Sarah Hermanson Meister
10 Oct 2019, 12:12 pm
In the early twentieth century, Alfred Stieglitz decried the insular production of amateur photo clubs in the United States, so the vitality of an international network of similar organizations over fifty years later might come as a surprise. And yet, in the years following World War II, one finds an extraordinary range of original creative production —perhaps nowhere more so than in metropolises across Latin America. In 2021, the Museum of Modern Art will open an exhibition featuring work from São Paulo’s Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB), Brazil’s preeminent amateur photo club, founded in 1939. To situate these achievements, it is useful to consider contemporary activity in Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, the German city of Saarbrücken, and elsewhere, as photo clubs in these cities regularly exchanged the work of their members through international juried salons and grappled with questions of “art” and “quality” in their clubhouses and on the pages of the monthly journals that many of these clubs produced. Impressive in their range, scale, and quality, the works that circulated in these clubs present compelling opportunities to examine the status of the amateur and the shifting concepts of aesthetics and taste.
Little has been written in Spanish or English about the Club Fotográfico de México (CFM), the FCCB’s closest cousin in Mexico, one notable exception being José Antonio Rodríguez’s Ruth D. Lechuga: “Una Memoria Mexicana” (2002). The CFM, founded in 1949, is still active today, albeit in a form that might be unrecognizable to its founders: at its peak, there were over two hundred members, most of them amateurs who pursued photography in their leisure time, and for whom the convivial social atmosphere nurtured at the club’s headquarters and on their frequent excursions was a significant aspect of the CFM’s appeal. By the late 1960s, there was a pronounced decline in membership due to political and economic factors, as well as generational disagreements between members. Of the many splinter groups, the earliest was (probably) La Ventana, founded in 1956, and the most significant was the Consejo Mexicano de Fotografía, founded in 1977, and responsible for organizing two major colloquiums on Latin American photography in 1977 and 1980.
Today there are fourteen CFM members who meet in the apartment/studio of the current president, having given up the Mexico City clubhouse at 75 Londres in Colonia Juárez, in 2015, after sixty-three years. They are a young group (average age thirty) of both professional and amateur photographers and artists who are committed to reflecting on their own practices and on expanded approaches to photography in the world today.
Such a broad-minded ethos would have been anathema in the early years of the CFM, when members essentially declared their allegiance to Pictorialism, advocating in a 1952 publication for a range of subject matter that even Stieglitz’s most ardent acolytes would have found limiting. On the list of acceptable subjects: “lyrical and romantic fields and seas; pretty flowers [or] happy old people with singular, exotic features.” And on the prohibited list: “destruction, crime, garbage, filth, wretched poverty,” which was to say, anything that may have caught the attention of “the so-called documentary photographers, who specialize in photographing what is the most abominable, unpleasant and outrageous, [and who] use these photographs to disgrace both society and the government.” Given this, one might be forgiven for expecting the work of the club’s members to be dreadfully predictable. On the pages of the monthly Boletín published by the CFM, there is plenty of evidence that these timeless, syrupy-sweet categories were perfectly aligned with the complacent artistry of certain members. Yet it is also true that not everyone was interested in following these commands. A single box of photographs that remains in the CFM archives contains more than a few images that embraced contemporary industry and urban life.
The coexistence of members who delighted in soft-focus timelessness and those with a more engaged, experimental agenda was a hallmark of both the CFM and the FCCB, although by the early 1950s the conservative leadership of the FCCB (responsible for the content of their monthly Boletim) was more likely to ignore rather than attack those who strayed from their Pictorialist principles. The most notable example of this was their failure to address Geraldo de Barros’s one-person exhibition at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), in January 1951. The radical invention seen in de Barros’s presentation, “Fotoforma”, challenged the very definition of a photograph, with shaped prints, forms scratched into the negatives, and freestanding displays; probably many members of the FCCB simply didn’t know what to make of it. Pietro Maria Bardi, MASP’s founding director, wrote a text in the accompanying brochure that may have compounded the issue: “Geraldo unwillingly photographs the real, I would say that he does not comprehend it, and, without avoiding it, he seeks to discover in it a useful purity drawn from his meditations: lines filtered so that only parts are revealed, and lights reduced into sketches from which it is impossible to reconstruct their origins.” (Bardi was Italian and had moved to Brazil with his wife, the architect Lina Bo Bardi, in 1946, which may explain some of the strangeness of his phrasing, preserved in this translation by Tiê Higashi.) By contrast, Thomaz Farkas’s one-person show at the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM-SP), which opened in July 1949, pushed the boundaries of traditional practices with its exhibition design, if not with the photographs themselves, and was the subject of a rapturous review.
Perhaps the fundamental difference between the FCCB and the CFM is that before too long the leadership of the FCCB embraced this “modern” impulse (or at least the look of it), whereas the CFM’s staunch refusal to reexamine its aesthetic values meant that it was increasingly inhospitable to distinct approaches among its members. It was similarly out of touch with contemporary trends that were familiar to most North American and European audiences through programming such as Edward Steichen’s presentations at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, including “The Family of Man” in 1955, and exhibitions of the work of German photographer Otto Steinert and his Subjective Photography movement, which also traveled to the MAM-SP, in 1955.
One means of mapping this trajectory is to consider the mentions of Mexican photography and photographers in the FCCB Boletim, the first of which is a note in the May 1952 issue that the CFM’s magazine was available in the FCCB library. By 1957, it was La Ventana, a CFM splinter group, that was honored with an exhibition in the FCCB headquarters (and a three-page illustrated article in the Boletim). In a mention of the First Latin American Exhibition of Photography (which opened in Mexico City in June 1959 and traveled to the fccb and other venues in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay), credit for the collaborative initiative is given to La Ventana and the FCCB, not the CFM.
The status of the amateur in photography has complicated and enlivened the medium ever since George Eastman introduced his Kodak No. 1 in 1889: Pictorialism is inextricably linked to photography’s widespread popularity, even as a reaction against it. After World War II, preserving the distinction between fine-art photography and popular practices may have seemed less important than thinking about the medium as a way of bringing people together, culminating, perhaps, in “The Family of Man”. This impulse to connect was also expressed through the vast international network of photo clubs and salons to which the FCCB and the CFM belonged, where artists and amateurs danced, drank, and critiqued photographs together. This physical network held much in common with social-media platforms today where artists virtually socialize with millions of people whose only camera is found in their pockets.
This essay was originally published in Aperture, issue 236, “Mexico City,” fall 2019, and is part of the second edition of Traço— magazine, released on occasion of the 13rd SP-Foto.