Frank Horvat

Profile Frank Horvat

© Frank Horvat

“To me, photography is not just a visual art, but something closer to poetry—or at least to some poetry, such as the haiku.” – Frank Horvat

─── by Josh Bright, April 5, 2024
  • By no means was he the first photographer to do so, but when Frank Horvat took models out of the traditional studio setting and photographed them in real-life locations, the resulting images would dramatically impact the world of fashion photography.

    black and white fashion photography in Paris by Frank Horvat
    1959, Paris, France, for Jours de France, Monique Dutto at métro exit

    Yet, though he is perhaps best remembered for these images, his career was remarkably diverse, spanning seven decades and encompassing a variety of styles.

    Frank Horvat was born in Abbazia, Italy (now Opatija, Croatia), in 1928, to Karl Horvat, a Hungarian pediatrician, and his wife, Adele Edelstein. The family, who were Jewish, fled to Lugano, Switzerland in 1939, and it was there, at the age of fifteen, that Horvat acquired his first camera—a 35 mm Retinamat—which he obtained by trading his postage stamp collection.

    black and white street photo in London by Frank Horvat
    1955, London, UK, Brick Lane Dog Market
    black and white fashion photography in Rome by Frank Horvat
    1962, Roma, Italy, for Harper's Bazaar with Deborah Dixon
    black and white fashion photography in Paris by Frank Horvat
    1959, Paris, France, for Jours de France, Anna Karina at Les Halles

    In 1947, he moved to Milan to study art at the Accademia di Brera before transitioning into work in an advertising firm and eventually freelancing as a photographer for Italian magazines.

    However, it was his first trip to Paris in 1950 that proved pivotal. Here, he crossed paths with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, two luminaries of photojournalism, whose influence would shape his approach.

    black and white fashion photography by Frank Horvat
    1974, Paris, France, for STERN, shoes and Eiffel Tower

    Two years later, inspired by this encounter, he embarked on a journey around India and Pakistan, camera in tow, without a return ticket or assignment. This trip not only helped set the foundation for his practice but also kickstarted his career.

    Some of the images from this expedition were published in magazines, while others, including a striking picture of a Pakistani bride, reflected in a mirror as her face was uncovered by her husband for the first time, were featured in a MOMA exhibition in 1955, leading to recognition and freelance work with LIFE magazine.

    black and white photography of woman in Pakistan by Frank Horvat
    1952, Karachi, Pakistan, young woman at window
    black and white photography of woman in Pakistan by Frank Horvat
    1952, Lahore, Pakistan, mohammedan wedding, the bride

    Subsequently settling in London and later Paris, Horvat captured everyday life with perceptivity, sensitivity, and skill, often using a telephoto lens to capture intimate moments candidly.

    black and white street photo in London by Frank Horvat
    1955, London, UK, Tower Bridge seen from London Bridge
    black and white street photo in London by Frank Horvat
    1955, London, UK, Lambeth, boxing boys

    His foray into fashion photography came after meeting William Klein, who introduced him to Jacques Motins, artistic director of the French monthly fashion publication Le Jardin des Modes. Applying his candid, journalistic approach, Horvat captured models in real-life settings for the magazine, and other publications including Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar.

    black and white fashion photography in Paris by Frank Horvat
    1958, Paris, France, for Jardin des Modes, Fashion in metro

    His striking images which, in contrast to many fashion photographs of the time, were often rich in layers and details. He worked using natural light and the 35mm camera favored by street photographers creating dynamic frames that broke compositional rules.

    He presented models in the increasingly popular, laid-back ‘ready to wear’ clothes in ‘gritty’ contexts, while images of models in over-the-top Haute Couture outfits were imbued with humor, presented incongruously alongside modestly dressed Parisian commuters, reflecting Horvat’s bemusement with a world in which he achieved such success but never felt truly comfortable.

    black and white fashion photography by Frank Horvat
    1976, Paris, France, Vogue France, ready-to-wear
    black and white fashion photography by Frank Horvat
    1988, Paris, France, for L'Officiel, with Carol

    Despite being a naturally shy person, he always managed to engender closeness with the women he photographed. His motivation for acquiring his first camera in Switzerland all those years ago was as a conversation starter with girls, and perhaps his camera remained the bridge between him and the opposite sex, allowing him to create a sense of intimacy often missing in staged portraiture.

    His images never objectify; he valued the personalities and individualities of the women he photographed, often choosing them not by their professional lookbooks, as was customary, but by the sound of their voices.

    color fashion photography by Frank Horvat
    1976, Bahamas, for GLAMOUR, illustration for exercise on the beach
    color street photography in NYC by Frank Horvat
    color street photography in NYC by Frank Horvat

    He balanced his unease with the fashion world by continuing to pursue his first love, photojournalism, joining the Magnum Agency in 1958. In 1962, he traveled the world, capturing intimate and beautiful images of everyday life that stand as some of the most compelling of the time, and bear the eye for composition and beauty that made his fashion photography so successful. Yet, these images rarely gained the recognition of his commercial work.

    He consistently worked in fashion and advertising over the ensuing decades while also pursuing personal projects on subjects he loved – often in color long before it achieved widespread acceptance. These projects included documenting everyday life in New York City, portraits of trees, and the stunning, painting-inspired portraiture series ‘Vraies Semblances’, all of which were published as photobooks.

    color fashion photography by Frank Horvat
    1982, Kristin

    Horvat settled in Boulogne Billancourt, near Paris, France, in the 1970s. Despite losing sight in his viewfinder eye in the mid-1980s, it didn’t deter him from building his ideal studio—a black box with north-facing windows at his home. He continued to photograph, experimenting with new technologies including digital cameras and Photoshop, and also exhibited some of his work up until his death in October 2020, aged 92. His daughter, Fiammetta, now manages his complete archives, which have remained intact at his home.

    He will be remembered as a true giant of fashion photography, a quiet genius whose unique approach helped reshape the genre and continues to influence today. Yet, increasingly, he will also be recognized as a deeply perceptive photojournalist, who chronicled everyday life with profound artistry and humanism.


    All images © Studio Frank Horvat

    Studio Frank Horvat is home to his complete archives, which include his personal collection displayed in its original form. This collection showcases 30 years of exchanges with other photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Helmut Newton, Bruce Gilden, Jane Evelyn Atwood, and Josef Koudelka. You can find more information, including how to visit, on the Studio Frank Horvat website.