Frank Horvat

Editorial Frank Horvat: Vraies Semblances

© Frank Horvat

“Photography is the art of not pushing the button.” – Frank Horvat

─── by Edward Clay, February 21, 2024

  • Before the age of photography, portraitists had the long and arduous task of trying to replicate reality. Frank Horvat, whose work spanned every photographic genre from documentary to fashion, was highly inspired by the work of the great portraitists and decided to undertake the task of reversing reality, attempting to make photographs look like paintings in his captivating series Vraies Semblances.

    Painting like Color Photography Claude, 1984 by Frank Horvat
    Claude, 1984,
    Color photo of a nude woman by Frank Horvat
    Alice, 1986, (a)

    So how did Horvat reproduce the delicate work of the masters of portraiture?

    Using textured or fabric backdrops is one thing, but recreating the light, ambiance and mood of a painting from a bygone era is another thing altogether. Even in the eighties when Horvat decided to begin his series, photographic technology was sufficiently advanced that an image would look too hyper-realistic to pass for an oil on canvas. However, Horvat realised that the Fresson colour pigment print technique could soften tones and textures enough to render the effect he desired.

    Painting like Color Photography Sophie, 1983 by Frank Horvat
    1983, Sophie (b)
    Frank Horvat
    1985, Dominique (a)

    Perfected at the end of the nineteenth century by Théodore-Henri Fresson, the Fresson colour pigment print is a successor to the monochrome carbon
    “satin paper process”. A complex and delicate process only performed in a secret studio by one family business, it involves four layers of gelatine containing pigments of cyan, yellow, magenta and black, which are successively applied to paper or canvas.

    Although the secrecy surrounding the making of a Fresson quadrichromy print remains, the family workshop has revealed that it takes four successive coating phases, one per color.

    Painting like Color Photography Sandrine, 1983 by Frank Horvat
    1983, Sandrine X (b)
    Painting like color photo of a nude woman by Frank Horvat
    1985, Aurélia (a)

    In this sense, the technique is much like painting, with colours being applied one by one. Fresson prints are known for their good light stability and thus gained popularity with photographers in the 1980s.

    Incorporating this technique was the first step to recreating the masters’ paintings, along with scouting faces that appeared as they came from another era, and with the help of artist Rebecca Campeau who acted as the stylist for the series, Horvat was able to create incredible photos that look remarkably like paintings. In fact, looking at some, in particular, Sandrine from 1983, it’s hard to believe they are not. Degas’ ballerinas or the great Dutch masters’ muses, immediately come to mind. These are modern women with classical faces, styled and posed as though they were sitting in front of Vermeer or Rembrandt.

    Painting-like color photo of a nude woman by Frank Horvat
    Kristin, 1982
    Painting like Color Photography Maya, 1983 by Frank Horvat
    Maya, 1983

    It’s refreshing to see these images now, inspired by a time before modern beauty standards dictated fashion photography. In Horvat’s series, the women are all of different ages and shapes and often have unusual, distinct faces, the kinds which would never appear in glossy magazines.

    Upon first glance, even the most learned viewer could easily mistake these images for paintings, a testament to Horvat’s craftsmanship and attention to detail.


    Painting like naked Color Photography Marie Paule, 1984 by Frank Horvat
    1984, Marie Paule (a)
    Painting-like portrait photography by Frank Horvat
    1981, Véronique P (a)

    However, we must also consider the importance of the portrayal of these women.
    Though some appear nude, Horvat shoots them with respect, celebrating the female body in all its diversity.

    A unique series in every sense, Horvat, once again, proves his ability to master almost every style of photography.


    All images © Frank Horvat / Studio Frank Horvat

    The series was published in 1999 in five different languages: French and Italian at Peliti Associati, English at Dewi Lewis Publishing, German at Umschau/Brau and Spanish at Photovision. 

    Frank Horvat’s – Hong Kong the latest in Louis Vuitton’s Fashion Eye series is available here.