A Conversation with Frank Horvat at Izzy Gallery

If you are a photographer with many years of work under your belt, you often can accredit your success to a specific genre or a type of photography. Photographers such as Frank Horvat have exceeded these expectations and brought forth a degree of experience and talent that anyone in the industry can aspire to. Frank has worked as a photographer for over 70 years and has photographed a variety of subjects, landscapes, and objects. He began his career when he was fifteen when he swapped his stamp collection for a 35mm Retinamat camera. Through the years, Frank has had a variety of exhibitions. In the 1960s Frank travelled between Paris, London, and New York, and worked for publications such as Vogue, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar.

Through his career, Frank experienced the ever-changing landscape of photography and reflected them in his work, switching from film to digital imaging. In 2010, Frank created HORVATLAND, an iPad application dedicated to his works.

‘Please Don’t Smile’ at Izzy Gallery; photo courtesy of Izzy Gallery

Most recently, Frank has brought his exhibition, ‘Please Don’t Smile’ to Izzy Gallery in Toronto. The exhibit is an amalgamation of his favourite photos from his 30-year span as a fashion photographer. Izzy Gallery represents a variety of established photographers, and through Izzy’s close collaboration with the artists, he is able to display the best of their works by hand selecting from the artists’ archives. Izzy has worked closely with Frank on bringing ‘Please Don’t Smile’ to Toronto, and it is because of their relationship that Frank has attended one of his first gallery openings in North America in the past 14 years.

Izzy, with you I understood what it was like for Picasso and Matisse and Braque to have the art dealers they had: people who cared as much about the work as they cared about the money, to the point that they often kept the best for themselves. All my life I was hoping to find that dealer, and now I found you.” – Frank Horvat

We had the opportunity to sit down with Frank and discuss the exhibit, his career, and the importance of “tiny miracles” within his work.

Kimberley Drapack: What does the title, ‘Please Don’t Smile’ mean to you in regards to the exhibit?

Frank Horvat: I like it when something means more than one thing at a time. It means two or three things, and people get a bit lost. “Please Don’t Smile” is one thing I told the models when I photographed them, not because I didn’t want them to look happy, because I didn’t want a phony happiness of smiling for the photograph. If someone smiles because he or she is really happy, that’s fine, but if you smile just because you produce a smile for the photograph, I don’t like it.

When you say, “Please Don’t Smile,” you suggest that it is something to smile about. So, there’s this suggestion, and it works in several ways.

K: You’ve been working as a photographer for over 70 years. Can you tell us a bit about your experience?

FH: No, I became a fashion photographer by accident. I was a fashion photographer for about 30 years, and now it’s been more than 30 years and I haven’t taken a single fashion photograph. I don’t really wish to be labelled as a fashion photographer.

In spite of what is true, my fashion photographs are the part of my work which sells a lot. Many people like and use them and put them on their walls. So yes, I live off that reputation of being a fashion photographer, but I often like to insist and underline that I am not really a fashion photographer. I’m interested in other areas of photography, and other areas of life. It’s not my main thing.

This being said, I am very happy with this exhibition here with the fashion photographs, [Please Don’t Smile] because they are consistent and well exhibited, and I like the idea of my work being shown in Canada. So, I am very happy. I have no criticism at all.

I think the main reason I became a fashion photographer was because I was interested in photographing good looking girls and I loved directing them. On the other hand, my idea about photography has always been this: a good photograph is a photograph that cannot be redone. You get it once, and you never get it again. A good photograph is a kind of miracle.

Which is very much the opposite of fashion photography. In fashion photography, you have a situation: you choose a model, you choose a dress, you choose a location, and you go there and you take not one, but three or twenty rows of photos to get it exactly right. There is something where you say, you’ve done it, but it can be done again. It’s prepared and directed.

I didn’t want that kind of fashion photography. I always found a way of creating a situation where things happened that could not happen again.

“1951, Firenze, First Fashion Picture” By Frank Horvat ;photo courtesy of Izzy Gallery

(Frank refers to a photograph on the wall where a model stands next to a horse) This was my first fashion photograph when I was less than 20 years old. I didn’t know how to direct a model. She did very well, but the dress wasn’t particularly good and the composition was ok, but not more than ok. But that horse, the movement, and the profile with the silhouette against the sky — that will never happen again. Which I didn’t direct. The reason why I like that photograph is because something happened that I couldn’t get again.

I like to say that it was a tiny miracle. These kinds of miracles became more and more difficult. As I was getting more clever, things started to become more preconceived and things didn’t just happen by accident. In a way, the further I got, the more clever I became, the more difficult it became.

The conclusion, is that I in fact, didn’t take many good fashion photographs. There may have been 30, maybe 40 but certainly not 60, because those miracles didn’t happen as often.

Izzy made this exhibition with my fashion photographs but if he wanted to make a secondary exhibition with other fashion photographs, I wouldn’t have any to give him… not any that I really liked. They are really special in that sense and it’s through that logic that I care for my fashion photography.

K: How would you describe ‘Please Don’t Smile’?

FH: For a time, I was almost ashamed of being a fashion photographer. I thought it was something futile, to the point that there were a lot of photographs that I destroyed. Now that I see them together, I am bit reconciled with them, because I do realize that, in the case of these photographs, each one is a little bit of a miracle. I am thankful for these miracles.

“1958 Paris, For Elle with Michel Horvat” by Frank Horvat; photo courtesy of Izzy Gallery

To give you an example, look at this photograph, with the feather. (Frank points to a photograph where a small boy is holding a feather that covers a models face) When I started this sitting, I didn’t have any idea that I would do this photograph. The model was wearing a dress that I didn’t think was very interesting, she wasn’t particularly beautiful, and maybe I wasn’t particularly in the mood. I was trying to find something that would make the situation interesting. My son was around and I told him not to come close to the model, and that he could maybe play with his feather. The photograph was made because of a lucky moment when he had the feather just in front of her face, so that you didn’t see her face very clearly, but you saw it just enough. One second, not something that I set up, or that I could have set up, but something that just happened, and I caught. This was, a little miracle.

K: Do you remember your earlier years of photography?

FH: That’s the advantage of photography that helps you to remember. There were a lot of things that happened in my life, different points, which I have completely forgotten. When they’re photographed, and if I’ve handled them, printed it, or sold it or published it, I of course remember them.

K: I notice that the entire exhibit is in black and white.

FH: They were in black and white, because at that time, film was in black in white, and magazines published photographs in black and white.

Later, colour came, and I used colour. There was no preference.

K: On that note, it wasn’t until the ‘90s until you started working with digital imaging. Was it a big transition?

FH: I’m all for digital imaging, but it wasn’t so much the digital that changed, but Photoshop that changed. Even before, people used to manipulate images, but with digital, it became easier and you had more control. At the same time, it became more necessary with colour. With colour, there were more things that could be disturbing. If you’re on a street in New York, and there is a yellow cab, and you didn’t need the colour yellow, you could weaken the brightness. Manipulating photographs became a necessity.

K: Did you find that was a big aspect of your fashion photography in general?

FH: It was a big aspect. The interesting thing is it was the kind of opposite of my research of “the happy accident.” On one hand, I was waiting for the happy accident, and on the other hand I was trying to get rid of the unhappy accidents. To make a selection between what I considered a happy accident to what I considered a not-so happy accident.

K: The colour distortion is then to focus on certain aspects of a photo?

FH: I would say that every photograph is a choice among millions of possibilities. When there is so much that happens around you and you decide to frame one part of it, and take a shot of one moment among others, so you always choose. If I photograph in the street of Toronto, I pick my angle, my frame and my moment, out of a million more angles, frames and moments that I don’t pick. It’s always choosing.

K: If you’re not forced to have an emotion, it can create a more range of emotion, or natural state.

FH: It’s certain that the conventional smile is not something that you are pleased about. If the person has a conventional smile for you, you don’t really appreciate it. If I know it’s a conventional smile, it doesn’t mean anything to me.

K: You had not only a great success within your fashion photography, but your work expands to multiple genres, perspectives, and subjects. Was this something that was important to you within your work, or did it happen naturally?

FH: I think if I can see or show something that is meaningful to other people, it’s satisfying. If what I see or show, is just a repeat of something that has been said or shown many times, its less satisfying. To give an example, at one point, I made an exhibition about trees. There was something a little different about the way I showed them, and someone said to me, “after seeing your photographs, I look at trees in a different way.” That was positive. I thought it was worth doing.

With everything I photograph, I try to find a way of doing it as it hasn’t been shown before. If I take your portrait, I’ll probably take it in a way that you will think you look ugly in the portrait. You would mean it, because you don’t look the way you like to look when you look at yourself in the mirror. It may happen, that three or thirty years from now, you look at this photograph I took of you and you think that after all, you didn’t look so bad. That would make me happy.

We all have a way of looking at yourselves in a mirror and criticizing what we think is not perfect, or what we have a complex about. The woman I love said to me the other day, “I really have a big nose, you shouldn’t show my nose.” I said to her, “your nose is exactly what is interesting about you, and maybe one day you will realize it if I show it, because I love it and think it’s beautiful.” So that’s for me a good reason to take a photograph.

K: You find the beauty in people that they don’t necessarily see in themselves.

FH: Not only people, but you can find beauty anywhere that people didn’t see.

K: How do you choose the subjects of your fashion photography?

FH: When I was doing fashion photography, models used to telephone and come to an appointment and show me their book. If I liked their voice, I said yes, come. I thought that if I liked their voice, I thought there must be something beautiful about them that I could show.

K: And for your portraits?

FH: For me, if I photograph a face in the street of a person that I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it a portrait. It’s a close-up of the face. I call it a portrait when I have a definite idea about a person, and I try to show this at the end of the photograph.

If I photograph you, I wouldn’t call it a portrait, because I don’t know you. If I knew something about you, even a small thing, something I can find in a small conversation, or something you’ve told me once, it would mean that I have some idea about you and if I photograph, I will try to show my preconceived idea about you. To me, that is a portrait.

K: In the ‘80s, when you were in New York, you released your series, ‘New York, Up and Down.’ What was that process like?

FH: That was a product of New York. It could have just been a patch of dirt on the pavement. For some reason, I associated that exhibit with what I found to be important about New York. It could be anything – not just the beautiful landscape, but the setting.

It was mainly a feeling in New York where everything is really dense, a lot of things become really close together. Very often, they mix quite well.

I came to New York for a few weeks and it made the exhibit into an emotion. If I had stayed there all the time, it probably would have been less of an emotion.

K: Do you have a different processes when photographing a model as opposed taking a personal portrait of a family member or friend?

FH: The thing with photography is that it’s made out of two very opposed elements and sources. On one hand, you have your own imagination of what you think about the person or situation, and which you would like to express. For instance, there is a young child which is born to my wife, which is my child and I see them for the first time. I have all sort of expectations and imaginations before I photograph that child. On the other hand, the actual face of the child says something that has nothing to do with my expectation and brings something which I didn’t expect and I didn’t even want to show.

When I think of photographing my grandchild as a newborn, I thought he looked like a little old man. So, it brings something that wasn’t what I wanted to show and comes into the photograph. I then look at the screen, and say, “this maybe how he will look 50 years from now.” There’s what I want to show, and what people, things, or situations will show about themselves. What’s so fascinating about a photograph is that the two come together.

In the photograph with the girl with the horse, there was a girl who was there to show her dress, and was paid for it. There was the horse, who was there for his own reasons, and brought another message. It’s this meeting of two things, which is interesting.

Don’t forget to check out Frank Horvat’s exhibit at Izzy Gallery, located at 1255 Bay Street. You can see more of Horvat’s works on his personal website, HORVATLAND. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.