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Restoring a Forgotten Chapter of Modern Photography History

Restoring a Forgotten Chapter of Modern Photography History

In her final exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, curator Sarah Meister explores the work of a highly influential group of Brazilian amateur photographers.
Roberto Yoshida, Skyscrapers (Arranha-céus), 1959, Collection Fernanda Feitosa and Heitor Martins © 2020 Estate of Roberto Yoshida

At precisely 2:34 p.m. on April 29, 1939, a small group of amateur photographers gathered in the Blue Room of the Martinelli building in São Paolo, Brazil, to create the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB). Lawyers, businessmen, accountants, journalists, engineers, biologists and bankers… These white collar professionals shared a common love for the innovative possibilities of photography. Together, artists including Thomaz Farkas, Geraldo de Barros, Gertrudes Altschul, Maria Helena Valente da Cruz, and Palmira Puig-Giró, among others would gather regularly in the spirit of competition and camaraderie to create a space for shared discovery.

Informed by the movement towards abstraction dominating the modern art world, members of the FCCB pushed the boundaries of the medium into new realms, and their influence extended into artistic circles across Europe and North America. Like their peers working in painting, design, and literature, the FCCB found inspiration in majestic elegance of daily life, drawing from architecture, nature, texture, shape, shadow, solitude, and movement to create new ways of seeing the world.

André Carneiro, Rails (Trilhos), 1951, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 Estate of André Carneiro

For 25 years, the FCCB continuously challenged visual tropes, resisting the lure of repetition and cliché in a search for originality of style and technique. But with the Coup of 1964, in which the United States funded the Brazilian Armed Forces overthrow of President João Goulart, a brutally repressive regime dominated the country for the next twenty years. As the FCCB prepared for the Eighth São Paulo Bienal in September–November 1965, the government began to jail critics and intellectuals, an act that signaled the end of an era had arrived.

After the FCCB disbanded, they all but disappeared from the history of modern photography outside Brazil. In her final exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, curator Sarah Hermanson Meister has organized Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography and the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante, 1946–1964, a restoration of a vital but forgotten chapter of art history, opened since May 8. Featuring more than 60 photographs drawn from the MoMA’s collection, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue present a series of works that offer indelible insight into mid-century modernism with a Brazilian touch.

A Keen Eye and a Curious Mind

Geraldo de Barros, Fotoforma, 1952-53, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 Arquivo Geraldo de Barros. Courtesy Luciana Brito Galeria

Sarah Meister’s curiosity about FCCB was first piqued in 2005, when Venezuelan-American curator Luis Pérez-Oramas brought the work of Brazilian photographer and painter Geraldo de Barros (1923-1998) to the Department of Photography at MoMA. Meister was struck by de Barros’ 1949 self-portrait in which a narrow band of light illuminates his eyes, assigning a surreal touch to an otherwise classic example of portraiture. De Barros’ 1952-3 photogram Fotoforma also drew her attention; the abstract image of light shining through a punch card from his employer, Banco de Brazil, revealed the fascinating intersection of a keen eye and a curious mind.

“When you see something you really love, as a curator you ask, How is this entirely new to me? How is this utterly absent from any chapter of photographic history that I had ever learned in school?” Meister says. “MoMA is a place where you are encouraged to try to answer these questions. I traveled to Brazil and met with curators, scholars, historians, collectors, and artists for whom this work was an integral part of the history they tell. I was able to build a context for it and grapple with why it was missing.”

Maria Helena Valente da Cruz, The Broken Glass (O vidro partido), c. 1952, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 Estate of Maria Helena Valente da Cruz

As a member of the establishment, Sarah Meister acknowledges the importance of reckoning with the impact of her work. “As complicated as histories are told the urge to simplify is an understandable one. I myself have been a part of this,” she says. “Over my career my reflections on photography have been in part an attempt to make sense of the messy diversity of the medium and what I’m coming to terms with is in those efforts to make sense you can inadvertently oversimplify.”

Writing and Rewriting History

In organizing Fotoclubissimo, Meister didn’t simply make space for a missing chapter of art history, but interrogates ideas of the past that have long since past their expiration date. “I’m interested in how things fall into and out of fashion and consciousness,” Meister says. “This group was incredibly well known in the 1950s. Their photographs were awarded prizes on six continents. They were highly esteemed practitioners in dialogue with artists in Germany, France, and the United States. To go from that to the moment we have now where I have never heard from any of them, that shows you how fickle history can be.”

Aldo Augusto de Souza Lima, Vertigo (Vertigem), 1949 The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 Estate of Aldo Augusto de Souza Lima

In returning the FCCB to its proper place in history, Sarah Meister also draws attention to their use of colonialist language. Although Brazil achieved independence from Portugal in 1825, a century later the spirit of imperialism was still in vogue among the bourgeoisie. Adopting the name “Bandeirante” (Portuguese for “standard-bearers”), FCCB member José Donati explained the name in his 1948 essay for Boletim 24, the group’s monthly magazine: “Bandeirante—for those who don’t know the history of the people of São Paulo—was the name given to the men of São Paulo who explored the backlands of Brazil; for these new Paulistas would be the new bandeirantes, bearing a new standard of dissemination and improvement, exploring art photography (known and practiced by very few initiates) across Brazil.”

Words hold power, reinforcing ideologies and archetypes that otherwise minimize or erase entire histories. “At a moment when Rio was still the capital and São Paolo was struggling for its own place in the country’s international reputation, the Bandeirante were a regional group,” the curator says. “They were seen as explorers and innovators, but also as coming from a locally anchored sense of identity. That was why they chose the name. It’s important now to acknowledge the problematics of enslaving indigenous people, exploiting the natural landscape, of the quest for territorial control under colonial control – these things are uncomplicated in that you should not be celebrating them but like all good art history, history is about learning things in new ways. This is a part of the history.”

Gertrudes Altschul, Filigree (Filigrana), 1953, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 Estate of Gertrudes Altschul

Sarah Meister, who joined MoMA as a curatorial assistant in 1997, becoming curator in 2009, moved to Aperture as Executive Director in May, where she will continue to explore the ways photography can bridge the divide. “The community is a cherished aspect of our human experience,” she says. “Photography is a  particularly fertile way of exploring this and it always has been whether you are posting a photo on Instagram, or convening in a clubhouse to talk about photography and why it matters, as these photographers did. Photography can bring people together and appreciate our differences. I don’t think there’s any other medium that offers the same possibilities.”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including TimeVogueAperture, and Vice, among others.

Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography and the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante, 1946–1964, May 8 – September 28, 2021 at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019, USA.

Exhibition Catalogue, published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York. $45.00

Julio Agostinelli, Circus (Circense), 1951, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 Estate of Julio Agostinelli
Thomaz Farkas, Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação), [Rio de Janeiro], c. 1945, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist © Thomaz Farkas
Palmira Puig-Giró, Untitled, c. 1960, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Agnes Rindge Claflin Fund © 2020 Estate of Palmira Puig-Giró

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