In the 1980s, the photographer Frank Horvat was in the habit of taking two trips a year to New York, in the height of summer and the depths of winter – “the two times when the city was at its worst”. He kept a diary of those visits and he slowly accumulated photographs. Horvat was in his early 50s and, as his diary reveals, he was struggling year on year with his eyesight; worsening double astigmatism and a partially successful operation for a detached retina. He feared “theatre curtains closing” on his life’s work.
Horvat had made his name as a fashion photographer in the 1950s and had nearly always worked in black and white, often on the street. For his New York photographs, though, he knew “colour must speak out”. “I have assimilated the laws of composition of black and white fairly well,” he told his diary. “I know how to place shapes, light, expressions, a bit like I place words in a sentence. But colour has other laws, which I am only beginning to know.” He adopted Ektachrome film that had been made famous by National Geographic and a viewfinder just bright enough “to still allow me to focus”.
This shot of the man with balloons on the subway seems to speak of all of Horvat’s excitement at the new challenge and his anxiety about living up to it. That snatched saturation of colour in the rattling gloom underground feels like a heart-racing moment. He was, he suggests in his diary, in the habit of following likely subjects or colourful oddities, like the balloon man, waiting for just the right framing and hoping that his hand and eye would be up to it.
In later life, Horvat found different ways to compensate for his incrementally declining focus. He was among the first serious photographers to use digital and Photoshop, presenting the results as Horvatland. He died last month, aged 92, in the same week that a new book of his New York photographs was published, along with fragments of his diary.
Side Walk is published by Hatje Cantz (€38)