Life & Culture

Pictures by a shy man

A new exhibition highlights a top 1950s fashion photographer who has almost been forgotten .


Fiammetta Horvat is thrilled. She has hit another milestone in expanding her late father’s photographic legacy.

For the first time in more than 30 years, there’s a Frank Horvat show in London — at the international photography fair, Photo London at Somerset House from May 12 to 15 . “We wanted to surprise people,” says Michael Benson, the fair’s co-founder, as “Frank isn’t that well known in London.”

Yet alongside other Jewish photographers like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and William Klein, Horvat was one of the star fashion photographers of the 1950s to late 1970s. “Even if you think you don’t know him, you do. Because most of the images are iconic, especially for fashion,” says London based photographer, Jillian Edelstein.

Consider the picture in the show of a woman in a white Givenchy hat in front of top-hatted men, training their binoculars on an imaginary horse-race in the show. Or the one of shoes dominating the Eiffel Tower.

Alongside more than 25 fashion images, the exhibition also includes images of women in Paris’s seedy nightclubs like the Folies Bergère — on the dance floor, back stage and in the louche crowd. These “show a very different side to him as a photographer,” says Benson.

Edelstein believes the exhibition could elevate Horvat’s standing and how his work is perceived. His images are honest, she says. “He gets into situations where other people don’t want to go into. He’s always looking for the unusual and unexpected.” And even comedic – like the be-suited model standing on one leg, holding a Jaguar car on two wheels.

Taking models out of the studio on to the street helped make his name, as it mixed glamour with every day. The poses were natural instead of stiff and he stripped back the looks as far as he could push his editors as he wanted to “make the women real,” says Fiammetta Horvat from her Paris home.

Furthermore, Horvat welcomed accidents. Take Monique Dutto coming out of the Métro exit. “The beauty of the image is not her, but actually everything happening around her,” says his daughter.

For Edelstein, there are no wasted images. “Every single thing whether it’s constructed or in the moment is carefully captured and incredibly constructed,” she says, citing as an example model, Deborah Dixon on Rome’s Piazza di Spagna with a man reading Il Giorno newspaper with Audrey Hepburn on the front page, children and somebody’s knee in the foreground.

Horvat says her father would “maybe spend five hours on one image and the girls couldn’t stand on their feet any more.

“He was very bossy and quite rude sometimes,” she says. “But that’s because he had a lot of authority.”

Born in Abazzia, Italy (now Opatija, Croatia) in 1928 to Jewish parents, young Frank and his family fled fascism in 1939. With his mother, Horvat went to Switzerland, while his father hid in Budapest during the war. Afterwards, Horvat moved to Milan while his father, who had re-married, went to live in Israel.

Edelstein believes that as a refugee, Horvat felt compelled to bring real life into his work. “Because if you have that in your DNA it’s impossible to forget that there is a political element in every step you take,” says the South Africa-born photographer.

She feels the same urge. “Every time I click the shutter I felt I needed to make a comment on some political idiom or image in order to either elevate ordinary people or to equalise.” Her portraits from South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be displayed at Stockholm’s Liljevalchs Konsthall from September 30 to January 2023.
According to Fiammetta Horvat, her father “didn’t grow up with the [Jewish] traditions. [Although] they obviously knew a bit because his grandfather was a rabbi,” she says.

“But then sometimes I would talk to him about [being Jewish] and he would always surprise — as he actually knew everything. He knew some passages [from the Bible], even some prayers so he must have seen some things as a kid,” she says, recalling that he would tell her stories about Abraham.

He picked up a camera in Milan as “he was a very shy man and … the camera helped him to approach women,” says Horvat. (He later married a model, Matte Lorenzetti).
By 1948, he was working as a photojournalist, documenting life in newly independent India and Pakistan, say, in the 1950s.

He also visited Israel in 1954 to see his father for the first time since 1939, where he photographed Israeli soldiers bathing in a Negev spring and Samaritans feasting near Nablus (then Jordan).

“He was very fast. He would never ask. He would just steal the picture very quickly,” with his Leica camera, she says.

In the late 1970s, he turned to personal projects like photographing trees, and the streets and subways of New York in the 1980s. He also embraced new techniques of colour, digital and Photoshop, snapping himself and more until he died in October 2020 aged 92.
This diverse portfolio could also explain why he is not as famous as his Jewish colleagues. “[Helmut] Newton did the same thing for 50 years,” says Horvat. “My father tried too many things so people couldn’t label him,” she says.

The exhibition is also a homecoming for 43-year-old Horvat. For although she was born in Paris, she lived in London from 1998 to 2016. After acting as a gopher for visiting directors at the Royal Court Theatre among other jobs, she decided to pursue a backstage career which saw her making props and puppets for Disney’s The Lion King Musical, which premiered at the Lyceum Theatre in October 1999.

After graduating with a degree in theatre practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 2002, she became a set and costume designer with credits including The Man Jesus by Matthew Hurt with Simon Callow at the Lyric Theatre Belfast.

Her desire to work in stage design was also inspired by father’s photo shoot sets as, she says, “it’s like making a story… he would invent props and he had to create an atmosphere.”
The 2016 Brexit vote prompted her return to Paris. “[And] my father was aging,” she adds.
Working in French theatre did not appeal, as it is “much more literal and the understanding of the text is much more cerebral and it’s not in their body. So I feel it’s fake,” she says.

Instead she agreed to work with her father’s archive for a few months in his studio in Boulogne-Billancourt, south-west Paris, which also houses a basement gallery space, displaying his collection of other photographers’ work including Newton as well as his own.

Five years later, she is still modernising the archive, driving interest in his work with more exhibitions and books and using the space as a home for photography. “The only way I could survive and the only way I could be in that place again is to make it public … [for] as many people as possible,” she says.

For example, she hosts prizes, gives talks to students and since late last year, has transformed the reception area into a temporary gallery to show young photographers’ work which she would like to continue once a year “as long as there is a dialogue between what they do and the archive of my father,” she says.

Her future plans include a new Thames & Hudson monograph, an early career retrospective at Paris’s Jeu de Paume from June 17 to October 30 and longer term plans with the town council to turn the studio into a photography education centre for schools. No longer will Frank Horvat’s name and images be forgotten.

Photo London is on from May 12 to 15 at Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA. The Frank Horvat exhibition is at the Embankment Galleries. Frank Horvat (Photofile) by Virginie Chardin is published by Thames & Hudson on June 16

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