Interview

with Frank Horvat

Frank Horvat

Photo: Nadine Barth

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Frank Horvat

Frank Horvat
Please don't smile

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ISBN 978-3-7757-4028-9
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Nadine Barth, Photography Program Consultant for Hatje Cantz, in Conversation with the Photographer Frank Horvat. (Cotignac, April 12, 2015)

Let’s talk about your view of women.

Choosing the models was actually the most essential thing about my work method. I fought for the right to make the selections. Usually I would make a decision by the time I had them on the telephone, without knowing them, just from the sound of the voice.

That would be unthinkable today. Were models back then more expressive, more charismatic?

 I know that women who were considered beautiful were rare. Today, the majority of women are very pretty, but in a more stereotypical way. It’s the same thing with cars.

Yes, everything is made of plastic these days.

But beautifully designed. The difference is that, before, things were the way they were because they had a history. And today they are the way they are, because someone in a design office has drawn them. But despite my age, I am not a “passeist.” I’m very satisfied with my time, and if it can go on like this a few more years, I would also be very satisfied. It’s different with fashion. I look at fashion magazines every two months, when I’m getting a haircut (yesterday, for example), but I don’t like them any more.

What’s wrong with them?

When I go to a museum, I can look at pictures of women from centuries past. The prehistoric Venus, for instance, with her gigantic ass and sagging breasts. The Greeks, the Romans, I can imagine them. Nefertiti—beautiful. With the Byzantines you start to wonder a bit. Also with Dürer. If people are still around in five hundred years (and that isn’t altogether certain) and can see the fashion magazines of our day, they will be surprised by our notion of the ideal woman. And ask themselves: what kind of people were they? What will people think about Helmut Newton’s women? Women in magazines today have no dignity. And dignity was very important to other civilizations. This notion has been lost. The only one who has stuck to it is Irving Penn. I’ve always admired him for that.

How did you get into fashion photography?

First of all, like every other photographer, I was looking for work. And second, my taste in women was very important to me, and the exact opposite of my mother’s type. Somethign Sigmund Freud would be able to explain quite well. My mother was small, thought she was too fat, was very intellectual and very prudent. And, well, I was looking for the opposite.

Tall, slim, and relatively unpretentious?

II wanted women to “be themselves” as much as possible. Later, when there was this natural type, the “girl next door,” I didn’t like it any more, because it had also become a stereotype. I have fun showing something that only I see. Showing something that the model wants to show doesn’t interest me.

You had your first jobs with Jardin des Modes...

I had no assistant, no studio. Actually a deficit. But for the magazines, though, it turned out to be a trump—it was the start of prèt-â-porter: fashion no longer came from the haute couture tailors, but from an industry. And the industry had money for advertising; that was something new and interesting for the magazines. My street photos fit in very well.

You were one of the first to go outside.

Richard Avedon had already done it. And Martin Munkacsi, before the war. But what they didn’t do was turn the relationship to the model into a personal thing. Which didn’t necessarily mean that I just wanted to go to bed with them. Sometimes, yes, but actually, not that often.

My impression is that there is a sense of complicity between you and the model in many of your photographs.

Yes, there was. But only when they were ready to break through the attitudes they had learned. Then something beautiful could be created. But actually, I was ashamed of my fashion photography for decades.

Why?

Because they were statements from some manufacturers and not my own. I tended to think that photojournalism was my statement. In short, fashion photography was a kind of prostitution. And I wasn’t particularly proud of it. I looked down on it, even my own. It’s only now that I’ve begun to think that there were a few moments—perhaps a few hundred moments—that I’d like to relive. And that is the reason for doing this book. Because I’m grateful to these moments, and I have the feeling that I owe it to them. You know, I’m 87, and I’d like to be able to leave everything as orderly as possible.

Your fashion photographs are already iconic. In the book you can really imagine how your work developed, how the styles changed.

II grew up bilingual and also learned two or three other languages later. In fashion photography, that meant that I never worked for just one magazine, but for many, like Elle in Paris and Vogue in London and Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour in New York. And every time it was a different language. And from one decade to the next it was also another language. I liked that, and it was important to me. I wanted to show that, too, in this book. Whether or not the public gets it, I don’t know—and actually I don’t worry about it much any more. Many people like my photos from the sixties the best. I can’t change the pictures, but I can explain where and how, and perhaps they will reconsider then.

We see them from today’s standpoint. Every period has its fashion. Right now, we’re intrigued by the eighties.

The further you are from the time period, the more interesting it seems. But it’s also possible that I was more inspired in the first decades.

Or different. Are there photographs that you especially like?

You get used to feedback about certain pictures. If I know that everyone liked a picture, or that a lot of collectors have bought it, then I believe that it’s good.

The photograph with the hats, our cover motif, is your most famous picture.

Yes, that earned me more money than all of the others put together. And it’s a picture that I don’t especially like. First, because I was told to take it. The art director did a little drawing and said, ‘that’s what I want.’ I didn’t like that at all, but I had to do it. And then it was: I can’t look at it any more. I’ve seen it too often.

 I like the photo of just a face wearing sunglasses, and behind that, part of a lady’s suit with a belt. There’s also a dachshund.

That was when I started to tell myself that everything the models showed in their facial expressions is dishonest. I didn’t want any part of that. I want what I discover. I often tried to cut off the head.

Very modern.

Once I had a big show celebrating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. I said to a journalist, ‘I’m like Robespierre, cutting heads off.’ And that was in all of the papers.

You left the street and went back into the studio—why?

 In the 1960s I thought, why do I need the streets, the cars, the dogs, etc.? It should just go in front of a gray background. And that became increasingly complicated. Partly because the clothes were usually hideous. I couldn’t change the clothes, so I tried to do the opposite: go back to the street. But I didn’t direct anything; I let it happen and just snapped away, like a paparazzo.

And then came the colors . . .

I was taking color photographs in the 1950s. And in those days it was something so unusual that a color page paid twice as well as a black-and-white one. Later, I deliberately switched to color, even though I wasn’t particularly interested in color. But I thought to myself, films today are in color, television is in color, so it’s time. Compositionally, it was more difficult. If a yellow taxi drove by, it was likely to bother me. That changed with the advent of the computer. Then you change the colors . . .

. . . and the yellow taxi became green. In the 1980s there were a lot of experiments with Polaroid film, or negative film, which were crossed. In contrast, you positioned your classicism.

At the time I wasn’t really interested in what others were doing. There were three stars at the French Vogue: the other two, who were perhaps bigger stars than I was, were Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. Helmut had invented his sex stories; that was a big success.

And Bourdin had his shoe stories.

He had a good relationship with a shoe company. For me, it wasn’t about a love for shoes, but for assignments. We had a relatively good time at the French Vogue.

A great era.

Yes, but in the 1980s I also had a very wonderful client, the FAZ magazine. They let me do whatever I wanted to. I even chose the clothing. A dream come true. And, oddly enough—otherwise I wouldn’t talk about it—it didn’t always work to my advantage. Now I see that when I was in situations where I was forced to do something, where I had to do something that I didn’t want to do at all—that it was better than what I wanted.

My grandmother always alluded to Kant’s categorical imperative: you have to know what you want.

I didn’t know that one; that’s good. I rarely did advertising. I can’t work with someone standing behind me saying, ‘now smile a little bit more.’ The result was that as the magazines grew poorer, my work was increasingly less well-paid.

You’re exploring new media today.

I’m doing a little experiment with Facebook. Every day I put a diptych—two pictures—on the page, and you can think up something that connects the two. And it’s really amusing to put them together. A thousand people look at them during the week, and about fifty come back regularly. Not a very large audience, but I’m interested in what people react to. And it is often something different than I expected. Every day I look at the numbers; I’m very curious about them.

In the early 1990s I worked a lot with the computer. I did a great deal with Photoshop One, the first version. Consequently, I didn’t catch onto the later improvements. There are cases, for example, where it would be right to work with layers, and I don’t do it, because I’m not used to it.

When did you switch to digital photography?

I started taking digital photographs as soon as possible. Nowadays I only take digital pictures; it’s been more than ten years.

There are artists who swear by analogue photography and they even have their prints made with analogue methods, so that these nuances come out in color photographs. Contrasting with the crisp sharpness. How do you view this?

If it works, why not? I prefer the opposite; I find sharpness important and interesting. That’s why I shoot pictures with these tiny little cameras that I have in my pocket. Because the depth of field is much sharper. And I like that. It’s like juggling, when you toss the balls into the air and catch them again. Well, juggling sixteen balls is more interesting than three. If everything is sharp, then there are sixteen balls.

Nice metaphor.

That’s also the idea behind the fashion book: continuity and discontinuity. Where does it come from, where is it going.

Could you possibly estimate how many photographs you’ve produced?

That’s pretty meaningless. When I think of all of the fashion photos, where I shot eight rolls of thirty-six pictures, just to make one image. How can you count that?

 I ask, because I noticed that the process of taking photographs has changed today. Before, you had ten rolls with 360 pictures a day, perhaps even more; today, with digital cameras, you can quickly have three thousand pictures. People don’t spend as much time thinking, composing, and looking, until everything is perfect. There are no more Polaroids, so no more tests. Now you have to try everything, and regardless of whether it’s right or not, it doesn’t matter, because you can make something out of it in post.

It’s the exact opposite with me. When I worked with the Nikon, I would, of course, soon forget the picture I had made and would try something else. So you’d have eight rolls for one dress, and that would take maybe two hours. Often the best picture was the first or last one. But you don’t cut up a roll of thirty-six. They’re lying in boxes somewhere. And if I look at them fifty years later, then maybe I’ll notice that there is an old car in the background, and I think that’s funny. Today, I’ll see something that I think is interesting, snap it, and then have a look at it right away. Like a Polaroid. And I know if I have it or not. Perhaps I should’ve left more room on the right side. Then I’ll take a second picture, a third or fourth, but not a fifth. And when I look at the pictures on the big monitor, I realize that the first one was the right one. I don’t take as many pictures as I used to. And will hardly be around to discover the old car in fifty years. And there is no way that I want anyone else to discover that car.

You’ve written that you were either always ahead of the times or behind them; you never had the feeling that you were with the times. Fallen out of time, so to speak.

But also out of place. I always was, and still am, an outsider. Naturally, there’s nothing unusual about that for a Jew. But I’m also an outsider among Jews. I’ve never been in a synagogue. But I’ve never suffered because of that.

Still, fashion photographs depict the zeitgeist.

You can probably depict the zeitgeist better if you are a little bit on the outside.

And today your photographs are considered timeless. That is rather odd.

 I’ve always thought of my fashion photographs as timeless. But when I stopped making them, I realized that I was passé. A has-been. All of a sudden. If Vogue were to call me today and ask me to photograph something for them, I wouldn’t know what to do.

Did you always want to be a photographer? Or remain one?

There are other things I prefer, such as writing. If I were to live a second life and could influence it, I would be a theater director. Once I saw a film about Ingmar Bergmann, and I was so envious of him.

A great storyteller. But sometimes you also staged your fashion photographs like a film—a secret agent thriller, for example.

I loved those kinds of references. In that case, Vogue was doing a special Hitchcock issue. And because Vogue has to show many products, the idea was that you’d see some kind of shoe, a dress, etc., and think up a story. I enjoyed that game.

Contrastingly, in Blow-Up, which takes place in London in the 1960s, the fashion photography scene becomes the subject of the film.

Antonioni came to my studio at the time, to interview me and collect material. I was flattered. But when I saw the film, I was very angry. This situation, where you bang a little and then snap a few pictures and then bang again—it wasn’t like that. Not for me, at any rate. Not that I didn’t want to, but it was out of the question. Because then the photography wouldn’t have been any good.

 

April 12, 2015

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