Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Edges by Harry Gruyaert

Deep into Summer the heat sets in and drives everyone to the edges of their continent for a few days at the beach. In the 1940s Weegee had a packed Coney Island where there must have been a photo to be taken with every step. Some of Diane Arbus's early successes were taken at Coney as well in the 1950s and let us not forget Robert Frank's fourth of July evening spent drifting among the beach sleepers. Tod Papageorge hit the LA beaches with his 6X9 in the late 70s and Martin Parr staked a claim in color at Brighton Beach, England in the 1980s. The first photograph I ever made that I considered a success was made on a beach in the summer of 1988.

While the work mentioned above mainly focuses on the human element, others like Harry Gruyaert draw inspiration from the landscape and the qualities of the light that can be found there. Gruyaert, one of the quieter of the Magnum photographers, has been photographing on or near the water's edge for a number of years and his new book called Edges from Mets & Schilt features many of these images.

All photographs are fundamentally about light but Gruyaert's 35 years worth of work has described some of the more remarkable of its natural occurrences. Working often on the beaches of France in small format and Kodachrome, he draws our attention to dramatic storm fronts moving inland where sun and rain clouds clash to offer otherworldly vistas; or, points us to skies so tranquil that it appears as clean as a studio photographer’s seamless. In either case, it is the subtle shifts of color that sieze our attention. A blue sky at first glance reads as a pure tone, but on further notice the viewer senses an almost imperceptible pink lingering in the atmospheric haze that seems to become stronger, revealing itself the longer you look.

Many of Gruyaert's photographs hold this subtle description and it is that which I return to these photographs. Without it, Gruyaert would be short changed by the strong romanticism felt in these photographs. In some of his other work from an earlier book Lumieres Blanches published in 1986 by Photo Copies, he showed an attraction to vivid color mixed with surreal juxtapositions. Some of that sensibility is at work here too but to a much lesser degree.

Gruyaert's edges are two fold -- one is the division between land and water, the other is the horizon line and division between water and sky. Both are the focal points that eventually lead to our discovering the other information in his precise frames.

A third more subtle "edge" (one that photographers will quickly pick up on) is that of natural and artificial light. Gruyaert often photographs where there is a mixing of different color temperatures from various sources. Halogen, tungsten, neon and setting sun often find their own sections in the same photograph but without competition. All are given equal weight and Gruyaert is able to strike the right balance between them.

As a book, Edges is a remarkable accomplishment. The design requires the viewer to flip the pages vertically as it is a horizontal book bound at the top edge. Although operating a book in this manner feels a bit awkward, I find the design refreshing and saves the book from feeling generic. Its oversize format (10 X 15 inches) allows the photographs to be reproduced at a perfect scale for the subject. The printing celebrates the originals and looks exquisite.

In looking through this book several times I have found a melancholy air to many of the photographs. It is as if, stuck on land, Gruyaert's camera yearns for the horizon and beyond. Perhaps that is why there is often a ship in the far distance sitting at the edge of our vision -- a ship venturing into open water, whose passengers look towards land and see Gruyaert's visions in reverse.

Buy online at RAM