Frank Horvat, at 87, is of the generation of photographers who learned the ropes by working at the big-picture-spread magazines of the 1950s and ’60s (Life, Look, then Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar). Born in what was then Italy and is now Croatia, he sold his stamp collection in high school to buy his first camera because, he says, a friend convinced him it would bring success with girls. He settled in Paris in 1956, taking a job at Magnum upon meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson. While his photojournalist assignments took him around the world, he also plunged deep into fashion, bringing a wryly poetic sensibility to it that made his work stand out. “The only thing shooting fashion has taught me about the nature of beauty,” says Horvat, “is that beauty is not where people think it is. I would never photograph a woman who makes herself up and tries to look beautiful. Beauty is something that I find beautiful for me, not for the magazine editor.”
Even while working as a commercial photographer, Horvat favored situations that allowed for chance moments to occur that produced unintended meanings. Despite a flourishing career, this eventually led him to strike out on his own, a restless image-maker (he had dreamt of becoming a painter) who had never been comfortable being told what to do. What followed was a long road with many detours and a vast range of interests — including Goethe’s journey to Sicily, feminine beauty in the history of painting, trees, the city of New York, Parisian strippers, and Degas’s sculptures. He would always return, like Lartigue, to his own family and managed to record in this way his entire adult private life, the subject of an upcoming photobook.
Horvat’s portrait work reads like a who’s who of Paris in the 1950s: Françoise Sagan, Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel, Édith Piaf, Yves Saint Laurent, Alain Delon, Charles Aznavour, Charles de Gaulle, Jean-Louis Barrault, and an aged Josephine Baker. Although he dodged some key historic moments (the explosive rock ’n’ roll scene that transformed pop culture, intertwined liberation movements, and the impact of psychedelia on art and fashion) — “I felt too old for those kind of games” — Horvat kept busy taking pictures that held other resonances of the period: the first pacemaker patient, a radiation experiment, the preacher Oral Roberts with his congregation, along with shots in places as far-flung as Bangkok, Dakar, Caracas, Tel Aviv, Bali, Hong Kong, Calcutta, and Cairo. Some are breathtakingly strange, and tell us as much about Horvat as they do about the subject: a group of nuns descending a giant sand dune, an Arab-themed nude revue in Pigalle, a stern Spanish Guardia Civil and his wife, a black-and-white tableau that pays tribute to Luis Buñuel. And always, even in his latest work — a book on Maillol’s sculptures, shots of his grandchildren — “it is mainly about what happens with light.”
Horvat has suffered the indignities of getting old, beginning with the loss of sight in his left eye at age 55. A decade later he had a disabling heart attack.
It was like a four-cylinder car having to run on two cylinders. I only mention these accidents in order to say that they were compensated — kind of — by the availability of Photoshop. It was like being allowed to start on a new trip, with a new car, on a new highway — or at least that’s how I would describe my experiments with digital composition, though I must confess some of my friends disapproved.
Seeing that computers were transforming every human endeavor except photography, Horvat became a pioneer in bringing digital media into the working life of the professional photographer. His decision in the 1970s to work almost exclusively in color was also unusual at the time.
Sometimes I wonder if it was the wrong decision. If you want to abstract, to stress something, black-and-white is stronger. With color there are always things that come in and disturb. I understand photographers who prefer to shoot in black-and-white, but I go on shooting in color because I think shooting in black-and-white is nostalgic and I don’t want to be nostalgic.
Not surprising for a man who says he doesn’t believe in romance, and is contemptuous of sentimentality.
Horvat’s love for the medium extends beyond what he does himself to a considerable collection he displays in a special gallery at his home, comprised in large part of images from fellow masters (many of them his close friends, such as Marc Riboud, Jeanloup Sieff, and Mario Giacomelli) with whom he has traded work. Though he resides in a leafy, upscale suburb of Paris called Boulogne he laments what he sees as the decline of that city and much prefers New York. “New York is the only city in the world that I know of where 10 million people can be cramped in the same space and not fight too much with each other, and get along sort of nicely. It’s a melting pot and a superb urban experiment.” For someone who dismisses Paris, he has spent a lot of time capturing her and rather wishes he had been blessed with the same nocturnal views as Brassaï.
I liked all the dilapidated parts of Paris, when it was all black because the buildings hadn’t been cleaned yet. That gave a quite nice color to everything, much better than when it was all whitewashed. It was like a refraction, like things being reflected in each other, like when you look in a kaleidoscope; so Paris was like that because everything is so dense, the opposite of LA. Everything is so concentrated; you can’t go to a restaurant without having your neighbor almost sitting on your lap.
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