Obituary: Frank Horvat

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This article was printed in the Then & Now issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Mentored by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the ‘Italian-born’ photographer will be remembered for his continual innovation across fashion and documentary photography

On 28 April 1928, Frank Horvat was born in Abbazia; a town situated in Italy before it was subsumed by Croatia in 1991 and renamed Opatija. Thus one might be forgiven for knowing Horvat as an ‘Italian-born’ photographer. His Jewish parents were medics: his father a general practitioner from Hungary, and his mother an Austrian psychiatrist. In 1939, when Horvat was 11 years old, the family fled to Lugano, in southern Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Ticino region, to escape the fascism burgeoning in Mussolini’s Italy.

1959, Paris, France, for JDF, Monique Dutto at metro exit © Frank Horvat.

After the war, in 1947 the family moved to Milan. It was there, as a 15-year-old student, that Horvat first took an interest in photography, selling his stamp collection to buy a Kodak Retina 35mm camera. Horvat studied art at the prestigious Accademia di Brera, Milan. Here his affiliation with image-making became more pronounced after a friend convinced him it would help him “get closer to girls,“ as Horvat later revealed. “It didn’t. But it did help me to learn something about composition.” After his studies, Horvat secured a job at an advertising firm and familiarised himself with the Rolleicord, then one of the sine qua nons of being a professional photographer. Soon, he was successfully freelancing for various Italian magazines. 

In the 1950s, Paris was still considered the global heart of photography. Horvat had met Henri Cartier-Bresson, the pioneer of street photography, when he first visited the city in 1950 and developed a deep fascination with his work. Cartier-Bresson advised Horvat to concentrate on photojournalism and swap his Rolleiflex for a Leica. He did so. Then, in 1952, Horvat embarked on a two-year journey across Asia, spending much of his time in India and Pakistan. The young photographer created images that captured everyday life, selling his work to Life magazine (American weekly), Picture Post (UK-based photojournalistic magazine), and Paris Match (French weekly news journal), among others. Notably, in 1954 one of his photographs (Mohammedan wedding: the bride, Lahore, Pakistan), which depicted a Pakistani bride beneath a veil, her face reflected in a mirror on her lap, came to the attention of Edward Steichen, the then director of the Department of Photography at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Steichen exhibited the image as part of The Family of Man (1955), an exhibition ruminating on humanity and life, which remains one of the most successful and renowned international photographic shows of all time.

1961, Yorkshire UK, for British Vogue, with Judy Dent smoking © Frank Horvat.
1961, Yorkshire UK, for British Vogue, Rosalind and children © Frank Horvat.

Although successful as a documentary photographer – he was an associate photographer at Magnum Photos between 1958 and 1961 – by the late fifties Horvat was also becoming a prominent name in fashion. He spent a year in London before settling in Paris in 1955, impressing designers with his down-to-earth, realistic style of shooting couture in the piazzas of Florence, the Parisian metro, and sidewalks of New York. Horvat’s candid ‘slice of life’ style, blending social documentary and reportage, with high fashion, appeared in Vogue, Elle, Jardins des Modes and Harper’s Bazaar

The late photographer’s career always mixed commercial and self-directed projects. He continued to explore fashion editorial work throughout the seventies and eighties but through a more artistic and conceptual lens. Later, he produced notable essays on trees, women, and the city of New York, which he photographed lovingly and intensively. When digital photography and imaging first appeared in the nineties, Horvat quickly adopted the new technology. He was notoriously one of the first practitioners to begin experimenting with Photoshop and employed it creatively as part of his photographic practice. No visit to Horvat’s home in Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris, would be complete without an introduction to his latest acquisitions for his remarkable collection of prints; his latest online project, usually connected to his image archive or a new book; and a recorded debate about some aspect of his life and work. 

1959, Paris, France, Michel and Lorenzo © Frank Horvat
1965, Djerba, Tunisia, for British Harpers Bazaar, bathing suit © Frank Horvat
1962, Roma, Italy, for HB, italian high fashion with Deborah Dixon on the steps of Piazza di Spagna © Frank Horvat.

Horvat intended his last major publication, House with Fifteen Keys (Terre Bleu, 2013), to be viewed as an innovative form of retrospective, featuring examples of photojournalism, fashion and documentary photography. And Horvat’s explanation of the work offers a guide to what drove and inspired him throughout his long and fruitful career: 

“Why keys? I am at the age when one looks back and tries to make sense of it all. I had the luck to take photographs for almost 70 years, in a period when the world changed more than in any comparable time span. To live in six different countries and to travel to several more. To think, speak and write in four languages. To photograph many subjects, from different viewpoints and with different techniques. To have other interests besides photography, such as writing and olive growing.

“My eclecticism had its drawbacks. Some questioned my sincerity. Some found that my photos were hard to recognise as if they were by 15 different authors. This is why I went through my work (or through what has been preserved of it), searching for a common denominator. I didn’t find one — but 15. Running (more or less) through all those years. I called them keys.”

Is this not, in one sense, the account of a life well-lived? Rest in peace, Frank Horvat.

Frank Horvat died 21 October 2020, aged 92.