Harry Gruyaert: India

Review by Melanie Chapman •

The mystery that is India, “where you can touch what is most essential, where life and death are always side-by-side.” This is the subject of the new photobook by renowned colorist Harry Gruyaert, representing a dozen trips made over the span of forty years. In his introduction, Magnum photographer Gruyaert reflects on the complexity of the country: “India is bewildering: it takes you off guard and makes you lose your bearings.” The same could be said about this body of work. 

Deep shadows and dense colors are found throughout the 120+ full page images depicting crowded street scenes, bustling markets, boat lined riverbanks, and the occasional keenly observed still life. One can quickly sense the intense heat of India, not only by the expressions on people faces but also the ways in which shade plays such a significant role on the streets and as a commanding graphic element in Gruyaert’s photographs.  Perhaps due to the saturation of color film (as opposed to digital technology), the color red also appears as a consistently reoccurring and welcome character throughout this body of work. 

It is a pleasure to take in the chaotic and exhilarating energy of India as shared by Gruyaert, especially for a viewer who has yet to visit that fascinating former British colony and perhaps has an aversion to human density, abject poverty and oppressive heat…ahem. Gruyaert has done the traveling, so maybe you don’t have to. Or perhaps the viewer themselves has been to or is from India and will appreciate Gruyaert’s reflection of the culture and the people he clearly has such a fascination about.

Admittedly influenced by the compositional mastery of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gruyaert offers in his images the visual cacophony of one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, and does avoid the cliches he expresses concern about. This collection of photographs reflects Gruyaert’s early impressions about “the multiplicity of elements you can use to create an image and the orgy of colours that you must attempt to control…”. 

Yet taken all together, they also hint at what Gruyaert acknowledges was the initial lack of intention to shape his presumably massive collection of photographs into a book. On occasion, the sum of the parts feels like some of the parts. Yet it is still to our benefit that Gruyaert wandered down side streets to find young girls laughing, a holy man resting with his offering’s platter balanced on his chest, or the gentle touch of a silhouetted figure under the canopy of a magnificent tree.

Perhaps India as a place and as a representation of an ancient culture still pulsing with life in the twenty first century is too vast to be “explained” by one human’s understanding or contained within the pages of one book. But we are fortunate that Gruyaert has travelled to India time and time again in his efforts to try. 

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Other books by Harry Gruyaert previously featured on PhotoBook Journal include: Last Call and Edges.

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Melanie Chapman is a Contributing Editor and a Southern California photographer

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India, Harry Gruyaert

Photographs and text by Harry Gruyaert (born Antwerp, Belgium, resides in Paris, France) @harrygruyaert.

Text extracts from Dictionnaire amoureux de l’Inde (2001) by Jean-Claude Carriere

Publisher: Thames and Hudson, copyright 2021

Text: English

Hard cover without jacket, stitched binding, 203 pages, printed in Italy, ISBN 9780500545515

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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