February 12th, 2020
In Harry Gruyaert’s Radical Street Photography, Color is the Defining Element
No matter where he turns his eye, the Belgian photographer constantly explores the potential of color in a seemingly colorless urban world.
By Wilco Versteeg
Harry Gruyaert’s intuitive and candid color work was not always understood in a world that looked skeptically at anything smacking of “street photography” and equated black-and-white photography with serious artistry well into the 1980s. His work is under renewed consideration as one of Europe’s most important photographers. This retrospective moment in his career sees the reissue of Roots (Éditions Xavier Barral, 2012 and 2018), a large exhibition at Fotomuseum Antwerp, and the publication of several other volumes of his work. Among them is East/West (Éditions Textuel, 2017), featuring his photographs from the United States and the Soviet Union, and his fifth book to date with the publisher. No matter where he turns his eye, his work attests to a constant exploration of the potentialities of color in seemingly colorless urban environments.
Roots offers a large selection of black-and-white photographs alongside Gruyaert’s groundbreaking work in color portraying life in Belgium, his country of origin, in the 1970s and 1980s. Gruyaert has asserted that it wasn’t until he had shot color during his circumnavigations around the globe, that he became able to see the hues of Belgium for the first time. Viewing the earlier works in the book, one cannot help but feel a crucial element is missing that would take those earlier images beyond traditional documentary: color. In Gruyaert’s best images, such as a photo radically cut in half by a brightly colored lamppost, color becomes the structuring element. The same shot in black and white would merely have been a failed composition; this colorful rupture is instead artistic as much as it is psychological. To the untrained eye, Belgian public life can seem hopeless and dilapidated, best captured in black and white. But its Felliniesque Catholicism, local bars, carnivals, cycling races (and propensity to enjoy a drink or two) are well-matched with Gruyaert’s color treatment. The absurdity and true grit of a country that is fragmented along political, cultural, and linguistic fault lines is best portrayed in high-key color—a medium that Gruyaert helped come of age just as much as the acknowledged American heroes of the so-called New Color of the 1970s. His is an active, relentless exploration of color—one that allows Gruyaert to create a new hierarchy based on chromatic tones rather than a supposed politics of representation. Gruyaert, although intimately connected with Belgium, fortunately eschews anthropological pretensions. Mirroring surfaces and windows are abundant: the man and woman sitting in a café, or the prostitute whose leg is visible through a window in the multicolored facade of an Antwerp brothel, attest to Gruyaert’s self-chosen distance, while nonetheless situating the photographer as observer and frame-giver—the quintessential flâneur. Rather than explicating large political or societal issues through his work, he prefers to speak about the contradictions of reality through the quality of light, color, and contrasts.
Looking through Harry Gruyaert’s lens at Belgium, a country I deeply love and whose language is also my mother tongue, I experience what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “alienated majesty”: I recognize it—but it is made strange, if deeply compelling. Belgium’s neighboring countries used to smirk about its rise of right-wing politics, gang violence, and political murder, thinking them remnants of a history that had already disappeared in other European countries. Today we see that Belgium never was an anomaly in the upward progress toward the End of History, but rather an example of where Europe is collectively headed.
In Roots, Gruyaert brings his Belgium to the world; in East/West, his inalienable vision is brought to Moscow and in the United States, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In the 1980s, as the U.S. seemed to be ascendant and the USSR in decline, their visual cultures might have seemed to be miles apart. Thanks to Gruyaert’s astute intervention, we are invited to consider the dialogue between them. His work from Moscow in 1989 is especially important. Seeing Moscow in cinema-like color is an aesthetic revelation: a distinct Soviet visual culture, lacking the smoothness and commercialism of the United States, is shown in a humane light that seems to contest our perceived ideas on the grayness of the region with pops of brilliant color. Take, for instance, the photograph showing decorated scaffolding contrasting with the dark figures of two Soviet officials, or the collection of images showing vibrant public playgrounds.
His photographs from Las Vegas and LA show a world that is awe-inspiring and spectacular but that seems to have lost its need for humans. (The cars appear to inhabit the landscape more vibrantly than the people). For a photographer searching for the marvels of color, places that naturally look better in black and white turn out to be more interesting: the West Coast is brilliantly pigmented; it does not need Gruyaert to discover its own nature. While the images from the United States sparkle, it seems that Gruyaert is tempted and challenged more effectively by the Soviet Union and Belgium.
Looking at Roots and East/West side by side, we get a clear view of the singular vision of a true auteur. Whether Gruyaert roams the streets of Antwerp, Las Vegas, Moscow, or Paris, it is not the need to document that drives him, but his appetite for interpretation. He directs us toward the unsung joys and tragedies of realities that upon first observation seem barren and empty, but in fact are structured through colored planes and details. It takes a hungry eye to artistically reinvest in these places and reestablish their contorted majesty.
Wilco Versteeg is a writer, photographer, and PhD candidate in contemporary war photography at Université Paris Diderot.
This piece was originally published in The PhotoBook Review 014, spring 2018.