Collecting (17) – Zamora

Every year, in the beginning of November, book-sellers from Granada and other parts of Andaluzia gather around Fuente de las Batallas, in the city’s centre. In this used-book fair, you may buy, for two or three euros, some of the most representative works of the most representative authors of the 20th century’s Spanish literature, like Lorca, Cela, Delibes, Marsé or Blasco Ibañez. Amongst these books, you may also find photo-related items, such as postcards, old prints and photo-books. Some of the most interesting objects are the old books published by government agencies, or at the expenses of those agencies, with the aim of promoting regions and historical monuments of Spain. For instance, if you’re lucky, you may find a pristine copy of the Avila’s tourist guide, with text by the Nobel prize-winner Camilo José Cela and photos by the famous Spanish photographer Francesc Catalá Roca. Or something like this guide to the city of Zamora, printed and published in 1929, with texts in Spanish, French and English.

The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned

Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

private collection

Collecting (16) — Trilogia (Trilogy)

Trilogy was the first of a two-part photographic project called The Sacred and the Profane, proposed and curated by Jorge Calado in the year 2000. The idea focuses on the long-time tradition of documental photography inspired by humanism, of which Roy Striker’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) photo-team is the perfect paragon. In fact, the second part of the project consisted in a show and another catalog called Terra Bendita (The Good Earth), with FSA and FSA-related photographs. Trilogy is the present-day supplement of The Good Earth. It is also a self-contained, solid photo-book, with a deep character, that will certainly stand the test of time.

Trilogy commissioned three photographers, Paulo Catrica, José M. Rodrigues and Mark Power, to portray the activities of the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation, in Alentejo, a region of southern Portugal that, due to its history, climate and geography, has a recent past that reminds the rural USA during the Great Depression years. Ten years ago, when Trilogy and The Good Earth were presented, Alentejo wasn’t anymore that desolated land of the mid-twentieth-century. However, the arid landscape, the desertification and the tradition of wealthy landowners weaves eternal braids between today’s “granary of Portugal” and a past of suffering.

Power, Catrica and Rodrigues presented three highly personal works that were then unified by the curator’s sharp and sensitive vision. Jorge Calado (of whom I am honored to be a friend and, in a sense, an apprentice) is a remarkable man with an amazing knowledge on photography in each one if its aspects. He took the work of three photographers with rather distinct styles and created a consistent whole, dotted by rimes and small stories. The book is beautifully designed, printed and finished, as usual in Calado’s publications, and the sequences, scale and rhythm are perfectly mastered by the curator. Together with The Good Earth, this is a must in every collector’s bookshelf. (For those of you who are familiarized with Portuguese photography and the work of Catrica and Rodrigues, it might be a surprise to see that the first proposed a series of black-and-white photos, while Rodrigues’s project is mainly in color. Well, don’t be surprised.)

Carlos Miguel Fernandes

Photographing, Aging and Dying

Photographs, like people, age and then, ultimately, they die. Like men and women, they also have a period of gestation: depending on the processing and drying methods, several hours or days may separate the moment when one takes (makes?) the picture and the end of the whole procedure, when the print is dry and ready to be handled. Fertilization and birth. Aging and dying.

I am talking about analogical photography, of course. No such concerns are valid for digital photography if the image is not printed (otherwise, and despite all the claims from Epson about the durability of their prints, the photos will eventually fade and die; and fortunately, I say). Therefore, if we believe that the value, emotional or commercial, of a photograph (any photograph) is highly related to this kind of life cycle — and we should at least consider it, since there are enough hints in History that sustain the thesis, — then we must conclude that the digital era could have a negative impact on the value of photography as an object and as a cognitive extension of the human mind. It’s easier to press Del than to tear a photo. And although this easiness may be the only answer to the mass production of inconsequent images, its effects on the future of photography are disturbingly unknown.

private collection

Words and Photography (Mark Kurlansky)

In September 1862, photographer Mathew Brady opened an exhibit in New York of work by his assistants Alexander Gardner and James E. Gibson entitled The Dead of Antietam. Photography was new and few had ever seen such images of war.

Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster

Alexander Gardner

Yes, photography was new in 1862. And, by then, photography was also slow. The low-sensitivity emulsions were still in command: there were no action scenes, no shooting, no bombing, and no soldiers falling after being shot. The images of war brought to New York by Gardner and Gibson were pictures of desolation, post-battle photos of corpses, crippled men and misty ambiance. There were still a few steps ahead in the path towards plastic-based negatives and Leica cameras.

That’s why I keep saying that, if we stick our analysis to the production of images, we’ll probably realize that the digital age is not bringing any revolution. It’s just another step in the process. And not a very important one, since, unlike the evolution of 19th century emulsions and films, switching between silver and bits is not having relevant effects on image making. I mean, you can still increase more your creative tools if adding a technical camera to your 35mm kit, than changing from analogical to a digital reflex camera. Digital is just a matter of speed, but not photographic speed; it only affects the rate of distribution, selection, error correction. And that’s why, for many photographers, the digital is not that exciting (except for archival and handling purposes, maybe).

However, if we limit digital photography to a digital environment (i.e., no prints, just files and screens and software), then we may perceive a big revolution coming by, in the way we conceive and think about photography. In fact, we may be in witnessing, in nowadays, the amputation of the cognitive extension that analogical photography gave us (mankind). Later, I’ll try to explain this point of view, which, I admit, is pretty radical and polemical.

Collecting (15) — Bordertown

I found this photobook in Texas, in 1999, in a dreary bookstore of a dreary shopping mall, not very far away from the infamous border described by Barry Gifford and David Perry. No, not very far away, and, still, far enough. The line that separates the USA from Mexico is at a safe distance from San Antonio. The disorder of the geographic boundaries, that restlessness that corrupts beyond the tolerable giving in return nothing more than a romantic aura which seduces the twisted passersby without any strong arguments besides the honesty of the putrid blind alleys, is kept at length from the city of the Alamo.

Strangely, and maybe because it is so close to a hole that, like a sneaky vortex, attracts all the chaos in the world, San Antonio is a relatively quiet city (or so it seems, to the short-term visitor). Not very exciting tough, besides the Alamo Mission, its memories, cultural references and influence in the history of USA and Mexico: it was after the battle of the Alamo, in 1836, that the border between the USA and Mexico began to converge inexorably to its current state. In that no man’s land where North America meets the Latin world, two American artists wandered, scratched and wallowed in a filthy territory, and created Bordertown, a straight and harsh sketch of the life in the frontier territories of Mexico.

With photos by David Perry and text by Barry Gifford (author of the novel Wild at Heart, published in 1989 and later adapted to the cinema by David Lynch), Bordertown is carefully designed, with words and images combining in a consistent whole, the text printed chaotically, the photos oscillating between the sepia toning and a beautiful — and yet mysterious and gloomy — silver glow. And while not being a moralist indictment, Perry and Gifford’s book avoids the romanticization of a deeply wounded, dirty and dangerous world. There, in la frontera del infierno (hell’s frontier), drug abuse, abductions, murders, prostitution and petty crimes live side by side with men and women that must carry on with their lives, no matter how brutal things may become. And the curse is spread through the 3000 kilometers of world’s busiest border.

Bordertown describes a closed universe with no redemption. In fact, those characters do not seem to seek redemption at all; they just pass by these photos, laying against the silhouettes of the urbanscape, like they walk the streets of border towns: resigned, no matter how happy or unhappy they are. In their own, extreme way, these cities and villages are also happy and sad, but unlike Victor Palla and and Costa Martins, Gifford and Perry will not be enrolled in a prominent place in the history the photography book. Nevertheless, Bordertown is not a negligible work and served perfectly as a complement to a trip that could not go beyond San Antonio. With this book, I had the illusion of going one step further. And there are places we can only reach through books.

 Carlos M. Fernandes

Collecting (14) – Renato Roque’s Dreams

I bought this item a long time ago, in 1994 or 1995, at a photo festival that was held every year in the Portuguese town of Coimbra. It is a simple, discrete, and yet beautiful collectible piece by the Portuguese photographer Renato Roque (b.1952), consisting of eight small format postcards, stacked in a thick paper envelope and tied with a white nylon twine. The title, in Portuguese, os sonhos são a preto e branco, translates to something like dreams are in black and white; and, effectively, these images look like (amplified) details of that region where surrealism meets expressionism — Hitchcock’s (and Dali’s!) Spellbound comes immediately to my mind as I browse through the photos.  The envelope and the photos are not numbered and there is no indication of how many sets have been released. An extended version of the work (twenty-five cibachrome 40×50 cm prints from black-and-white negatives) was exhibited at the Imagolucis gallery, in Oporto, and later in France and Vila Nova de Cerveira (Portugal).

Carlos M. Fernandes

Collecting (13) – Diapositives

I was recently in New York and I finally managed to visit the famous Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market. There, I found this slide holder full of photos that seem to belong to a single family. These kind of images always have a disturbing effect on me, especially diapositives, maybe because their format keeps the mistery for a longer time, at least until we project them on a screen or digitize them. But then, they are still volatile. A photograph needs a real (not a virtual) support. The role of diapositives in the history of vernacular photography can give us some hints on the possible effects of the massification of digital photography and digital storage. Just think about this: which photos of your family have endured (in your memory),  those from the albums, printed on paper, or those in reversal film? What is more amusing, to browse through a family album, or to watch the slide projection of your friend’s 1978 holydays in Rome?

Behind carte-de-visite


Words and Photography (Peter Handke)

Als das Kind Kind war,
hatte es von nichts eine Meinung,
hatte keine Gewohnheit,
saß oft im Schneidersitz,
lief aus dem Stand,
hatte einen Wirbel im Haar
und machte kein Gesicht beim fotografieren.

When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed.