Harry Gruyaert – Edges – copyright 2019
Photographer: Harry Gruyaert, born in Belgium, lives in Paris
Publisher: Thames & Hudson, NYC, NY; (American release date April 23, 2019) Original Edition © 2018 Les Editions Textuel, Paris
Essay: Foreword by Richard Nonas
Hardcover, 144 pages, 89 color photographs
Book review by Melanie Chapman
One of the many pleasures of photo-books is the sense that they wait for you. In a pile or on a shelf, we see the title on the binding and it calmly states “When you are ready, open me and enter in.” In the case of renowned Magnum photographer Harry Gruyaert’s new book EDGES, the timing could not be more appropriate.
The publisher’s notes describe EDGES as “A stunning collection of images…that explores the visual power of shorelines and distant horizons…. where humans meet oceans, seas, and rivers.” In the foreword notes, Richard Nonas writes “Harry Gruyaert…finds the blurred boundaries of overlapping life…he photographs ambiguous meanings stabbed into deep absence.”
Having just experienced the death of a beloved mentor only days after returning from an assignment on a Cruise Ship, to me Gruyaert’s images do not seem ambiguous at all. If you have ever been on a boat that goes out far enough to make the shoreline imperceptible, for however long, you might agree that it is an opportunity to reflect on one’s life, and all that it entails, before returning to terra firma. Taken in the context that the sea represents the vast eternity of death, the ultimate horizon we know exists but cannot inhabit, EDGES feels like the reverse angle point of view, and offers a mature appreciation for the stuff of life.
Photographed in more than a dozen countries over the span of 26 years, each image contains somewhere within the frame the horizon line of a vast body of water, and is populated in varying degree by people and structures that hug the shore. Therein lies the joy of what initially seemed a rather formal somber body of work.
Many of the first images presented in the book are from Gruyaert’s earlier work, shot along the coasts of France and Ireland, in the late 1980s and 90s. Presumably shot on film, the sometimes grainy photos feature dark skies and dramatic clouds reminiscent of classic landscape paintings, with the presence of humans, be it children on the beach or tanker ships miles away, occupying only a small portion of the frame.
Further images evoke the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, the early color work of William Eggleston, a classic National Geographic cover shot by Sam Abell, and even Robert Frank’s The Americans. Some images are filled with the color and cacophony of oceanside amusement parks and boardwalk vendors, others the lonely empty space of industrial cast offs and shores which seem less an invitation and more a reminder that we have reached our limits and can go no further. In some images the beach serves as a playground or a pleasant view for vacationers, in others the presence of the water’s edge seems incidental to people going about their daily lives. In one particularly haunting image, the lone figure of a young girl framed by windblown palm trees on an otherwise empty beach feels like the photograph of a ghost, as if she alone walks the fine line between life and death. It is to Gruyaert’s credit that this moment was seen, “captured” and shared.
Unlike many contemporary photographers whose work feels clever and born of the immediate moment, Gruyaert shares the wisdom of his long and rich life, and in so doing offers the viewer images of depth and poetry, of danger and indifference, drama and subtlety, community and isolation.
If your soul seeks a way to contemplate life and death through visual terms, as well as enjoy some evocative landscapes, you will be well served to pick up a copy of EDGES, and breathe in.