“Photography is the art of not pushing the button.” – Frank Horvat
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 series Vraies Semblances.
– 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. Even in the eighties when Horvat decided to begin his series, photographic technology was advanced enough that an image would look too hyper-realistic to pass for a oils on canvas. But Horvat realised that the Fresson colour pigment print technique could soften colours and textures enough to create the effect he wanted.
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” which is a complex and delicate process only performed in a secret studio by one family business. It consists of four layers of gelatine containing pigments for cyan, yellow, magenta and black, 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 colour.
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 became favoured by photographers in the 1980s for this reason.
Incorporating this technique was the first step to recreating the masters’ paintings, but along with scouting faces that looked like they came from another era, Horvat was able to make incredible photos. In fact looking at some, in particular, Sandrine from 1983, it’s hard to believe they could be photographs at all. We recall Degas’ ballerinas or the great Dutch masters’ muses. These are modern women with classical faces, styled and posed as though they were sitting in front of Vermeer or Rembrandt.
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 different ages, different shapes and have unusual and distinct faces, the kinds which would never appear in glossy magazines.
Upon first glance, any viewer could mistake these images for paintings, and after long and considered inspection, most will undeniably marvel at Horvat’s craftsmanship and attention to detail.
But 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 variety.
A unique series in every sense, Horvat, once again, proves his ability to master every genre of photography.
All images © Frank Horvat