Frank Horvat always acknowledged that American and English photographers before him had taken models out of the studio on to urban streets among civilians and demanded they not pose like giraffes. But when he did those things as a young snapper in the late 1950s, in Paris, with a perfect outfit as the focal point (sometimes not quite in focus), he created his own fresh, much imitated, style.
For Horvat, who has died aged 92, his years in fashion were only a well-paid part of a career that stretched from photo-reportage, during youthful travels in India, that was worked up in the darkroom and chosen for the Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, to 1990s experiments with collaged digital images and a cheap inkjet printer. He said that, by then, his first professional pictures felt so archaic to him they might have been taken by his grandfather, but their ease and naturalness, achieved by watchfulness and solid work, were ahead of their time.
Horvat met his hero, Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographer of the captured moment, in 1950, and took his advice to use a Leica camera and to travel, before returning to Paris to scrape a living documenting the immediate realities of life for popular magazines. He was as attentive to location and observed relationships as Cartier-Bresson, but he was more romantic, like another Paris mentor, Robert Doisneau. Horvat kept up his interest in photo-developments, sometimes using a bazooka-like telephoto lens to peer closer, and his sense of humour was sharper than that of his teachers.
Horvat attempted early fashion work in Italy and London in the mid-50s. (He married one of his models, Mate.) And since all classes and both sexes in Paris appreciated a well-dressed woman out in public, they often featured in his reportage. In 1957, Jacques Moulin, the art director of Jardin des Modes magazine, invited him to shoot fashion regularly, just as a decade of grand, sculptural and therefore immobile Paris design that began with Dior’s New Look was relaxing into younger, lighter shapes, supplemented with new ready-to-wear clothes. Horvat, amused at haute couture’s surreality, took elaborate costumes out from the salon into Paris, and showed a wedding dress on a bus platform, or a cocktail gown blocking the flow of commuters on the steps of the Métro.
He set up models, in the shorter, simpler clothes of the late 50s and early 60s, in unprecedented situations and venues: among drinkers at a tough bar, or diners in a bistro, interacting realistically with each other and even with children, sometimes Horvat’s own. He could make his “model in ready-to-wear engages with local life” style work anywhere, including with children and cyclists in cobbled Yorkshire towns for British Vogue in 1961. Horvat chose models not by viewing their professional look-books, but by the sound of their voices; he wanted them to be in on the humour of his pictures, rather than the object of the joke.
As a teenager, Horvat had sold his stamp collection to buy his first camera as a way to flirt with girls, because he was shy, though multilingual, sophisticated and well-educated. He was born in Abbazia, Italy (now in Croatia), the son of Karl Horvat, a Hungarian paediatrician, and his wife, Adele Edelstein, an Austrian psychiatrist. The Jewish family fled to Switzerland in 1939, returning after the war. Horvat studied fine art at the Accademia di Brera in Milan.
He intended to paint or write – he felt compelled to tell stories – but cameras tempted him, his Retinamat 35mm replaced with a Rolleicord in 1949 and then the Leica. Lenses were not enough in themselves: “There’s no machine to witness the truth,” he said, but taking pictures was his way to understand the world. After a brief job in an advertising agency he tried freelance photography.
Horvat had achieved creative success by the mid-1950s, and was an associate of the Magnum agency (1958-61), but struggled financially. He was never famous enough to secure celebrity portrait sittings, while even his best-known commissions, such as a backstage gig at a Paris strip club, produced a poor return on the time they absorbed, unlike fashion contracts with glossies such as Elle and Harper’s Bazaar.
Cartier-Bresson told Horvat he disapproved of mixing photo-reportage with fashion, but by the mid-60s the magazine market for real life observed in black and white was shrinking; meanwhile Horvat explored fashion as close-up still life and fantasy narrative, borrowing stories from movies and novels, and moving to work in subtle colour.
He went on producing fashion editorial and advertising until 1988, but in 1976 decided to be his own commissioning editor for more creative work, shooting self-assigned essays that became exhibitions, then books, on things he loved best: beautiful women, trees, human life in New York streets and subways, natural life in intense detail in the 30 metres around his French country home.
After losing the sight in his viewfinder eye in 1985, he retreated for a while into writing about photographers whose work he had long collected. The new digital cameras, and Photoshop, which became his favourite plaything, at last gave him the chance in his final decades to “paint” with photography. He snapped and exhibited up to his death.
The shy boy who needed a camera to charm girls had a great affection for women and a care for their individual identity that showed in all his public pictures – models, strippers, shoppers, his widowed mother in old age. He also took candid private portraits of the many sequential amours of his life. He preserved on film the childhood of his sons, Jean-Michel, Lorenzo and Marco, with Mate, who died in 2007, and of a son, David, and daughter, Fiammetta (later the keeper of his archive), from other relationships. The children survive him.
• Frank Horvat, photographer, born 28 April 1928; died 21 October 2020