March 28th, 2016
The Foto Cine Clube
In São Paulo, an exhibition explores the global reach of modern Brazilian photography.
By Paula V. Kupfer
Founded at dawn on a cool São Paulo night in April 1939, the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante played a crucial role in the development of modern photography in Brazil. It was in the 1950s, however, in the midst of rapidly industrializing São Paulo, that its members arrived at the abstracted, formal, modernist style that became their signature. Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante: Do Arquivo à Rede, recently presented at the Museum of Art of São Paulo, is the first institutional nod to the club’s contributions; the curators describe it as a “decisive step in the process of legitimation of modern Brazilian photography.”
Shown on the second floor of the museum’s iconic Lina Bo Bardi building, 279 prints provide a chronological look at the work of FCCB photographers Thomaz Farkas, Geraldo de Barros, and German Lorca, among many others, from 1939 to the 1980s. The show was beautifully installed, with simple means for an elegant effect: sets of panels on thin metal rods leaned against each other, completely detached from the walls. While the early works betray the photographers’ pictorialist inclinations, subsequent ones demonstrate how their aesthetic morphed into a sharper look at geometry, shadow, and light. The photographs from the 1950s and ’60s that dominate the exhibition echo visual tropes of movements in Europe in the 1920s and ’50s, but capture a distinct Brazilian sensibility—an attitude reflected in ambitious architectural projects of the time and the new São Paulo Biennial (founded in 1951).
Organized around the ideas of “archive” and “network,” the exhibition reflects both the vast FCCB archive and the global network of photo-clubs they were part of. Stickers, paper tags, and stamps on the backs of many prints confirm the photographs’ active journeys to salons throughout South America; international capitals such as London, Paris, and Singapore; as well as regional cities in the United States, including Louisville and Indianapolis. In what is arguably the curators’ boldest decision, a quarter of the photographs on view are displayed from the back only, their stories told not through imagery but via their travel marks. These stamps offer another way of reading history: their careful designs range from constructivist to art deco and suggest an awareness of international art.
Fans of the iconic image makers from the 1950s, including Farkas, de Barros, Lorca, and Chico Albuquerque, will be satisfied, but they’ll also learn about other remarkable figures like Roberto Yoshida, José Oiticica Filho (father of Hélio Oiticica), Kazuo Kawahara, Ademar Manarini, José Yalenti, and Eduardo Salvatore, longtime FCCB president. The show also offers a glimpse at women’s work in the male-dominated club, notably that of German-born Gertrudes Altschul, whose formal and elegant experimental approach is represented in twelve prints.
The “archive” aspect of the exhibition left this viewer wanting. A vitrine displays catalogues with stylish covers from the yearly Photography Salons, but the FCCB’s assiduously maintained bulletins, published from the ’40s onward, are nowhere to be seen. Extracted quotations related to photographic genres and techniques, questions about the medium, and the role of the photo club, are scattered across a wall, but it comes off as a modest effort masking a missed opportunity to highlight the group’s committed effort to record-keeping and critical discussion. (They diligently reprinted critical articles and reviews from local press and international publications, documented club events and excursions, and kept track of members’ inclusion in international salons.) That said, the exhibition places the photographs at the center, foregrounding the photographers’ work, and thus attests to their aesthetically innovative spirit and lasting contribution to the story of modern photography.
Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante: Do Arquivo a Rede was on view at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo from November 27, 2015 to March 3, 2016.
Paula V. Kupfer is a writer and editor based in New York. Formerly the managing editor of Aperture magazine, she is working on her master’s thesis on 1950s photography in São Paulo.