Miguel Rio Branco and Helena Martins-Costa: Multiple Operations Between Documentary and Document
Mariano Klautau Filho
14 Oct 2019, 11:50 am
Today, the notion of ‘documentary’ in photography is rather detrimental. Our current conception of the term is the result of a process of naturalizing a pre-determined view of art history, in particular the history of photography from the cultural perspective of the United States, a country that has greatly contributed to the expansion of modern photography.
The almost totalitarian idea that factual photographs have an alleged social commitment with reality still persists. Undoubtedly, photographic images have a unique proximity to objects. As such, both the discourse around the veracity of photojournalism, as proclaimed by the media, and the inevitable physical relationship between the person who takes the photo — whose interest is everyday social interactions — and their object, were responsible for forging a limited, naïve and perverse view of the ‘documentary genre’ in the last few decades.
Artists that defy the crystalized protocol of this genre or that delve into the photographic document with a certain level of suspicion tend to come up with responses that are far more inquisitive than the calm horizon of islands that enclose the several — often mistaken — categories of photographic activity: journalism, publicity, fashion, art, documentary, creative, contaminated or constructed photography.
It is not about turning our backs on applied photography or denying its potential as a language, or even advocating for the noble and idealized status of a ‘work of art’. Instead, we must pay close attention to the symbolic discourses built by the modern culture of images, as well as navigate this minefield with an attitude of intervention and confrontation. With radically opposed bodies of work in terms of formal configuration, temperature and discourse, both Miguel Rio Branco and Helena Martins-Costa work in this territory riddled with sign-laden traps.
From as early as the mid 1970s, following a strong interest in the human landscape of deep Brazil, Rio Branco started to work with photography from the perspective of the idea of a scrapbook. His exhibitions appear to be scribbles of his impressions of a country that is socially precarious but at the same time erotic in its physical presence, and empowered by its inhabitants. How can one deal with all this without falling into the trap of ‘documentary photography’? Rio Branco tirelessly challenges the protocol, sometimes contradicting himself, other times skillfully avoiding it through the lyricism of his images, which gain power when displayed alongside images of a different nature, creating unexpected clashes, fusions, and associations.
From the end of the 1970s to his recent major solo shows, the artist has been striving for his own discourse to confront the genre. This confrontation is unsettling and unstable, as it affects the spectator not in the strict sense of raising awareness of the political-social status of his Brazilian (and global) cultural characters or landscapes, but in the sense of triggering an erotic experience through the life force that emanates from those bodies as they go about their everyday struggle.
His image-clusters displace viewers from a specific historical context, throwing them back at the universe of the image. In this rapid comeback, this universe is so shattered by the rapture proposed by the artist that we feel disoriented by the radicalism of this social experience, as if it was a live act experienced with delight.
The sense of disquiet we experience in front of Rio Branco’s images — built by loose elements in space-time — is the result of the way the artist dismantles the documentary protocol and its pre-established discourse as far as fact, place, event, or people are concerned. Moved by sensations triggered by the photos that are partially removed from their contexts, we experience a different narrative arrangement, which is somewhat more abstract in its discourse but bears the same concreteness of captured facts. In this game, abstractions and photographic figurations dance to a song whose melody alternates between clear, pristine notes and dense, obscure and dissonant passages. This game is one of Rio Branco’s strategies to challenge and experiment with the documentary protocol of photography. His decade-long photo archive is constantly revisited, often bringing back the same images or sequences, which return reorganized, orchestrated like vibrant new symphonies.
The exhibition “Maldicidade” [City Sickness] is one of the many examples of this confrontation in the photographer’s poetic dynamics. It was originally launched in 2010 at Museu da Imagem e do Som (MIS-SP), in São Paulo, with the full title “Maldicidade — Marco zero” [City Sickness — Zero Ground]. The catalog was later published in 2012 and, in 2014, Cosac Naify re-published it with the shorter title “Maldicidade”. In 2019, it returns to galeria Luisa Strina, concomitantly to a new edition of the book published by Taschen. Each work, book or exhibition represents a new exploration of Rio Branco’s archive, in which the artist decontextualizes and recontextualizes the photographed fact, sometimes rearranging visual sequences that gain the complexity missing from documentary tradition, other times giving himself into pure formalist delight, as an aesthete unsettled by the social world.
In the 2019 edition of Maldicidade, scenes and characters from the Pelourinho area of Salvador (“Leninha verde” [Green Leninha], 1979-2018) meet scenes captured in Tokyo (“Sapatos azuis e vermelhos” [Blue and Red Shoes], 2008-18), cars and houses in Havana (“Flying Dark Vader”, 1994-2019, “Sombras barrocas de Havana” [Baroque Shadows of Havana], 1994-2019) and Electra’s propellers in flight (“Electra”, 1989-2019). All these word-images fluctuate in sets. Some are loose as a single element, but the whole group is ruled by a composition that updates his intervention in the documentary protocol. Rio Branco’s action in the minefield of factual photography is far from discreet; instead, it is emotional, relying on narrative artifice. The artist invades the treacherous terrain, deftly stepping over almost all explosives. Perhaps this explains the visceral effect of his body of work, which evokes sensation more than understanding.
Equally concerned with the documentary aspect of photography, Helena Martins-Costa follows a different route and presents us a body of work fundamentally distinct from Rio Branco’s. Martins-Costa’s object is not documentary photography in the style and genre investigated by Olivier Lugon and subverted by Rio Branco. What inspires Martins-Costa is a type of photographic document par excellence, particularly the field of amateur, prosaic photography, personal stories, circumstantial records immersed in subjective attitudes that, in the artist’s eyes, have their social and symbolic aspects celebrated as a collective history that overarches the genre of portrait.
In several series, Martins-Costa operates an intriguing double intervention in anonymous archives lost around the world. She has the ability to bring together intimacy and social representation when, in a gesture of appropriation, she cuts off the heads of those portrayed, removing from the frame the maximum representation of identity: physiognomy, the focal point to where all eyes converge when looking at someone. In the radical cuts carried out on her series “Vestidos para morrer” (2000-2005-2009) [Dressed to Kill], what is left, or rather, what speaks louder in the composition, and has an extraordinary reach, is the group of elements in the background, behind the almost absolute supremacy of the face: the clothes, the folds in fabric, the hands, the gestures, the bodies. Her intervention in the image draws us closer to an unexpected intimacy with the bodies portrayed. The characters, always depicted in pairs, and who seem inert and forgotten in their anonymity, gain an affective, ambiguous and even erotic character.
In the related installation “Vestidos para morrer / Guilhotina” (2000) [Dressed to Kill / Guillotine], the artist ‘executes’ her characters, transforming the appropriated images into objects whose pulleys and blades open and close on headless bodies. Any romanticized vestige that could evoke the notions of remembrance and memory disappear. The symbolic intervention in the artist’s discourse is of a different nature: an incision in favor of a sense of finitude, loss and violence, which are components that thicken the clandestine plot of meanings in the repertoire of anonymous photography. By cutting the images and constructing the objects, Martins-Costa brings to the fore what the forgotten and apparently unassuming documents seem to want us to forget.
A unique element in the work of Martins-Costa is her ability to activate in the document a performance-like aspect, freeing the portrayed bodies from a pre-established frame and from the cultural condition of anonymity, of something dead, which does not seem to matter anymore. This is what happens, for instance, in “Desvio” (2002-2004) [Detour]. Even though heads are not cut off, the characters in the series appear in photographs that have been discarded due to technical errors. The bodies, always leaning to one side, are off axis, challenging the balance and stable symmetry of the frame. It is precisely in this almost imperceptible moment of symbolic reorganization and displacement that Martins-Costa becomes a discreet performer, who is decisively operating within the corporal relationship between the spectator and the portrayed and between the spectator and the artist. By bringing back the photos, the artist carries out a movement of incorporation that rekindles those portrayed, reformulating them into a new condition. This aspect of the gesture, albeit hardly perceptible, brings the artist’s physical presence to the precise moment of fruition.
Martins-Costa’s work in the minefield of anonymous archive is almost invisible. Differently to Rio Branco, she follows a silent operation of disarming explosives in which the symbolic nature of photography, in its determinist inclination, is deactivated and redirected to a new symbolic sense. This is where we find the link between Helena Martins-Costa and Miguel Rio Branco: the same persistence in challenging the traps of documentary style and protocol.
Martins-Costa’s workspace is similar to a traditional studio. Her documents, which are loaded with collective or domestic social history and catalogued in her large collection at the margins of public relevance, are reactivated through an artistic intervention that extracts alternative identity discourses from their representation of identity. In turn, Rio Branco works from an editing suite, similar to a cinematographic process. The artist subverts the rationale of documentary photography, which often relies on the appearance of facts. Using the visible reality captured in the photo, he operates narratives of a different nature, in a visual cadence closer to the lived experience. With different objects and aesthetics, we can argue that the meeting point between the poetics of Miguel Rio Branco and Helena Martins-Costa is the game between experience and the discourse of image in photography.