Magazine “Fotoclubismo: Brazilian modernist photography, 1946-1964”: the style of São Paulo
With the introduction of low cost portable cameras in the late 19th century, amateur photographers quickly began to outnumber professionals. Hundreds of passionate societies have sprung up around the world, offering courses, publishing newsletters, awarding prizes. Several of these clubs, like the Photo League in New York, shaped the course of 20th century art.
A group of influential amateurs, whom few outside South America were familiar with until recently, is the subject of the compact but illuminating exhibition “Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography, 1946-1964” at the Museum of modern Art.
Founded in 1939, with less than a hundred members, the Foto-Clube Bandeirante (FCB) was headquartered in the first skyscraper in downtown São Paulo. In 1946, after the club had added a cinema and a “women” division, it became the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB) and organized salons which welcomed both pictorialists and avant-garde artists. (“Bandeirantes” means “flag bearer” in Portuguese, but also, more obnoxiously, is the term for 18th and 19th century Brazilian expeditions launched to enslave indigenous peoples. These photographers considered themselves to be pioneers and adopted the word swagger in their club name because back then it wasn’t considered as offensive as it is today.)
MoMA curator Sarah Hermanson Meister focused on photographers and the post-war decades when São Paulo became a megalopolis. The show examines how one FCCB faction interpreted their country’s transformation through the prism of European and American modernism, drawing on an imported stylistic framework with its own ingenious panache.
The 60 black and white prints, many of which hang in duplicate in a gallery on the museum’s fifth floor, are organized by theme. In sections such as “Solitude”, “Daily life” and “Experimental processes”, Ms. Meister has integrated small works of six people – Gertrudes Altschul, Geraldo de Barros, Thomaz Farkas, Marcel Giró, German Lorca and José Yalenti – as well as samples from a dozen more. Windows in the center of the room contain illustrated bulletins published by the club.
Fotoclubismo: Brazilian modernist photography, 1946-1964
modern Art Museum
Until September 26
Much of the work on the walls is influenced by the graphic language taught in the 1920s and 1930s at the Bauhaus. The objects are recognizable but often abstract: the windows of buildings cut into patterns of nervous squares; tram rails rendered as delicate, plunging curves. In a 1950s painting by Altschul of a metal staircase, the shadows of the steps against a wall are elongated, as if steel is melting under the strong Brazilian sun.
The spread of modern architecture seems to have elicited ambivalent responses. An apartment complex was photographed in the early 1950s by Eduardo Salvatore, president of the FCCB for decades, as a row of Orwellian concrete boxes, devoid of coziness or warmth. On the other hand, in a 1961 photograph by Lorca of an airport in São Paulo, a neat crowd is at home in the glassed-in environment.
The overwhelming majority of FCCB members were men. Proud amateurs, they worked as doctors, engineers or journalists and had money to spend on a serious hobby. Anyone who made a living from commercial photography was considered tainted and banned from membership, a snobbish attitude inherited, Ms. Meister believes, from the edicts of Alfred Stieglitz.
De Barros, for example, had a job at Banco do Brasil that shouldn’t have been too taxing. To make his surprisingly inventive “Fotoforma” (1952-53), he cut holes in a computer punch card with his employer’s calculating machine. The perforated paper then becomes a negative for the printing of a rectilinear abstraction, a monochrome Mondrian.
Darkroom experimentation was encouraged. The tonality of many prints oscillates between immaculate white and absolute black. Photographers have seen material in nature as well as on the street. Farkas’ “Rushing Water” studies of the mid-1940s glorified dispersive energy, while Giró pointed his camera at his feet and created a fractured order out of “Asphalt” (circa 1950) and “Mud” ( circa 1957).
Altschul, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, found work in São Paulo making artificial flowers for women’s hats. Several botanical species from his new land became the basis for photographs, including his exquisite “Filigree” (1953), a study of the veins of a papaya leaf. This is the cover image of the superb catalog, which offers a more detailed point of view (140 images) on the fervent activities of the club.
During the 1950s Edward Steichen, then director of photography for MoMA, purchased prints from several FCCB members, but did not include any in his exhibition and his 1955 bestselling book, “Family of Man.” . One reason may be a penchant among members for impersonal abstraction. There are only two real portraits in “Fotoclubismo”, and both are more surrealist (one is a solarized head) than humanistic.
Ms. Meister admits in her essay that her non-sentimental selection is far from complete. A 2015 exhibition on the FCCB at the Museum of Art in São Paulo featured 279 prints. But as MoMA spearheaded modernism in all the arts in the mid-20th century, it is fitting that it is the first museum outside of Brazil to showcase these skilled amateurs and their flawlessly elegant photographs. .
-Mr. Woodward is an art critic in New York.
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