Fotoclubismo: Modern Photography in Brazil
More than 50 years ago, a movement in Brazil had a thorough grounding in modern art and design. It featured outsiders to photography, with due emphasis on women, but photography in Europe never came close to its eclecticism and modernity.
Fotoclubismo Brazil introduces a collective, but it opens on the theme of solitude. Solitude can be lonely or revivifying, a forced isolation or the choice of a pioneer, and the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (or FCCB) embraced them all. It took its name from colonial fortune hunters in São Paulo, overlooking a history of slavery and Portuguese control. The group’s pioneer, Geraldo de Barros, snapped his self-portrait with sunlight as the mask of Zorro over his eyes. Yet one can feel the loneliness in an empty chair or a little girl facing an ill-defined landscape and an uncertain future. Never mind that Ivo Ferreira da Silva calls his photo of a chair Confidential – and Dulce Carneiro saw in that girl the promise of Tomorrow.
Or rather do mind, a lot, for this is modernist photography, and the collective believed in its promise. That promise brought urban professionals together on weekends, as sophisticated amateurs. It was a political promise as well. FCCB was founded in 1939, and MoMA sets a thrilling survey in the floor for art before World War II, with work almost entirely from the collection. Yet it took off for real in 1946, when de Barros signed on and the club’s magazine, Boletim Foto-Cine, began. That was the first year of a republic, and the group died in 1964 along with the republic, as a dictator seized control of Brazil.
A collective solitude
Modernity can be isolating, too, most of all when one is one among many, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. But again never mind, for Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante delighted in the signs of modernity, like telephone wires for Thomaz Farkas or a manhole cover for Marcel Giró. These days one expects Brazilian artists to reflect a uniquely Latin American art and indigenous history – like Rivane Neuenschwander, Roberto Burle Marx, Luiz Zerbini, Lygia Clark, or Grupo Frente. This club knew only modern art as an ongoing experiment. Its clean esthetic and urban subject matter recall Margaret Bourke-White and, before her, Henri Cartier-Bresson. When Alzira Helena Teixeira captures the light through a curved overhead window, one might be in rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Above all, FCCB’s members had each other, in a show of 60 works—following up on MoMA’s re–hanging in its “fall reveal”. A photo poses a good 30 in its cast, clearly enjoying the company. They traveled together, and the photo has them stepping off a plane. They kept a scorecard on each other, and they worked side by side. Ademar Manarini photographs a man from behind, leaning against a plain white wall as he faces the patterned windows of a housing complex. With Eduardo Salvatore, the club’s president, that complex and its grid of windows then take on a life of their own.
They had their common subjects, like architecture and utility poles. For Giró the Ministry of Education is a white trapezoid, as a backdrop for the wires. It is a short step from white roofs for de Barros to angled walls for José Yalenti or apartment blocks for German Lorca. It is a short step, too, from sand for Yalenti to rushing water for Farkas or raindrops on broken glass for Maria Helena Valente da Cruz. They loved blurred or broken silhouettes, like a busy airport for Lorca or an umbrella in the rain for Giró. With a concrete spiral, Gertrudes Altschul had her own foretaste of the Guggenheim still to come.
They had common techniques, like close-ups and overheads that push ordinary subjects to the verge of abstraction. Tires for Altschul look like monumental sculpture. They ran to back-lit subjects, like people in a park on Sunday for Barbara Mors. They experimented with photograms, solarization, and prints as negatives. When de Barros showed the way, it looked strange, and they drew back, but not for long. They photographed abstract painting, and the show includes a geometric abstraction by María Freire in Uruguay—but Freire had learned from them.
Just as innovative, they had women photographers, like Dulce Carneiro, starting when Altschul, already in her fifties, walked right in. She is one of just three artists with a section to herself, amid an arrangement by theme. Along with solitude, that includes sections for texture and forms, daily life, experiment, and simplicity, but these went together. White roofs for de Barros had to be corrugated, because texture and form were elements of modern life. Many a work could just as well fall in another section. Altschul may have a place to herself, but with a photo called Lines and Tones.
FCCB never gave up its status as weekend warriors. The curator, Sarah Hermanson Meister with Dana Ostrander, speaks of its work as carnival or familial – and Julio Agostinelli did photograph a circus, in (sure enough) broken silhouettes. Still, this carnival or family prefers solitude to people, for a proper Modernism and a portrait of modernity. The rare recognizable person stands out. Lorca photographs a terribly proper man reading, with a woman beside and behind him like a caretaker. The movement itself was having way too much fun to take care.
“Fotoclubismo” ran at The Museum of Modern Art through to September 26, 2021.