in 1990. “A wandering and intolerant Jew. Someone with roots can be tolerant, I am not. That’s why I’m always at war with myself.”

Frank Horvat’s site

My favorite among Frank Horvat’s books: Degas: Sculptures, Imprimerie Nationale 1991, with text by Anne Pingeot. 

Cover photo by Jonas Cuénin.

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