In the introduction to his new book, Harry Gruyaert: East/West, published this week in the U.S. by Thames & Hudson, David Campany writes that “very few [photographers] have had Harry Gruyaert’s ability to make remarkable colour images in any light.” The light in the two-volume book is limited to two distinct parts of the world, seen a few years apart. The first part, “West,” presents photographs that Gruyaert made in Las Vegas and Los Angeles in 1982; “East” includes photographs he made in Moscow in 1989. Writes Campany, “What could be a greater colour contrast than the super-saturation of California—the ‘West’— and the drained palette of an exhausted Soviet Union—the’East'”?
On assignment for the magazine Geo, Gruyaert focused on Las Vegas during the day, contrasting neon lights with bright blue sky. There is a nearly hallucinogenic view of dense taillights and motel and gas station signs, compressed against the distant desert mountains, as well as studies of lone pedestrians dwarfed by the long, windowless walls of buildings. But beyond the gaudy casinos, shimmering swimming pools and massive American cars, Campany writes, “there is an unmistakable feeling of melancholy” in the images.
In 1989, seven years after Gruyaert joined Magnum, he was invited to Moscow as part of a planned exchange with Soviet photographers. On a ten day trip, he photographed the city’s markets and sidewalks, department stores and hotels. Shot during the annual May Day celebration, the city in his photos is rich with spots of color—babushkas sit on benches holding bouquets, kids on the street hold balloons, and two girls in floral dresses and bows in their hair admire a model ship in a window. Made in the run-up to the fall of the Soviet Union, the photos show a place where street life is driven by interaction between groups, in contrast to the West.
Gruyaert worked in color at a time when the medium was still not much respected as a form for serious art. But as Campany argues, paying attention to color can reveal as much about a society as anything a camera can record. “The modern world expresses itself, and often betrays itself, through its colour choices and its colour accidents,” writes Campany. And so, photographers like Gruyaert, who are keenly attuned to color above all else, “have just as much chance of making a lasting record as a ‘documentary’ photographer,” as Gruyaert’s work attests.