Harry Gruyaert: “There is no story. It’s just a question of shapes and light”

Kerala, India, 1989. © 2015 Harry Gruyaert / Magnum Photos
Kerala, India, 1989. © 2015 Harry Gruyaert / Magnum Photos

“There is no story. It’s just a question of shapes and light,” Harry Gruyaert says. The storied Magnum photographer is notoriously reluctant to share how he creates his celebrated photography.

As one of the first European photographers to take advantage of the creative potential colour photography held,  Gruyaert rarely follows received wisdom — as seen in the first English-language monograph of Gruyaert’s work, published by Thames & Hudson and offering a comprehensive retrospective of his career.

While American photographers such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore were eagerly embracing the new possibilities of colour, many photographers in Europe of the same generation preferred to relegate it to use in advertising, press and illustration. Gruyaert feels closer to the American approach.

“In Europe and especially France, there’s a humanistic tradition of people like Cartier-Bresson where the most important thing is the people, not so much the environment,” he says. “I admired it, but I was never linked to it. I was much more interested in all the elements:  the decor and the lighting and all the cars: the details were as important as humans. That’s a different attitude altogether.”

This is echoed by artist Richard Nonas, who says “the photographs of Harry Gruyaert have always seemed to me to be images of things, even when they are pictures of people… They are photographs of change, not of movement.”

Gruyaert joined legendary agency Magnum Photos in 1981 and ruffled a few feathers with his more contemporary approach. His influences skewed towards pop culture and away from journalism — not exactly music to the ears of the agency of Robert Capa and René Burri, at the time still largely comprised of black-and-white shooting photojournalists. “Sometimes it was like incredible theatre. it was like a big family where things are sometimes wonderful and sometimes horrible.”