by Emile Rubino
“The last thing I want to show is the model’s head,” said French photographer Frank Horvat with irony during his conversation with curator Vince Aletti at Emily Carr University last Saturday. His statement nicely sums up the personality of the man. This “Robespierre of fashion photography,” as Horvat amusingly called himself, is presenting a selection of his fashion work along with some of his street and documentary photographs at Presentation House Gallery until December 23rd.
The decision to present these selections of Horvat’s work now is the result of discussions between the photographer and New York-based curator Vince Aletti, both of whom thought that these photographs would indeed help to further contextualize Horvat’s fashion photography. Frank Horvat, whose first major influence was the master Henri Cartier Bresson, started by photographing in the street in a fairly similar manner. Some of the photographs present in the exhibition, such as Running Man, London (1959),provide us with an understanding of this significant early influence.
Horvat started applying Cartier Bresson’s influence and technique to fashion photography by using a reportage-like aesthetic and taking models out of the studio and into the street. “I wanted to show that the eccentricities of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin were not necessary,” said Horvat, who was a good friend of Newton. Horvat is considered a pioneer in this act of taking fashion photography into the street, and now represents this “golden age of fashion photography,” along with other photographers from the same era, such as William Klein. Klein also started experimenting with fashion photography outside of the studio, using a 35mm camera, which allowed for more movement and spontaneity.
In the exhibition at Presentation House Gallery, the decision to mix various facets of Horvat’s work appears as a strategy to introduce a certain ambiguity about whether the photograph was staged or not—an ambiguity that the photographer is interested in exploring as a way to question the viewer. Moreover, the show includes the display of an iPad application entitled Horvatland, which features 2,000 images of the photographer’s work as well as a large number of texts, spoken comments and recorded conversations. This iPad application illustrates how Horvat was one of the very first of his generation to acknowledge and adopt digital technologies. In the course of his conversation with Vince Aletti, the photographer took the camera that he currently uses out of his pocket to show the crowd, and revealed a compact digital camera with no viewfinder! This raised the question that is also a current debate in photography, about how digital technologies are changing the nature of picture making. Horvat simply answered by saying that he actually takes fewer photographs with his digital camera than he used to when he was using film.
If Frank Horvat started, like many others, by following the dogma of Cartier Bresson, it is also by overstepping it that he became the photographer he is today. Horvat appears to be constantly renewing his practice, tackling current issues inherent to the photographic medium. This exhibition is a good opportunity to (re)discover his fashion work.