Harry Gruyaert is probably best remembered for his photographic reportage of the 1972 Munich Olympics, shot entirely from within the confines of his hotel room. This was intended as part of a wider series TV Shots, for which he produced snapshots of distorted television screens by tampering with the TV antennae in various European guest rooms. The result: a sizeable collection of irreverently colored stills, which come close to the images of what I can only imagine zapping on acid might yield. Gruyaert was pushing the boundaries of color at a time when it was only just starting to gain its rightful place in the slightly paranoid history of photography. As color was precariously sneaking its way into art photography, his move was a hefty provocation. Indeed, the visual cacophony of this early series is certainly to blame for the small wave of dissent that greeted his acceptance to Magnum ten years later. Color has been at the root of Gruyaert’s practice ever since. It is essential to the photographic choices he makes, the subjects he targets, and the methods he employs. Not surprisingly, digital technology has since armed him with an unprecedented freedom to manipulate it in his work.
Today, Gruyaert returns to his native Belgium with a show entirely dedicated to the country he once saw as dull and uninspiring. How has this daring photographer, who fled to London, New York, Munich, Morocco, Egypt, and India, responded to a subject matter so tediously "close to home"? This collection of Belgian scenes—seascapes, eighties dance clubs, New Year celebrations—may appear to be a tame affair… at first. Yet, under a seemingly conservative aesthetic figure Gruyaert’s cast of provocative signature elements.
Harry Gruyaert, BELGIUM, Town of Ostende, Coffee on the beach, 1988; © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos.
We start from the very beginning of course, from the early days of black and white, of grainy ISO effects, blurred focus, and stark graphic contrasts. This leads the way quite rapidly, however, to the bulk of the exhibition: where we encounter strong color saturation, cool blue/grey palettes (unavoidable given the famously not-so-glorious Belgian meteorology), contrasted by bright areas of color—often reds and greens—so perfectly composed as to appear rather unnatural. Occasionally, we find Gruyaert playing with double exposure or capturing scenes through reflective windows, which emulate the latter technique so closely that the two become difficult to tell apart. Up close, analogue grain is replaced by an unmistakably digital pixelated effect.
Let alone my own relentlessly sceptical disposition, I can’t have been the only one struggling to believe the label “Mechelen, Flanders” shouldn’t actually say “Memphis, Tennessee”. Gruyaert’s indebtedness to the great representations of America circa 1950s-70s, from Eggleston’s street signs and power cables, to the Hyperrealists’ neon-lit gas stations, and Hopper’s lonely figures in nameless bars, screams “Mississippi!” or “New York!” more than it does “Brussels”.
The photo of the Gare du Midi, showcased on the exhibition’s poster is a clear example. Saturated color and a seemingly infinite depth of field, shadows so black they seem more graphic than real, and textures seemingly rendered artificially, all conspire to flatten the image. What we are left with is a cityscape more painterly than photographic.
Harry Gruyaert, BELGIUM. Town of Ostende, 1988; © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos.
But my heart is set on another photo. Four women clad in flowery dresses sit, stand, and are perched off a bench. One holds onto her child’s pram as she performs an upper-body torsion to readjust her seating position, balancing on one leg. In the meantime, another toddler appears to have been forgotten at the bottom left corner of the picture frame. Two women hold umbrellas, though it isn’t raining—instead these act as makeshift solar shields though they look uncomfortably miscast in their sober hibernal motifs. Only a limited backdrop remains after Gruyaert’s lens has closed in. The abstracted textures of a wooden door, fake-bricked wall, plastic grating, and a translucent embroidered curtain are the only discernable elements in the shallow background. The photographer must be standing right in front of this congregation as he takes the picture. Yet nobody here seems to bother with him. In fact, in a way, he doesn’t bother with them either. There is no empathy. All characters have been silenced or erased, either by a shifting position, or by the interference of some object that has come in the way of their face. Their bodies operate more as abstracted color-forms than they do as elements of a human narrative. And two red balloons become the uncontested protagonists of this spectacularly banal snapshot of Belgian festivity.
(Image on top: Harry Gruyaert, BELGIUM, Brussels; "Midi" train station district , 1981; © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos.)