Book review — Irish Summers (Harry Gruyaert)

Book review: Irish Summers (Harry GRUYAERT)
by Allan LEONARD
21 March 2021

Harry Gruyaert’s work is recognisable by its saturated colours of thoughtfully chosen hues. The interplay with light is also crucial. There are images in Irish Summers that exemplify such decisive moments, when colour and light come together to satisfy Gruyaert’s quest for sensual beauty in the otherwise banal.

For example, there are images of clothes on a clothesline, lit by sunbeam against a tonal grey scenic harbour; a partially sunlit black horse held by a partially shadowed man; and a playful contrast of blue green and yellow cars and objects on a village street.

Gruyaert’s images are described as cinematic, in their composition and structure. If one considers his personal and professional background, then one can appreciate his orientation towards discovery by travel and expression by colour palette and light.

Harry Gruyaert was born in 1941 and his father forbade him from pursuing a career in the arts — deeming photography as sinful. Nonetheless, Gruyaert studied at the School of Film and Photography in Brussels and started out as a director of photography for Flemish television. By 1968, he left and took a trip to New York, where he discovered pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. This gave him an appreciation of the creative potential of colour. In 1972, he made the series, “TV Shots”, with its intensely vivid colour of low-fi television screen images of the Olympic Games, landing on the moon, films, commercials, etc. He committed himself to colour photography, which at that time was dominated by the advertising industry and not so respected within the artistic community. However, after he visited the groundbreaking exhibition of William Eggleston’s colour work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, he knew that he was in good company.

By the 1980s, Gruyaert created series of works from his travels in the United States, India, Egypt, Japan, and Morocco.

Irish Summers brings together images that he made during trips to Ireland in 1983–84, travelling in his VW van. This collection was exhibited at Gallery Fifty One, from September to October 2020. The accompanying book, published by the gallery, is a 104-page 15×21 cm paperback with 66 illustrations. Individual images measure 8×12 cm, slightly smaller than the 3 1/2×5 inch prints that chemists produced at that time.

A film of Irish Summers images was produced by 28 Vignon Street, which itself was founded by Roger Szmulewicz, owner and director of Gallery Fifty One and who also wrote the foreword to Irish Summers.

The images are unmistakably the signature of Gruyaert. There is poetry of colour and light, whether in the bleakness of the inside of a pub (colourful, but still bleak) or in the activities of ordinary people (beach leisure, shopping errands, playing children).

What is admirable about Gruyaert’s style is how he can present an atmosphere of a place and its people through an emotional response and full consideration of colour. As he has said, “I am interested in that strange magic that occurs when things come together. I look to form a connection to a place. I have to be moved by something.”

He doesn’t set out on his journeys with an agenda. As Gruyaert explained, “I have no message. I don’t want to tell a story through my photographs. I am not a journalist/photographer. I am not looking for meaning. I only work for myself, for my own personal pleasure, my own discoveries. I am always looking for sensuality, both in light and colour.”

However, there is one image in the Irish Summers series that is arguably photojournalistic — of a man crouched down writing out a billing in the context of Mickey Devine, who died by hunger strike during The Troubles. Aesthetically, the rich red hues of the protestor’s leather jacket and a passerby’s long coat contrast well against the black wall and propped black and white poster, even the black shadow of the photographer’s head and camera raised to his eye (a rare self portrait). This image is powerful because it combines the hallmarks of Gruyaert’s saturated tones while capturing an exact topical moment. It makes photojournalism look artistic.

It is suggested that the muted colours Gruyaert saw in Ireland might have reminded him of his motherland Belgium. Who knows? That could be our own conjecture. But as Gruyaert says himself, his images are visual art and that he wants the viewer to see the pleasure that he felt when he made them. With that in mind, it is a joy to accompany Harry Gruyaert on his delightful journey in Irish Summers.

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