Photography: between classical and modern

Marcia Mello
28 Nov 2020, 6:58 am

“To dip things into the light is to dip them in infinity.”
Leonardo da Vinci

Painting and photography have fed off each other in a dynamic relationship with greater or lesser challenges over time. The new visual criteria generated by photography influenced painters; photographers adopted pictorial outlooks. Between the classic and the modern, there is a relationship that is defined by oppositions and identities:

I myself have no doubt that the existence of certain schools of modern painters is due to the influence of photography; perhaps there is no camera among them, but their outlook is nevertheless a photographic one, and the influence that I speak of is directly traceable, since, if it were not for photography, they would never have seen nature as these painters see it.

The show “Duplo olhar” [Double Gaze] considers the relationships between painting and photography in the period spanning from the 1920s to the 1980s. The exhibition features paintings from the Roberto Marinho collection—with works by the most important Brazilian modern artists—and photographs on loan from public and private collections in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

A significant part of the set of photographs was produced within the context of the photo clubs, which were associations of amateur photographers that met to discuss themes and techniques, to hold exhibitions and competitions, in a wide-ranging network of exchange both in Brazil and internationally, in a certain way standardizing photographic practice. The exhibition emphasizes two moments of Brazilian photography: the pictorialist tendency and the rupture from this aesthetics in the 1940s.

Alfred Hartley, 1893


Publications were one of the means used by photo club members for spreading and exchanging information. Tokyo, Havana, Lisbon, Paris, São Carlos, Jaboticabal, Porto Alegre, Sergipe; the printed photographs circulated, standardizing practices and gazes.


In the initial period, the artisanal techniques were a key topic in the heated discussions among the members of the photo clubs. In the bulletins, magazines and catalogs they edited and published, such as Revista Photogramma by the Foto Clube Brasileiro, Foto-Cine by the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante, SFF by the Sociedade Fluminense de Fotografia, and many others, we find texts about aesthetics; studies about optics, geometry and perspective; chemical formulas; news about juried photography exhibitions; practical advice and various technical procedures. Among the academic photographers, the favorite techniques were the bromoil process, which accentuated the grain of the image, colored gum bichromate, and the carbon print, resulting in true simulacra of painting even before the advent of impressionism.

Eliminating excessive clearness, suppressing details, avoiding rigidity in the scene portrayed through artifices such as the interposition of transparent layers and enlargements with a progressive reduction of focus were some of the procedures adopted by the pictorialists. The midtones and gradation of planes thus lend poetics to the landscape, the soft focus smooths the portraits. Staged portraits, still lifes, and conventional academic arrangements evidence the influence of painting in this period.

The photography produced in Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century did not mirror the transformations in literature and the visual arts ushered in by the Modern Art Week of 1922. Photography did not immediately renovate the traditional canons; it did not produce the same experiments of the poets and painters active at that moment. An exception in the photographic production of that time is represented by the exemplary photographs taken by Mário de Andrade on his expeditionary trips to the country’s North and Northeast. His imagetic legacy—especially his thinking on photography —drove new conceptions. As an apprentice photographer, he saw this practice as “the skill of plucking poetry from out of reality.”


Stamps and seals illustrate acceptance in juried exhibitions held in Brazil and abroad, demonstrating the scope of the network of photographers. Placed on the back of photographs, they provide technical information and boost the image of their author.


The intellectual uneasiness of certain photographers both in and out of the photo clubs led to the rupture from pictorialism. In their practices, they subjectivized photography, they updated themes, gestures and principles with more experimental techniques for the production of images. The sense of composition was changed with the use of unusual angles (the plongée and the contre-plongée), demonstrating a more mature approach to framing and giving vent to a creative outlook through the photographic camera. Contradicting the canons of pictorialism, the modernist photographers clashed with the traditional rules and dialogued more openly with the production of the visual arts of their time.

There is no longer any debate whether photography is art, because it is well-known that the photographic camera in and of itself is nothing more than an instrument—like the brush, the charcoal stick, chisel, etc.

Modern photography is characterized by the redefinition of the gaze through the camera; the search for occasional abstraction is obtained in the photographic act. The interesting composition creates a new perception of space with the subversion of planes and the radical recording of lights and shadows. More drastic attitudes resulted in graphic patterns, effects obtained by a intentional lack of focus or movement of the camera, optical distortions through the use of textures overlaid during the enlargement process, along with other bolder techniques.

Jacob Polacow, 1949


The most preferred camera by photographers of that time, allows for two or more exposures on the same film frame. The effects obtained in the photographic act lend dynamism and a surrealist aspect to the image.

The procedures most highly regarded during that time include high contrast, solarization, photomontage, superposition of images, and the photogram. Glossy paper was increasingly used, in place of the matte paper that had prevailed up to then. The more radical experimental practices include the Fotoformas (1949–50) by Geraldo de Barros and the Recriações and Derivações (1956-62) by José Oiticica Filho. Doing without the photographic cameras, some of the images were obtained in the darkroom, without a shutter or negative. They were created and produced on transparencies (glass and acetate plates) or directly on the photographic papers.

Abstraction, as a subversion of time and space, became consolidated in a practice that has extended until today. The fracture of planes, the exploration of lines, the geometricization of light and radical contrasts represent the legacy of this productive moment of Brazilian art.

The photography practice in the first half of the 20th century used smaller formats and explored the possibilities of black and white, according to the conditions offered by the photographic industry in that period. The experience with color, through artisanal techniques such as gum bichromate and bromoil transfer were important issues in the discussions of photo club members. Color photography became popular and accessible to a wider public in Brazil during the 1970s, revealing the desire for a production in step with the issues the discussions of photo club members. Color photography became popular and accessible to a wider public in Brazil during the 1970s, revealing the desire for a production in step with the issues of the time.of the time.

The context of the photo clubs was predominantly male. The Salão Feminino de Arte Fotográfica, held in São Carlos, in June 1951, was an isolated initiative that enjoyed the participation of 29 women photographers, including Menha Polacow and Hermínia Nogueira Borges.


The legacy of the Foto Clube Brasileiro (created in 1923 in Rio de Janeiro), of the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante (created in 1939 in São Paulo) and the Sociedade Fluminense de Fotografia (created in 1944 in Niterói) served as a basis for “Duplo Olhar” to reflect on points of convergence between well-known painters and photographers. The artworks have been grouped by formal or thematic affinities in the exhibition rooms. The genres of painting—portrait, self-portrait, landscape, still life, seascapes and abstraction—were also adopted in photography and served as categories in the conception of the spaces of the show. The dynamics of the examination calls attention to these encounters, placing painting and photography side-by-side. Poetic or aesthetic identities are associated sometimes more perceptibly and literally, sometimes with greater freedom and subtlety.

“Duplo olhar: pintura e fotografia modernas brasileiras” [Double Gaze: Brazilian Modern Painting and Photography] gives rise to a playful and enriching dialogue between these artistic practices. Placed in front of each other, without hierarchy, it is possible to perceive affinities in the lines, gestures and compositions. With pigment and canvas, or light and silver, painters and photographers come together, innovate and multiply possibilities of seeing and interpreting the world.

The above text was previously published in the catalog of the exhibition “Duplo Olhar: modern Brazilian painting and photography”, curated by Marcia Mello and Paulo Venancio Filho and presented at Casa Roberto Marinho (RJ). Read the introductory text of the publication below:

Duplo Olhar: modern Brazilian painting and photography

José Pancetti and Gaspar Gasparian; Di Cavalcanti and Geraldo de Barros; Tomie Ohtake and José Oiticica Filho. Modern Brazilian painting and photography were placed side by side in the collective exhibition “Duplo Olhar”, shown at Casa Roberto Marinho between December 5, 2019 and April 26, 2020. Curated by Marcia Mello and Paulo Venancio Filho, the exhibition explored the visual possibilities of these encounters. A selection of sixty paintings from the Roberto Marinho Collection in dialogue with 160 photographs from various private and institutional collections were part of this landscape of Brazilian art, produced in the first half of the 20th century.

Divided into seven curatorial clippings – Me and my image, Me and the other, Still life, Brazilian scenes, The presence of the sea, The language of nature and Abstractions – the exhibition featured paintings by nineteen exponents of Brazilian art: Alberto da Veiga Guignard , Antonio Bandeira, Candido Portinari, Di Cavalcanti, Djanira, Frans Krajcberg, Iberê Camargo, Ingeborg Ten Haeff, Ismael Nery, Jose Pancetti, Lasar Segall, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Maria Polo, Milton Dacosta, Roberto Burle Marx, Tikashi Fukushima, Tarsila do Amaral, Tomie Ohtake and Yolanda Mohalyi.

Among the thirty-nine photographers who took part in the exhibition, the curatorship brought together relevant names such as Carlos Moskovics, Chico Albuquerque, Eduardo Salvatore, Fernando Lemos, German Lorca, Gertrudes Altschul, H. Fellet, Haruo Ohara, Hermínia Nogueira Borges, Jacob Polacow, Jayme Moreira de Luna, José Reis, Marcel Gautherot, Marcel Giró, Menha Polacow, Paulo Pires, Pierre Verger, Rubens Teixeira Scavone, Thomaz Farkas, among others.

Reproduced above, one of the texts in the exhibition’s catalog, entitled “Photography: between the classic and the modern” by Marcia Mello, delves into some topics about the exhibition’s proposal and the photography practiced in this important period of Brazilian art. The catalog also has the text “The need for a look” by Paulo Venancio Filho and a complete reproduction of the works on display.


Marcia Mello holds a BA in Letters from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and works as a researcher, curator and conservator of photography. She recently curated the exhibitions “Duplo Olhar – modern Brazilian painting and photography” at Casa Roberto Marinho and “Ortiz Rubio Alexim, affective records from the 1950s” at the Reading Office Guilherme Araújo, both in Rio de Janeiro.

SP–Arte Profile

Join the SP–Arte community! We are the largest art and design fair in South America and we want you to be part of it. Create or update your profile to receive our newsletters and to have a personalized experience on our website and at our fairs.