The development that changed everything was television.
(Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity)

Under the shimmering diversions of the spectacle, banalization dominates modern society the world over…
(Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle)

©Harry Gruyaert

 

More than thirty years have passed since Magnum veteran Harry Gruyaert exhibited his TV Shots at the Delpire Gallery in Paris. Met with incomprehension at the time, it now seems that critical opinion is finally swinging his way. The pictures were published in book form for the first time last year, and they are currently the subject of an online exhibition hosted by London’s Atlas Gallery. Further, Gruyaert is working on an audio-visual installation of the ground-breaking photographs for this year’s Mois de la Photo in Paris.

“There will be four very big screens where people can stand in the middle”, he enthuses, “and be completely surrounded by these images while listening to a soundtrack of TV recordings from the time – from commercial programmes, the 1972 Olympics, and the Apollo flights.”

 

©Harry Gruyaert

© Harry Gruyaert from TV Shots (Steidl)

Gruyaert’s subject – back in the early 70’s – was television, photographed at the moment of its ascendancy when radiant colour began to replace monotone black and white. TV Shots comprises a series of stills from sitcoms, dog shows, news bulletins and movies, ad breaks and interviews; Come Dancing and the Apollo flights; Coronation Street and the Olympic Games. The result is a sustained barrage of shockingly inconsequential visual noise in which moon landings and terrorist attacks are served up alongside game shows and costume dramas. The artificiality and vapidity of the content is underscored by Gruyaert’s jarring distortions of the stills themselves.

“Where I was staying in England I had this very crazy television set; and I found I could do something very interesting with it by fiddling with the colours and by cropping into the screen”, he explains. “I had an assistant adjusting the antenna and, while I was moving back and forwards towards the screen, I‘d say “Stop, stop…that’s it”. The moments when he said “stop” were those instants when the TV picture and the welter of distortion and interference hung in a precarious balance.

 

©Harry Gruyaert

©Harry Gruyaert from TV Shots (Steidl)

 

“I had been to New York in 1968 where I’d discovered Pop Art and the work of people like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Colour had always been limited – in terms of film and in terms of printing, it was what a chemical product gave you. But by going through the television, I could make the colour much more personal and creative. I shot this all on Kodachrome slide film, an amazing, very sharp and extremely dense film which I often underexposed to get better colour saturation”

Though gallery owner Robert Delpire exhibited the work in 1974, “the photographic world”, Gruyaert recalls, “didn’t really get it. It’s funny because to me it’s one of the most journalistic things I’ve ever done; I had no access to recording or freezing the image, so it was all done live – I missed the image or I had it.”

Journalistic or not, TV Shots discloses a medium that continually threatens to obliterate the message. “At the time, the beginning of the 70’s, television was much more important in England than it was in France – and I was very fascinated by its power. It was a chauvinistic and brainwashing instrument which every country used for nationalistic or capitalistic reasons.”

 

©Harry Gruyaert

© Harry Gruyaert from TV Shots (Steidl)

 

The photographs remained a controversial body of work even a decade later when Gruyaert was admitted to Magnum. “Some people were flabbergasted when they saw it and said “Jesus, we can’t take in a guy like this.” I made it in to the agency, but some were very much against my admission because they worked in that tradition of black and white, socially involved photography. But I think TV Shots is socially involved. I wanted to give a message; I don’t know if it worked. Television could have been such a wonderful instrument for teaching people, for education – in the simplest sense of the word. But then it became such a commercial and chauvinistic instrument eighty per cent of the time. If not ninety per cent…or,” he chuckles, “ninety nine.”

 

 

TV Shots is published by Steidl, £28.

TV Shots – The Olympics is online at http://www.atlasgallery.com/ until June7 (follow link for Magnum Archive)

Mois de la Photo 2008 is in Paris this November