Harry Gruyaert – a source of surrealist inspiration

When I started out in photography I felt an immediate affinity for the so-called artistic virtues of  black and white. I appreciated colour photography, but apart from subscribing to National Geographic and admiring the beautiful images captured across the world, I did not believe that colour was anything other than the medium one used for commissioned work and it did not inspire me as a creative form in its own right.

The trouble with colour photography is that, unlike monochrome, it records reality more or less as we see it, and therefore how can we arrive at something truly original and personal?  That’s when I discovered the work of the Belgian photographer, Harry Gruyaert, and one particular image struck a chord with my outlook on picture taking and capturing the world around us through a lens.

Commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo, Belgium, 1981. Photo © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum


I was mesmerised by this image, not in a confused manner, but visually impelled by the force of the composition, colour and light, to work out what was going on.  First and foremost I love the absurdity and incongruous nature of this picture- Gruyaert’s ability to seize the moment and juxtapose different elements in the scene which have no relation in an ordinary sense to one another.  The yellow car in the middle of the frame seems almost like a mistake, but it holds the whole image together, and underpins the bizarre relationship between two different worlds, the clash of proud military history with the banality of the present day. The perspective of the photograph is very original, Gruyaert’s sense of framing and what he cuts off, so to speak, heightens the graphic force of the picture. The way the figure closest to us aligns with the wall of the house in the background, allied to the black on black effect, makes it difficult to perceive depth and distance, and the photograph has a quasi-collage effect, almost as though the figures were cut-outs and different images had been stuck together.

Above all I appreciate and admire the way in which Gruyaert uses colour not just as part of the photographic process, but almost as the subject matter itself. Moreover he has the skill and understanding of knowing when the light is at its most interesting, thus enhancing the richness and complementarity of the colours, and turning a single moment into a veritable tableau.

Beach at Fort Mahon, Picardie, France, 1991. photo © Harry Gruyaert/magnum


Gruyaert’s surreal sense of observation, his aesthetic sensibility, his depiction of people as figures in isolation, his graphic eye, his clever compositions, and his ability to use colour as a means of making the ordinary appear just a little less ordinary; these have all been been significant influences throughout the development of my own personal photographic voyage.

Flanders regions, Belgium, 1988. photo © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum


Like Gruyaert, I consider myself not so much a documentary story-teller creating a series of pictures around a single theme, but more of a photographer who believes in the power of each single image to stand by itself, valuing the inherent quality of the medium to transcend reality through creativity, and express a view of the world thereby.

Below are a couple of my own photographs taken almost 10 years ago at the Nantes carnival, which definitely owe a debt to Gruyaert’s vision, and I finish this piece with a beach shot that also draws it’s influence from his mastery of colour and light.






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