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The big picture: Harry Gruyaert’s ​sun-dappled Spanish picnic | Photography


If you were telling the history of photography through the Magnum agency you might compare Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous pictures of families picnicking on the banks of the River Marne, taken in 1938, with this image by Harry Gruyaert, of families eating in the sunshine in Extremadura, Spain in 1998. Cartier-Bresson set the black-and-white documentary tone of the agency he co-founded for several decades. His picnickers had a belt-and-braces solidity, apparently timeless working men and women on their Sunday off. His camera gave them gravitas and a sort of idealised humanity. In Gruyaert’s picture the social history of the families themselves seems of little interest; his eye is entirely for the play of light and colour. He might take his inspiration from Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Glory be to God for dappled things!”

Some of the elder statesmen at Magnum tried to block Gruyaert’s election to the agency when his work was proposed in 1981. They had never admitted to their democratic cabal a photographer who worked primarily in colour, which they associated with advertising images, not photojournalism. Cartier-Bresson had famously declared colour pictures to be “something indigestible, the negation of all photography’s three-dimensional values” – and here was a man, Gruyaert, who had partly made his name taking pictures of newfangled colour television screens.

In the 40 years since, however, Gruyaert, 79, has himself become an elder statesman of the agency. This picture, now part of a Magnum print sale, with its almost psychedelic delight in colour contrasts, its stippling of reds and greens, might be an illustration of his belief that “there is no story” in his pictures, “it is just a question of shapes and light”. The longer you look, however, the more you let your eyes adjust to the fabulously impressionistic palette, the more domestic tales you might find among the abstracted, distracted couples and families in the woods.

The Magnum Square Print Sale on the theme Way for Escape will take place from Monday 12 July, 6am PST to Sunday 18 July, 11:59pm PST



Read More: The big picture: Harry Gruyaert’s ​sun-dappled Spanish picnic | Photography

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