Frank Horvat's naturalistic pictures showed Fifties women as they really were. They also changed the future of fashion photography
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN Frank Horvat came to Paris to meet Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1951, the revered French photographer told the young Italian that his pictures were worthless, suggesting that he study the paintings of Poussin for tips on composition. Cartier-Bresson had other words of advice for Horvat: "You're either a simple witness, or you stage photography like Richard Avedon does. But you can't mix both styles [in the same shot]."

Fortunately, Horvat did not take what the master said to heart. It was precisely because he combined the natural style of photojournalism with the staged world of fashion photography that he is credited with pulling "haute-couture photography out of its mythical cocoon" in the late Fif- ties. In the Sixties, his work inspired photographers such as David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Helmut Newton (who remembers "being fascinated by the reality he showed").

Horvat's work was a reaction against the sophisticated, contrived styles of the likes of Cecil Beaton and Willy Maywald, which had dominated fashion photography between the wars. He tried to "show the real woman as she was" at a time when high fashion was becoming accessible to the woman in the street with the advent of ready-to-wear clothes.

Horvat dragged models out of the artificial setting of the studio into everyday surroundings which ranged from Paris working-class bars to the Paris Metro, incorporating the "real" people he found there as actors in more spontaneous compositions. It's ironic that what he calls his "star photo" was a rare exception: the shot (right) of a model surrounded by four men with binoculars was staged at Longchamp racecourse. He sometimes stripped models of their wigs and eyelashes. "Without them, they felt naked," he says. Fashion editors who were used to precisely pinning dresses for shoots were told to "get out the way and let the girl move"; models who refused to adopt natural expressions would have their heads cut off in the printing lab - a practice which earned him the nickname "the Robespierre of magazines".

Yet when he took up photography, it was not exactly with a revolutionary spirit. "It was the shortest route to obtaining all a young chap could wish for: travel, women and recognition... if you find it difficult to write or to paint well and you'd like to be an artist, pressing a button seems easy."

He bought his first camera aged 16, in 1944. Four years later, he sold his first photo - of a girlfriend sitting in a trunk - to an Italian fashion magazine. By the early Fifties, he had progressed to working as a reporter for the likes of Life, Picture Post and Paris-Match and after he had settled in Paris in 1956 he was introduced to the world of French fashion by the photographer William Klein.

In 1961, he fulfilled his dream of working for Harper's Bazaar, taking photographs in Rome of models with writers, actors and directors such as Mastroianni and Fellini. For once, though, a fashion magazine did not allow him to adopt his own style. "My style of showing the girls in a natural way was unacceptable to Harper's Bazaar," he says. "They wanted the models to be idealised, but it was the result of this conflict... that made the photos interesting." The models and artists are poised between posing and a state of utter nonchalance, leaving you wondering whether they were directed or simply caught unawares.

His work continued to be widely published and exhibited until the late Eighties. Today, though, 67-year-old Horvat feels that fashion photography has "given me up. It now revolves around the stardom of the models. What I enjoyed was being the star myself." It is easy to see him as a forgotten figure: he now lives between Paris and Provence, and is working on computer- generated images with the aim of "representing daydreams". But his original spirit of realism can still be felt in fashion photography everywhere.

! Frank Horvat's exhibition, 'Please Don't Smile' will be on show at Hamiltons Gallery, 13 Carlos Place, London W1 until 12 October.