When I first flipped through East/West, I was convinced something had gone wrong with the printing. Everything looked much more saturated and contrasty than the 2015 Harry Gruyaert monograph, and I felt disgusted and ripped off, and I shoved East/West onto the shelf, determined to wait a few years (until it went out of print) and then sell it.
Imagine my surprise, when I went back to it for this review, compared duplicate shots from East/West and Harry Gruyaert directly, and found that they’re very close, if not identical, and that the two books (East, shot in Moscow a couple of months before the Berlin Wall fell, and West, shot in 1981 in Las Vegas) present more complete and unified projects/collections than does the monograph. I’m not sure if it was the overcast window light I viewed the books in for the unboxing, or if maybe the year or so on the shelf caused some mellowing, but I’m much more impressed by East/West now than I was then.
Given the chronology, East/West should probably be West/East… even David Company’s introductory essay appears only in West. But all the stockists, and the publisher, list it as East/West, and so who am I to argue.
Gruyaert shot West in 1981, for the Geo magazine, but his take on Vegas didn’t really match our imagination of the city. There are few images of the glittering lights. Instead, Gruyeart focused on the suburbs, the back streets, the part of Vegas where people actually live, rather than where people go to gamble and whatever. Sure, there are a few pictures of quickie marriages, and some of the endless vistas, crowded with motel signs and other neon, but the glittering casinos are all but missing. Needless to say, Geo never published the photographs.
In 1989, Gruyaert was invited to Moscow, on a sort of exchange program. He, Josef Koudelka, and Gueorgui Pinkhassov photographed the city for 10 days or so, and a group of Russian photographers were meant to travel to Paris later, but turmoil in the Russian state (remember: Russia’s democratically elected Congress of People’s Deputies met for the first time on May 25, and the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989) prevented the exchange from happening, and few images from the 100 rolls of Kodachrome Gruyaert shot there were ever published.
Thanks to advances in digital imaging, according to Company, in his introductory essay, Gruyaert can now “make the kinds of prints he had always wished for.” And so my initial thoughts on East/West are surely off the mark. The color is saturated, and the contrast is extreme, but that’s perhaps how it’s meant to be. And maybe there’s no better way to look at early 1980s Western US and late 1980s, pre-fall of the Berlin Wall, Moscow. The Vegas pictures are almost universally sunbaked and golden daytime predominates, with some cotton candy pink sunsets occasionally making an appearance. The Moscow pictures, by contrast, while no less color-rich, are somehow greyer. Skin tones often go a little bit green, and where reds and golds predominate in West, East is blue. And the covers—West is yellow; East is a sort of greyish blue—enforce this distinction.
Overall, and after a second, far more thorough viewing, I give East/West a full 4.3 stars. Harry Gruyaert is a master of color photography, and one or another of his books belong on your shelf.
Both East/West and Harry Gruyaert remain available direct from Thames and Hudson, and I can unreservedly recommend both. If you want a great overview of Gruyaert’s work, the monograph is the way to go. And if you want a fully realized project, look no further than East/West.