Harry Gruyaert – Last Call

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Review by Wayne Swanson 

The allure of air travel seems a distant memory in our current era of long lines, invasive security checks, and packed flights. Yet airports, when considered through the eyes of a photographer rather than a harried traveler, can be captivating places.

Longtime Magnum photographer Harry Gruyaert is drawn to them. “The architecture, the furniture and the colors combine to make a set, with a host of players gliding through as though they’re on a stage. It’s like a performance that I can’t begin to understand, but its visual dimension always draws me in.”

Last Call is an appreciation of airports, showcasing nearly 40 years of Gruyaert’s rich color photography. The “remarkable theatricality” of airports gives him plenty to play with. Waiting rooms with vast expanses of windows bring the outdoors in, establishing the contrast between the wait and the journey to come. The crisp lines and forms of modern airport architecture provide a framework for compelling compositions.

Gruyaert makes effective use of windows to explore the interplay of light and shadow. The rhythm of the windows’ frames and the shadows they cast punctuate the view. Reflections in the glass create complex compositions that often have the feel of multiple exposures.

There’s a surprising calmness to the imagery. Despite glimpses of unease in images of a group of businessmen impatiently waiting for their flight or the crush of people waiting outside baggage claim, Gruyaert’s overall focus is on the waiting rather than the frenzy of air travel. Scenes of lone passengers reading or curled up on recliners, young boys staring out the windows, or small groups of travelers just passing the time give the book a contemplative feel.

Gruyaert, along with photographers such as Saul Leiter, Joel Meyerowitz, and William Eggleston, was a pioneer in exploring the creative possibilities of color photography. His prowess is on full display in Last Call.

Early images, such as a 1982 photo of a nearly deserted waiting room at the Las Vegas airport, showcase the dreamy richness of color film. In the 2000s, Gruyaert switched to digital, and his later images, like 2013 shots of Roissy/Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris, retain the saturated feel of film, but with a sharper edge. The dramatic size of the book’s pages takes full advantage of Gruyaert’s color palette. More than two thirds of the images are reproduced as luscious 2-page spreads measuring 17.5 inches wide by 12 inches tall.

Last Call won’t make you forget the hassles of getting to and from the airport, the panic of reaching the gate at the last minute, or the boredom of waiting for a delayed flight. But the next time you fly, it might prompt you to take a closer look at the theatrical drama and visual riches that surround you.

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Previously reviewed by PhotoBook Journal is Gruyaert’s exploration of shorelines and distant horizons, Edges.

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Last Call, Harry Gruyaert

Photographer: Harry Gruyaert, born Antwerp, Belgium & resides Paris, France

Publisher: Thames & Hudson, NY, NY copyright 2020

Introduction: Harry Gruyaert

Text: English

Hardcover book, sewn binding, four-color lithography, list of captions, biography, 9.5 in x 12.8 in., 96 pages, 57 images, printed in Italy

Designer: Agnes Dahan Studio

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