Frank Horvat, born in 1928 in Abbazia, an Italian town now located in Croatia and known as Opatija, has never cared for borders. His life has been marked by migrations, starting in the late 1930s when he and his Jewish family were forced to seek refuge in Switzerland, where as a child he watched the world around them go to slaughter. After the war he emigrated to France, settling in Paris, and more precisely in Boulogne, “because of the open space and low rent.” Soon, he embarked on his first photographic journeys: to India, Pakistan, Israel, Japan, Egypt, the United States, and, closer to home, England and Italy. He was crossing territorial but also photographic borders.
Frank Horvat tried his hand at just about everything: photojournalism, street photography, fashion photography, landscapes, animals, still life, and even digital design. Nowadays, this comes almost as a reproach: he doesn’t fit into a box, doesn’t satisfy any of the categories that have stuck to photography over time.
It’s worth retracing his steps to understand his vision. In 1950, in Paris, he met Henri Cartier-Bresson, his lifelong influence. It was in his Magnum office that Horvat showed him his first images taken with a Rolleiflex. The “master” took the prints and turned them upside down. “Your eyes aren’t in your stomach,” quipped HCB. “You don’t get it. Go to the Louvre and look at Nicolas Poussin’s paintings to see what composition is.” But he toned down his opinion: “Doisneau used to say that the Rolleiflex makes one humble, it makes the photographer bow before the subject. With a Leica, you are a hunter, which inevitably puts the subject in the crosshairs.” Young Frank grasped above all photography’s desire for equality vis-à-vis painting. At the instigation of the father of the “decisive moment” he understood that photography should be an art form in its own right. Present in many of his pictorial images, this idea has stayed with him forever.
He admits that he has never been able to photograph war for lack of courage. Because he likes to travel on foot, photographs from his journeys are more explorations of the human condition. They suggest problems, as he likes to say, and some belong in the pantheon of black-and-white photojournalism, as evidenced in particular by the stunning shots taken in India and Calcutta. The latter images propelled him to his first successes, such as his inclusion in the exhibition The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.“A lot of people photograph war and distress,” Horvat notes; and their images are “often poignant and widely admired. Some feel guilty about it, as if they were exploiting the suffering of others, and feel obligated to proclaim their intention to alert public opinion and thus prevent further suffering. I am somewhat skeptical about this type of justification, but I believe in their sincerity and bow before their courage. But even in times of peace, I would not point my camera at a spouse (or a friend) in distress, simply because I do not like the idea of my art benefitting from their suffering.”
“I’ve always been more into chicks than into fashion.”
Light streams into his Boulogne studio through large opaque windows. There is still a large back bench mounted on tripods as well as several soft boxes emitting light, this time artificial. Frank Horvat is first and foremost a photographer renowned for his fashion shots and recognized for their true-to-life quality. Like his contemporary, William Klein, Horvat was among the first, starting in 1957, to confront his models with the street, crowds, and the authenticity of residential interiors. This was more out of necessity than conviction. At the time, he could only work in 24 x 36 and did not own a studio. Applying his reporter’s talents to fashion, he subverted its conventions and drove editors and stylists crazy. “I was interested in women,” he says, “I wanted to show what I liked about them. After they’d spent two hours on makeup, I would urge them to take it off so they would look more natural.”
At the same time, fashion too was changing. Magazines featured more ready-to-wear clothes than haute couture proper and no longer targeted only upper-class women but were bought by everyone. They were becoming more democratic. The first monthly that appealed to Frank Horvat was Jardin des modes, followed by Elle, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. His activities generated some bad feeling and attracted the wrath of Cartier-Bresson, who saw this mixture of authoritarianism and laissez-faire as a “pastiche.” Meanwhile, in 1958, Frank Horvat had joined the prestigious Magnum agency, but he only stayed for three years. “Everyone made me feel very guilty,” he says, “especially at Magnum. I only stayed there for a short time. On top of that, they took 50% of my income.”
Regardless, he stuck to his path and produced a series in Paris using a telephoto lens—a breakthrough at the time; the series was published in Camera by Romeo Martinez, the Swiss magazine’s first emblematic editor-in-chief. Perhaps scarred by harsh judgments of his commercial work, since the late 1970s Frank Horvat had often tried to disown these images (to date, they are still his bestsellers). Chaussure et Tour Eiffel remains his most famous: it’s a strange composition made in 1974 at the Trocadero plaza, showing a man beneath the arch of a high heel. But let’s not fool ourselves: just like the American Saul Leiter, Frank Horvat chose fashion to be able to earn a living with his lens. So much so that in his only nightmares he is made to participate in this kind of staging.
The sidewalks of New York
New York has always inspired great photographers: Joel Meyerowitz, Bruce Davidson, and Saul Leiter are just some of the great masters of street photography who declared the city to be their favorite subject. Horvat, who has never lived in New York, took advantage of this “outsider” status to produce a series of gentler but equally surprising images. Drawing on his background as a fashion photographer and photojournalist, he created a new, at once aesthetic and humanistic, portrait—this time of a city.
His Side Walk series, taken in the 1980s, is a personal tribute to the vibrant metropolis in all its aspects: from socialites strolling in Central Park or sipping coffee at a café window to shabby subway cars covered with graffiti and homeless people looking for a place to sleep. “I used to take two trips a year, in the summer and winter, when the city is at its worst,” he says, referring to his use of suggestiveness. “What’s off-camera has always been important,” he explains, “it allows you to imagine what is not represented. The only thing that stimulates the imagination is what is not shown, what is outside the frame.”
At the time, New York City had high crime rates, and many neighborhoods were virtual no-go zones. Deliberately looking as much at upscale areas as at ghettos, Horvat managed to capture the specific atmosphere and raw reality of the city.
This nostalgic journey to a city that no longer exists as such is enhanced by the grainy quality of the prints and iconic Kodachrome colors. Horvat, who had rarely used color, was encouraged by the hectic New York life to fully explore the possibilities of color photography.
“In New York, tenderness always borders on catastrophe, mystery is the flip side of over-explicitness. I could say the same thing about myself, hence my affinity for this city and my present approach. While poetry is an ideal I don’t dare to belabor, mystery—which nevertheless goes hand in hand with poetry the way certain gods belong with certain goddesses—is an objective that I deliberately pursue, although its formulas have nothing mysterious about them.”
By Jonas Cuénin