Out of fashion Posted on September 16, 2013

We visit the agreeable old village of Cotignac most years at the end of summer. It lies among the steep pine-covered hills of the Var in the region justifiably known as La Provence Verte. The green is a blend of light and dark; the pure pale green of the Aleppo pine the dominant shade (what tragic thoughts the name of this lovely tree bring to mind today). The dark notes are mainly oaks of half a dozen species, with here and there the exclamation marks of slender cypresses.

Last year I was delighted to discover, the day before departing, an exhibition of the photographs of a colleague of long ago when my career was in fashion magazines. Frank Horvat was an international star at the time when David Bailey and Brian Duffy and their East End friends were making Twiggy and that girlish group famous. Frank took sexier fashion photos than any of them. He remained detached, though, a little aloof, and never became the same sort of “sleb”.

A few years later he made his dissident views plain by publishing a beautiful, even moving, book of portraits of trees. His trees, or most of them, stood alone in fields, on bare plains or mountainsides, sometimes distorted by the prevailing wind, usually just a clear statement of their heredity, their race, fully developed and ready to be admired.

This year I tracked Frank down to his cottage high in the hills above Cotignac, at the very end of a winding dirt road on the lip of a frightening ravine. The stone building, in its clearing among ancient olives, commands an immense view: nothing but forest in rippling ridges, 180 degrees wide and perhaps forty miles deep, to the irregular blue line of the Massif des Maures that overlooks the sea between Toulon and St Tropez.

In his eighties Frank has discovered the internet and realised that it offers his life’s work the chance of a revival. His work could never readily be classified. He puts it, in a book to be published next month, in fifteen categories or ‘keys’, but none of them truly categorical in anything but pictorial terms. Google his name to see his pictures.

I found the meeting, the rediscovery of an old friend and his survey of his own achievement a moving and thought-provoking experience. He has written his observations of the world in light (the literal meaning of photography) over a span of some seventy years. He has ranged from salons to slums, recorded chaos and captured calm. No philosophy emerges from his pictures; he is as free from judgement as Candide, and as free of conclusions – unless you call Candide’s last word a conclusion: “Il faut cultiver son jardin”.

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