Frank Horvat retrospective at Presentation House Gallery is ravishing

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Horvat: Fashion
At Presentation House Gallery until December 23

Any lover of fashion or photography will find Frank Horvat’s solo retrospective at Presentation House Gallery, Horvat: Fashion, worth the visit.

Horvat has shot spreads for ELLE, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. Along with William Klein, in the 1950s, he broke fashion shoots out of the studio and put them on the streets. Some of the greatest beauties of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s posed for his lens, adorned in the clothes of Chanel, Givenchy, and Yves Saint Laurent. In short, the show is ravishing.

But it is also witty. In 1974 for the German magazine Stern, Horvat makes a trick shot using a wide-angle lens. In the foreground are a pair of high-heeled sandals. Shot from a low worm’s-eye angle, the shoes look almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower in the background. And, better still, the image catches in the middle ground the figure of a man crossing the plaza. Through the manipulation of perspective (think of Kids in the Hall’s famous “I’m crushing your head” sketch), the man appears to be trapped underneath a shoe’s arch.

Show curator Vince Aletti tells me in a phone call from New York that Horvat convinced a Paris city worker to open a sewer access so he could take the shot. Aletti says: “Horvat doesn’t know what will happen with the setup and the result is accidental. He’s really happy seeing a picture just happening.”

It is a simple offhand joke but it also captures a historical moment: the giant strides hoped for in feminism; a little man under a literal heel; and then there is the diminished phallus of the Eiffel Tower. But do notice, too, the tower’s strange location: it stands between the model’s legs. Funny, sinister, this picture offers both fashion and commentary.

Which should be expected when one considers that throughout his career, Horvat also went on photojournalism assignments from Canada’s Far North to Calcutta. He was a contemporary of Henri Cartier-Bresson and spent four years as a member of the illustrious collective of photo chroniclers, Magnum. In this show, his reportage is juxtaposed with his fashion work.

On a gallery wall hangs a photograph featuring actress Anna Karina posing in what looks to be the latest spring-summer 1959 dress among a curious crowd of workers in Paris. Next to it hangs an image of a boy beggar in rags in India. He stands in a roomful of seated beggars.

Like two characters in one of those movies that set out to prove that people at opposite ends of the earth are somehow intertwined, the beggar and the actress echo each other.

They both confront the camera with their gaze. They share a self-composure and an elegance. The actress wears a garland scoop neck. The beggar loops a linen scarf around his neck with equal sartorial flair. Each frame is taken for different reasons—one sells clothes; the other illustrates abject poverty—yet they share a sameness.

Horvat’s photographic approach can account for much. He is famous for shooting his reportages with unsuppressed style—they can be too beautiful—and, on the other hand, his fashion work often reveals a candid, street shooter’s edge. Things from the real world accidentally drop into the fantasy of fashion.

His images belie the notion of news and fashion as distinct photographic genres. They suggest that one form of photography has no greater grip than the other on what is stylish, beautiful, or even real.

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