The Idea of Construction as a Metaphor of Modernity

Helouise Costa


Modern photography in Brazil was manifested through a wide range of different practices and approaches. Whether in photojournalism, in the photography of architecture, in photoclubs, in the production of photo documentaries, or even in fashion and advertising, what is observed are different ways of responding to a world in rapid transformation. The nine photographers featured in the show – Ademar Manarini, Eduardo Salvatore, Gaspar Gasparian, Geraldo de Barros, Gertrudes Altschul, Paulo Pires, Marcel Giró, Mario Fiori and Thomaz Farkas – were to a greater or lesser extent linked to the universe of the photoclubs and aimed to investigate the artistic potential of photography, free from the restraints of professionalism.

From different origins and backgrounds – some from families of immigrants – the photographers represented here produced their images under the impact of the process of modernization which, from the mid-1940s onward, reconfigured the look of the big cities in Brazil. In general, they resorted to photography as a tool able to express the new ways of seeing and experiencing the entirely new urban context. These aims were materialized through direct photography but also through experiments such as photograms, montages and the Sabattier effect. While some limited themselves to exercises of a formalist character, others sought to enlarge the understanding of photography beyond the characteristic repertoire of the photoclub and what was conventionally known as the province of photography.

Individual differences aside, it seems that the idea of construction runs as a common thread through all the images presented here. The verb “to construct,” as explained by the dictionaries, is synonymous with building, erecting and architecting. These actions are materialized in different ways in these photographs, which sometimes result from a rigorous gaze on the world, and sometimes spring from a creative clashing with the material, by way of manipulations. Not by chance, photography and architecture were manifestations of modernism in perfect tune with each other in Brazil in the period following World War II. Building new architectural forms and constructing a new photographic language shared in the same ideal of constructing a modern country, as is evident in the photo Canteiro de obras [Construction Site], which Thomaz Farkas produced during the construction of Brasília, in 1958.

A little more than sixty years later, this exhibition presents modern Brazilian photography from the viewpoint of the photoclub, in dialogue with the beautiful space designed by architect Rino Levi in the late 1950s, officially declared a municipal and state heritage site of São Paulo. If the power of this encounter recalls a special moment in the country’s history, it also reveals that our enchantment with these images is in large part due to how they hold the potentials of a promised future. Today, however, perhaps more than ever, they give us a strange feeling of nostalgia for what we did not manage to become.