During a period of huge political tension between East and West, Harry Gruyaert photographed two worlds apparently in polar opposition – Las Vegas and Los Angeles in 1981, and Moscow in 1989. A new book reproduces almost 100 photographs from these series, over 70 for the first time.
Magnum photographer Harry Gruyaret has been travelling the world taking colour photographs for over 40 years, often using a 35mm camera and Kodachrome film. For much of his early career serious photographers were still expected to work in black and white. Nevertheless the Belgian born Gruyaert and a handful of pioneers including William Eggleston persisted in exploring how colour film could best be used to reflect a coloured world.
Starting in LA before driving inland to Vegas, Gruyaert photographed these two all-American cities, so symbolic of consumerist leisure, the year that President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. All the landmark sites you might expect are documented with journalistic diligence – from casinos and malls to love chapels and outdoor pools. Yet Gruyaert’s portrayal of the entertainment capital of the world is so very far from any archetypal picture of carefree bling.
Many of the photographs were taken during the cold light of day when neither resort or reveller could hide behind the concealing glare of glowing neon. Brightly coloured metallic building facades look lurid and excessive, while hulking non-illuminated signs are revealed as awkward and unnecessary. In the LA images too, stereotypes are subverted. Young crowds relax on the beach, but the skies are dark and ominous, the foreground dominated by a mess of branded litter.
People are surprisingly few and far between. When present they seem uncomfortable or out of place – like a suited groom lounging unimpressed in a stuffy anteroom as he awaits a Vegas wedding or a lone partygoer lying prostrate on a grubby backlot after a night on the tiles. Gruyaert seems to snap just before or after the party is in full swing. Sometimes figures are absent altogether or subsumed by their brightly coloured surroundings, only adding to a sense of emptiness and isolation.
This may have been a time when pleasure seekers all over the world were still flocking to the Sun Belt in search of a better life. But behind any intended projection of unencumbered hedonism is a sense of uncertainty and malaise. After all, at the start of the Eighties America was suffering its worst economic downturn since the 1930s, rising inflation and an uncertainty about its place in the world relative to an increasingly powerful USSR.
The perceived image of Moscow could not have been more different to that of West Coast USA. When Gruyaert arrived in the Spring of 1989 to chronicle the May Day celebrations it had been under Soviet rule for over 70 years, a city synonymous with communist austerity.
Once more, Gruyaert’s urban portrayal is assiduously thorough. He shows streets overshadowed by towering grey concrete blocks, dingy restaurant interiors, orthodox churches and hotel lobbies bathed in seedy light. Yet once again an overall impression of Moscow emerges that subverts expectation.
In contrast to the US series, people and groups of characters are surprisingly prominent – especially in a place where the individual was so famously considered as subservient to the collective ambitions of the state. Market and street scenes are bustling, while elsewhere Gruyaert allows Muscovites to take centre stage in images that almost qualify as urban portraiture – a gentleman carrying flowers down the street, or two girls gazing into a shop window, albeit with their backs to us.
Where the backdrop is generally grey or washed out, any brighter colours jump out as vibrant and optimistic, for instance figures dressed up in their finery for May Day, or clutching balloons. The spring of 1989 was the first time that Soviets had been allowed to exercise their democratic right to vote since 1917 in electing a New Congress of People’s Deputies. Soon after, the so-called Revolutions of 1989 would sweep Eastern Europe, followed by the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Harry Gruyaert could not have foreseen this, but in hindsight it’s tempting to read the prominently colourful characters in these photographs as an expression of a growing sense of individualism.
There’s never an explicit agenda in Gruyaert’s photographs. Yet as a group these two series are a rich and varied document of two societies at pivotal moments in their political and economic histories.