In the 1980s, Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert traveled extensively, including between the United States and the Soviet Union. His Kodachrome images of Los Angeles and Las Vegas popped with blue motel pools and neon signs, while his shots of Moscow framed bustling street scenes and playgrounds, creating collages of color and form. Harry Gruyaert: East/West, released November 14 from Thames & Hudson, publishes many of these photographs for the first time.
East/West is a two-volume publication, its American and Russian subjects physically divided, just as they were before the fall of the Soviet Union. The East volume is a muted blue, the West a bright yellow, each with a photograph that echoes their covers on the slipcase. The Moscow image centers on a man in uniform, a red bouquet in hand, walking past a storefront draped in blue curtains; the Las Vegas scene is dominated by the canary yellow of a car, a lone figure in a cowboy hat dwarfed by the vehicle. People regularly appear among the East/West photographs, yet often they are small and isolated.
“Beyond the visual attraction, there is an unmistakable feeling of melancholy here, as there is in much of Gruyaert’s photography,” writer, artist, and curator David Campany observes in his essay for the book. “And a sense of disappointment too. There is some kind of elegy, to a promise lost or squandered for the day’s distraction. A beautiful photograph of loneliness or alienation can be redemptive but it never takes away the pain, and never overcomes the social realities. For all the delight that Gruyaert’s photographs offer us, for all the colorful joy, these are bittersweet depictions.”
Although there are Lada cars in primary hues puttering around Moscow, and big Cadillacs parked by the vibrant Las Vegas architecture, the Magnum photographer’s images mostly avoid stereotypes. Instead each page of East/West offers an enigmatic collision of color, light, and shape, whether two girls wearing huge bows in their hair who have paused to look at a model ship in a Moscow window framed in gold, or a layered image of cars, gas stations, and advertisements almost blocking out the blue sky in Los Angeles. Every ephemeral moment has a cinematic glow, with something radiant extracted from even the most ordinary of objects, like a pink rose carried aloft by a boy, his movement blurring its blossoms as he passes by on the gray Moscow sidewalk.