Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography, 1946–1964
May 8–September 26, 2021
I first encountered the work of São Paolo’s Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB) last year when, at the tail end of a temporary appointment in the Department of Photography at MoMA, I was asked to assist with some minor research and administrative tasks as the preparation of this exhibition reached its final stages. It is safe to say that I am biased—I fell in love with the photographs on view here immediately. Much has been made of the fact that the members of the FCCB were “amateurs.” They did not make their living as photographers, but instead in a wide variety of other professions, including engineering, journalism, and the sciences, to name a few. But the kind of amateur practice found here is remote from any notions of dilettantism or mediocrity. Its connotations are very much the opposite: we are speaking of photography carried out solely for the love of the medium, with rare ambition and seriousness of purpose.
Eduardo Salvatore, Untitled [Várzea do Carmo housing complex, São Paulo], ca. 1951. Gelatin silver print,11 15/16 x 15 9/16 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Richard O. Rieger. © 2021 Estate of Eduardo Salvatore.
The FCCB was founded in 1939 as an outgrowth of the international pictorialist movement, and the amateurist values of the group reflect this. It was, after all, Alfred Stieglitz’s desire to distinguish his own non-professional practice from the work of commercial photographers that led to the formation of the Photo-Secession, arguably the most distinguished and influential manifestation of pictorialism proper. During the early years of the FCCB, the inheritance of pictorialism is visible in the soft focus and sentimental or allegorical subjects favored by the group’s members. However, they quickly charted a different path, adopting a cleaner visual language that privileged abstraction and rigorous geometric compositions.
Fotoclubismo focuses—rightly—on this later, more mature and fully realized work. And yet the traces of pictorialism’s fin-de-siècle origins are still detectable, here and there. For example, the first of the six thematic sections that structure the show (there are also three individual artists, Gertrudes Altschul, Geraldo de Barros, and German Lorca, who are singled out for close attention) is titled “Solitude,” a subject with clear Romantic and Symbolist flavor. The works gathered under this rubric, however, treat the theme with an unsentimental, if nonetheless poignant, rigor. Consider, for example, two works by Eduardo Salvatore and Ademar Manarini, both titled Untitled [Várzea do Carmo housing complex, São Paolo] (ca. 1951). These two photographs, both taken on a club excursion, pose solitary figures against the stark geometry of the eponymous complex. Hung in close proximity, they speak to one another in their spatial structure: Salvatore’s image stages five identical apartment blocks in deep recession, while Manarini fills his frame with just a single façade and one side wall, against which a man leans casually. Manarini’s image seems to complete Salvatore’s architectural sequence. This emphasis on serial or modular form turns out to be a minor theme: just above we find João Bizarro Da Nave Filho’s One Plus Ten (Um mais dez) (ca. 1960), which pictures 10 automobiles parked in a row, set off against one renegade who has just pulled out of line and into the street. Although the people that populate the FCCB’s photographs may at times exist in Romantic solitude, the built environment and mass-produced goods around them proliferate relentlessly—these are unmistakably images of urbanism at mid-century.
Thomaz Farkas, Rushing Water Number 1. ca. 1945. Gelatin silver print, 9 9/16 x 15 9/16 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2021 Thomaz Farkas Estate.
The FCCB’s approach to abstraction in photography also gestures towards a tension between lyrical and more hard-nosed creative visions. In one section, titled “Abstractions from Nature,” are hung two images from Thomaz Farkas’s “Rushing Water” series. With no horizon line or stable sense of perspective, the formal structure of these works provides little grounding to the viewer. Instead, Farkas keeps us off balance, filling his images with cascading waves and foaming crests: the sublime power of the natural world made manifest. Nearby are three works by José Yalenti, each titled Sand (Areia) (ca. 1950), that take a similar approach. Here, the patterns of windswept sand create evocative and enigmatic all-over compositions without concrete spatial coordinates. At least as abstracted, however, are a number of the photographs contained in the section “Experimental Processes,” which showcases the FCCB membership’s use of techniques such as solarization and multiple exposure. Notable among these is Gertrudes Altschul’s Untitled (ca. 1953), a two-layered linear network punctuated by semi-translucent triangular forms. The unyielding geometry that structures this photograph stands in dramatic contrast to Farkas’s fluid dynamism, a distinction that speaks to the ability of the FCCB membership to pursue very different conceptions of photographic abstraction to equally compelling ends.
In another photograph taken around the same time, Lines and Tones (Linhas e tons) (1953), Altschul manages to condense many of the ideas highlighted by MoMA’s installation into a single superb image. Here Altschul has photographed what seems to be the underside of an overpass or columned portico from an extreme low angle, transforming the edge of the structure into a sinuous and expressive line that extends through the center of the image. To the right, space is compressed and two supporting pillars become abstract bands, while on the left the corner of a plain building with three ranks of windows appears in what we only gradually realize is the background. This ambiguous deep space is framed on the left edge of the photograph by a gray triangle—impossible to identify, but presumably a fragment of another architectural structure in the foreground. Through the remarkable formal intelligence of this photograph, the urban fabric of postwar Brazil is made over into an abstracted image combining precise geometric structure with enticing sensuousness, feeling, and even a degree of mystery.