Book Review: Harry Gruyaert

I wasn't really familiar with the work of Harry Gruyaert before buying this book (according to Amazon, the title is "Harry Gruyaert" by François Hébel and Richard Nonas). It's not a good way to spend 45€, one could argue, but on the other hand, I've found amazing photography books taking similar risks - my life would be different without Sammallahti's "Here Far Away" ☺

On a superficial look on the Internet, Gruyaert's work somewhat reminded me another Magnum photographer - Georgui Pinkhassov, whose work I'm somewhat familiar with (here is an excellent collection although I'm not sure under what license these photos have been published). Studying the book, the differences start to surface. I'm trying to avoid a direct comparison though as it wouldn't help, but I still had to mention Pinkhassov as my first association.

It becomes increasingly clear though that when Pinkhassov uses color, Gruyaert photographs color. There're exceptions in both's works though, there're cases where Pinkhassov seems to have made the image because of colors and not human expression and there're cases where Gruyaert has caught human expression in addition to colors, but predominantly, the other way is true. Should you have the book - there's a good example of what I mean on page 54.

It takes a worse turn for me when even if there are humans in the picture, it's still 90% about color (and geometry) and anything about the people doesn't stand on it's own. In a sense that if you took the colors away, there wouldn't be much left, the expression doesn't stand on it's own (see page 63 for example to understand better what I mean). In Gruyaert's photos, people are just graphic elements of the picture, similar to cars, road signs, balloons, etc. It's not important what they do or how they feel as long as they're in right places.

Something in me says that if Koudelka's Exiles were in color, you'd still be able to notice something distinctively human in there, although it might not come out as easily if there were strong colors. There are some Gruyaerts that show the same qualities, but these are minority. 

On the other hand Gruyaert seems to be much more graphic, his compositions are much more sophisticated. There's perspective and visual depth in the images, multiple planes usually, if you will. There's clearly separate foreground, middle ground, background in most of the images, making he's work much more formal than the usual street photography crowd. And then again, Gruyaert seems to favor formalism to humanism (see pages 29, 75, 109).

Gruyaert's use of contrasts and deep blacks remind me another Magnum photographer - Alex Webb. I feel a bit bad to say that, but once you've been introduced to Pinkhassov as the 'color guy' and Webb as the 'contrast guy', you tend to see other work through this prism. It's impossible to tell who influenced who or if there was any influence at all - it's well possible that this particular aspect is a matter of photographic material of the time - slide film - that made the photographers "work around" its limitations (mostly very narrow dynamic range) in the same way. See pages 31 and 51 for example. Gruyaert seems to take it a step further though with depth and tonal relations.

There're several images in this book that I like because of their painting-like qualities, these are the very best in my humble opinion making the book well worthwhile (see examples on pages 32 and 95). And a few images rise to their own heights with some sort of symbolism (see page 67).

Despite this review might sound like a negative one - I do like the book (and I don't like the reviews that only glorify). Writing down my thoughts is not meant to devalue Gruyaert's work, but to advance my photographic thinking and understanding of images (having said that, I'm looking differently at my own ventures into graphic contrasts).