MoMA is the First Museum Outside of Brazil to Put the Spotlight on Brazilian Modernist Photography.
Earlier this month MoMA opened Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography 1946–1964, a retrospective of São Paulo’s influential photo collective Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante that runs until June 26th.
Fotoclubismo marks the first time Brazilian mid century photography has received recognition at a major institution outside of its native country.
The exhibition, curated by Sarah H. Meister, a photography curator at MoMA and the head of the Aperture Foundation, proves that when it comes to the conversation about contemporary photography, Brazil has been unfairly left out. Fotoclubismo argues the case for FCCB’s inclusion within the historical canon of street photography and raises the question of why the exclusion happened in the first place.
The vast archive ranges from architectural studies, abstract images of nature, and experimental takes on everyday life. Painterly compositions, an emphasis on shadows and lines, and close ups of common objects characterize the avant-garde sensibilities of the members.
Roberto Yoshida. Skyscrapers (Arranha-céus).. 1959. Gelatin silver print, 14 9/16 × 11 9/16 in. (37 × 29.3 cm). Collection Fernanda Feitosa and Heitor Martins. © 2020 Estate of Roberto Yoshida.
FCCB was influential in pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an amateur photographer. While members kept day jobs such as businessmen, journalists, scientists, bankers, and lawyers, they took their role as photographers very seriously.
FCCB members didn’t simply meet and discuss photography after work: they actively pursued projects as a group and pushed each other both aesthetically and technically. They would regularly take trips around Brazil to photograph their surroundings and enter their work into local and international competitions.
At a moment in time when the landscape of Brazil was rapidly becoming transformed by urbanization and immigration, FCCB looked to these juxtapositions of old and new to find inspiration.
Julio Agostinelli. Circus (Circense). 1951. Gelatin silver print, 11 7/16 × 15 in. (29 × 38.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Richard O. Rieger. © 2020 Estate of Julio Agostinelli.
The exhibition is divided into thematic categories: Simplicity, Gertrudes Altschul, Abstractions from Nature, Texture and Shape, Geraldo de Barros, Experimental Processes, Daily Life, and Solitude.
Marcel Giró’s photo “Light and Power” is one of the first prints that greets the viewers. A minimal image of black wires jutting up from power outlets, the lines tangled across a dirty wall resemble vines or scribbles from a Cy Twombly painting.
German Lorca’s portraits of everyday life are instantly memorable and imbued with a painterly quality. In one image, a boy bites into an apple against a wood fence, three holes on the fence dance suspended in a row framing his head.
Dulce Carneiro’s print “Tomorrow” shows the profile of a young girl barefoot in a white dress and long braids gazing off to the distance gives off a timeless sense of curiosity and innocence.
Under the category Simplicity, the everyday object is abstracted and composition is the highlight. Photos of a chair, the side of a modern building with a single telephone pole, and a vaulted sewer hole, show FCCB’s emphasis on form and texture.
Thomaz Farkas. Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação) [Rio de Janeiro]. c. 1945. Gelatin silver print, 12 13/16 × 11 3/4 in. (32.6 × 29.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist.
While FCCB members captured post war Brazilian culture, they were also part of the international photography conversations at the time. Members brought with them unique perspectives and a range of cultural backgrounds: many were first generation immigrants and refugees from Europe and Japan.
One of FCCB’s most successful women members, Gertrudes Altschul, a Jewish photographer, came to Brazil to escape Nazi persecution from her native Germany. She and her husband ran a business selling handmade decorative flowers for hats in São Paulo, Brazil.
Altschul’s close up photo of a papaya leaf is showcased on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. The image was initially used as the cover of the group’s influential magazine Boletim on the year Altschul passed away.
Cover of the exhibition catalogue Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography and the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante, 1946–1964, published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2021.
Boletim was pivotal for showcasing FCCB’s progress and attracting new members. The club held monthly photo competitions and listed the winners in each issue. The magazine fostered a healthy competition between members and provided an incentive to capture the “best view.”
Each issue there were internal competitions where photos were judged by visual qualities as well as psychological factors. Editors would list the winners’ names along with birthday announcements, weddings, and group photos. Recording the names of the members served as a way for FCCB to seal their place in history lest the world forgot.
And for a while, the world did forget.
It wasn't until years after the club closed their doors that Helouise Costa, professor at University of São Paulo and curator of Museum of Contemporary Art, discovered FCCB in the eighties after applying for a grant at University of São Paulo meant to encourage academics to explore Brazilian photography.
Soon into her research, Costa came across works by members of FCCB and quickly realized that the group was the most influential photo collective in its time in both scope and skill.
Maria Helena Valente da Cruz. The Broken Glass (O vidro partido). c. 1952. Gelatin silver print, 11 7/8 × 11 1/2 in. (30.2 × 29.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Donna Redel. © 2020 Estate of Maria Helena Valente da Cruz.
Costa studied the club’s magazine and reached out to all the names listed in the pages. What she discovered was an entirely forgotten archive of some of the most influential mid century Brazilian photography. Costa was the first person to look at many of these prints in decades: many former members had been sitting on these negatives since the 50’s.
This discovery catapulted FCCB into national fame, although it wasn’t until another twenty plus years before the club’s legacy started to make a buzz internationally.
“FCCB has achieved the greatest visibility in recent years. It’s perhaps surprising to discover that as recently as the eighties their production was practically unknown. Thirty years later the scenario has changed radically,” said Costa while speaking at a forum on Brazilian mid century photography at MoMA in 2017.
And bringing FCCB to a major institution wasn’t even suggested until 2017, when MoMA photography director Sarah Meister first saw works from the club during a trip to Brazil. Three years later and over 60 works by 20 club members are now on display.
André Carneiro. Rails (Trilhos). 1951. Gelatin silver print, 11 5/8 × 15 9/16 in. (29.6 × 39.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of José Olympio da Veiga Pereira through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund. © 2020 Estate of André Carneiro.
The exhibition not only showcases the groundbreaking experimental and aesthetic sensibilities of FCCB, but it also invites the viewer to question the status of the amateur photographer.
Meister has positioned Fotoclubismo within the history of contemporary photography. Along with their stylistic merits, FCCB’s photos allow the viewer to reflect on the ways race, gender, and status affect how photography is consumed by the public.
"I'm particularly excited not only because I know that the work is going to resonate with audiences," she said, "but because it's this wonderful opportunity to think, 'what else can we do as curators or as museums to reflect and recuperate other elements of our history that have been overlooked and neglected?'” she told Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster.