Harry Gruyaert joined Magnum Photos in 1981. Famous for his use of colour, and for his projects spanning decades in India and Morocco amongst others, his career has been as much a vocation as a labour of love; the passion and skill behind his work is clear at a glance. Here, he speaks to Plinth writer Emily Watkins about photographers who look like their work, how he forged his style in a world where influence is insidious, and waiting for order to arise from chaos.
For example, if I am in a jury in a photographic school, I might be very impressed by the work of a student, but I find myself saying, this work looks too much like someone else’s.
You write in this text [below] about the relationship between photography and cinema… I guess I’m interested in the narrative side of things, and whether you see the two mediums as parallel on that score, or as entirely separate?
They’re very different; when you make a film it’s about sequencing but, for me, photography is purely the single image. It’s an accident, you know? It’s about a certain reality, your own reality. With a good photographer you can recognise his style, his vision… And I think that’s true of art in general. You can admire a very good Hollywood movie without feeling the director behind it, but to me that’s not really ‘art’. But with François Truffaut or Alain Resnais, for example, you feel something important is being conveyed. You can feel it’s an expression of their inner vision.
To pull the point further – you write that you feel closer to painting and cinema than you do to journalism…
I feel closer to art than journalism, that’s where many of the things that have influenced me come from. Photography is very exciting, but I think that the problem now is that photographers are under too many influences. When I started off there were very few photographic books, no internet and so on, which meant I didn’t have many influences from other photographers. And now, for example, if I am in a jury in a photographic school, I might be very impressed by the work of a student, but I find myself saying, this work looks too much like someone else’s. Too many influences – you need to have your own vision. So perhaps I was lucky to be influenced by different forms of art.
So nowadays photographers are looking at too many other peoples’ work?
Too many, that’s right. And they are trying to imitate their work! You need to create your own style.
And do you have a clear idea of how you arrived at your style? The process of developing it?
Take Cartier-Bresson. When I met him for the first time, he looked to me… transparent! I saw him in an elevator and I thought, this must be Cartier-Bresson because he is able to behave as if he was not there, to be very zen and get very close to people.
I was living in Antwerp in Belgium and I came to Paris for the culture. And there I was impressed by the work of Bill Klein, so I just called him up and asked if he would like to see my work. He said, hmmm, maybe, but do you know how to load a Hasselblad? A Hasselblad is a kind of camera. I said, yes, I know how, and he said ok, we’ll meet this afternoon at Boulevard Saint Germain where I’m doing a fashion shoot, and you will load my Hasselblad. So I’m right there with this guy – very strong, aggressive with the model. He intrigued me so much because he looked like his photographs, physically.
And he behaved like them too. And this was a fantastic lesson because I was thinking of becoming an assistant to learn from this man how he had crafted such a recognisable style, and I learnt in one or two days that it was just his personality. And in the end I was never anyone’s assistant, because I learnt that you have to find yourself.
That’s such an interesting idea, for a photographer to look like his work. Do you look like your photographs?
Hmm, you tell me! I don’t know, I don’t look at myself. But it’s not only the way someone looks physically, it’s their way of behaving. Take Cartier-Bresson. When I met him for the first time, he looked to me… transparent! I saw him in an elevator and I thought, this must be Cartier-Bresson because he is able to behave as if he was not there, to be very zen and get very close to people. At the same time, he was very nervous, very quick and agitated. And to be both, at once explains how he could do what he did, to be so precise. Photography is a very physical thing. It’s kind of a dance; I mean, that’s the way I see it and some people are very different, but I’m talking about people who work the same way as me – street photographers. If you meet Bruce Gilden, for example, he looks absolutely like his pictures. Bam! New York!
So, you would classify yourself as a street photographer?
How important is location, then? Is it everything? Is it a ‘flaneur’ kind of thing?
Absolutely. And it’s kind of magic – things attract me and I attract things too… it goes both ways, like a magnetism. Some photographers walk all day seeing nothing and they say, it’s not fair! How do these things always happen to you? And it is very strange. An example: there’s a place in Paris called La Courneuve, on the outskirts, and I had to be there for some meeting. I come out and I see a certain corner, a certain colour… I start taking photographs, and realise that I was here 30 years ago doing the same thing! Of course it had changed, things change, but there was this magical attraction.
It’s kind of magic – things attract me and I attract things too… it goes both ways, like a magnetism. Some photographers walk all day seeing nothing and they say, it’s not fair! How do these things always happen to you? And it is very strange.
I suppose, as a street photographer, chance is crucial. I wonder how people in your pictures feature, in that context? In the way you see a great corner, or an amazing bit of light, how do human beings figure?
I am not at all in the tradition of humanistic photography, like Robert Doisneau or Willy Ronis. To me, people are not the most important thing in the frame.You can find a place with great colours and shapes, but you have to wait for something to happen. Wait until things come together. Wait for a while. Just wait… Cairo, Calcutta, they’re great to photograph but they’re so chaotic. You have to make order, and that’s very challenging.
Have you seen my latest book? It’s easier to talk about these things with examples in front of you.
[Gruyaert takes a book from the shelf behind us.]
So this is your most recent book – is it your most recent work as well?
No, it’s from a retrospective in Paris, work spanning many years. But something like this [showing image] is really very difficult. This is Calcutta, so much going on, but notice that everything is in the right place in terms of colour. It’s a kind of miracle. Things build up gradually – you sense the place, you read the lighting.
[Gruyaert brings another book down from the shelf behind us]
This is in Morocco. This picture – I arrive in this souk, this market. The woman is sitting there, I sit in front of her, maybe two metres away. I like the wall, I like the goat, I’m waiting for something to happen. The woman wants to leave but she was veiled, and so she stands up and turns to face the wall so I can’t see her face, and then the baby is visible. I didn’t know it was there until she turned! So things happen, things build up, and this is a good example.
And maybe that’s part of the pleasure of looking at street photography, to feel that you are looking at the world… ‘properly’ is the wrong word, but perhaps with more intensity? You said that your friends ask, how is it that you come across these things and find these places? And – unless you are charmed! – we must all be walking past things like this but not noticing them.
You said that your friends ask, how is it that you come across these things and find these places? And – unless you are charmed! – we must all be walking past things like this but not noticing them.
Yes. It makes you think that the world is full of things like this, compositions, but that only a photographer can catch them. It’s about framing. It’s about making sense of something. It’s a way of living, you know, I work for myself. It’s something I need to do – I feel bad if I don’t, I’m always taking pictures. It’s intense, like a drug – something you need to do.
And so do many of your projects span decades?
Yes. The Moroccan project took 30 years, my Belgian book took 10 years, and I’ve been working in Egypt for many years… You try to make a narrative. In London, in the 70s, I became fascinated by colour TV. I photographed it for a year – all the advertising, the typical English programmes, the Olympic games, the Apollo flight. And at that time I couldn’t stop the image, I couldn’t record, so it was a lot like street photography. You got it or you missed it, you know? The colour aspect especially fascinated me. It was like pop-art, like Lichtenstein. The pixels then made a wonderful structure, much nicer than now. Now it’s much more precise, too precise.
And was this a case of sitting in front of a television for hours?
Yes. For days, especially for the Olympic games. I couldn’t afford to miss a shot.
Sure – it hadn’t occurred to me that the TV project would have the same urgency, serendipity, as street photography, but it’s a really exciting idea. I’d like to know what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m doing a project in France, lots of different cities, Marseilles… at the same time I have new books coming out, two books that will be published together and presented in the same case. It’s called East West. One is a trip I did in ’82 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, very harsh light, lots of cars, very decadent, and the other book in the same volume is about Moscow in ’89, still under communism, very different culture, different mentality. There’s a real clash between them, but they complement each other. That’s coming out next year.
These projects, long projects undertaken in countries you’re not necessarily familiar with, feel journalistic. But they’re not journalism. And I wonder, considering the breadth of material and genres Magnum photographers cover, what you think the difference between an artist’s photograph and a journalist’s photograph might be? Whether there is one at all?
Some people were against me joining Magnum – people who believed really strongly in journalism. I don’t feel much like a journalist but I believe in bringing the feeling of the place to your work. I’m fascinated by Antonioni, for example, his incredible way of capturing the feeling of different locations – wherever he is, you are there immediately. He has such a sense of place. You need to convey time and place, and these layers are important because otherwise you’re relying on aesthetics which can be pleasant but I don’t think it’s really enough. This is Moscow ’89…
And because they’re not staged they can be, on one level, informational. For example, I would have no idea what Russia actually looked like in the 80s but a photograph, this photograph, can give me some idea. Of course it functions on many other planes, but I wonder what you think the difference is, between these ‘categories’ of photograph? Between photographic journalism and art photography?
I don't say I'm an artist, I say I'm a photographer.
I don’t say I’m an artist, I say I’m photographer. If people think what I do is art then I’m pleased, but it’s not what I claim. Sometimes I make illustrations. It’s a profession, one has to make a living, you know? Many artists think of it that way – [Edward] Hopper, for example, was a great illustrator, and he also had to make a living. So where is the line? The problem now is that journalism is becoming much more difficult, especially for magazines because there is much less money. But photojournalists are also trying to be artists because they want to move into the art market. It doesn’t make any sense – some photographers are just good professionals, and that’s ok with me. I prefer a good illustrator to a bad artist.