The Modernist Gaze and the City: Notes on Photography and Urban Repertoires in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s and ’50s

This essay is the first in a series of texts on the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB), a group of amateur photographers whose ambitious and innovative works embodied the abundant originality of postwar Brazilian culture. The series coincides with the exhibition Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography, 1946–1964, on view at the Museum of Modern Art from May 8 to September 26, 2021. 

Buildings in São Paulo photographed by German Lorca in 1951 and the same building revisited in 2018. Courtesy SP-Arte.

Viewed from the terrace of one of São Paulo’s high-rise apartments, the dimension of the city’s skyline is dauntingly difficult to assimilate. Buildings proliferate far into the horizon and overwhelm the senses. The city effectively lacks a “signature” skyline since there are no striking natural landmarks or iconic buildings that stand out as legible features for the eye to register. Nevertheless, in August of 2018, at the request of the Revista SP, the Brazilian photographer German Lorca (1922–2021) positioned his camera at key locations in São Paulo, with the intention of reproducing scenes he captured with his camera lens in the past. The goal was not to emphasize the transformation of the city but rather to restate its continuities. Together with fellow photographers from the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB), Lorca envisioned photography as an art form that could reveal the hidden aesthetics of quotidian modernity. But as the new images produced by Lorca’s camera in 2018 attest, the exercise of retrieving the past through photography is elusive. The dramatic physical transformation of the city denies continuity. Even when specific buildings physically endure, as is the case with the apartment block photographed in 1951, their meaning and context have inevitably changed. Yet in attempting to retrace his iconic images, Lorca affirmed the continuity of the modernist photographic gaze.

The construction of a modernist photographic gaze in Brazil has largely been attributed to the amateur photo clubs that grew exponentially during the first decades of the twentieth century.1In the 1940s, the minister of Health and Education during the Vargas era commissioned an impressive array of photographs of distinct aspects of Brazilian culture, industry, and civil society. The monumental Obra Getuliana was never published. Many of the photographs taken by foreign photographers in exile  in Brazil reveal their adherence to a modernist photographic canon. Vertical shots of high-rise buildings, images of serialized industrial objects, and pictures of stylized civil ceremonies all express the influences of the German New Vision and Soviet Constructivism, among others. For a critique of the Obra Getuliana, see Beatriz Jaguaribe and Mauricio Lissovsky, “The Visible and the Invisibles: Photography and Social Imaginaries in Brazil,” chapter two in Beatriz Jaguaribe, Rio de Janeiro: Urban Life Through the Eyes of the City ( London: Routledge, 2014). Helouise Costa has argued that photographers from the FCCB, such as German Lorca, Thomaz Farkas (1924–2011), and José Yalenti (1895–1967), among others, in inaugurating the modernist aesthetic of the photographic image, were responsible for the transformation of Brazilian photography.2See Helouise Costa and Renato Rodrigues da Silva, A fotografia moderna no Brasil (São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2004). Despite their differing styles, the photographers of the FCCB shared an agenda premised on the promotion of photography as an art form and on the value given to experimental techniques.

In Rio de Janeiro, the pictorialist tradition in photography lingered until the 1950s, and even after it waned, the amateur photographers of important photo clubs, such as the Foto Clube Brasileiro (est. 1923) and the Sociedade Fluminense de Fotografia (est. 1944), among others, cultivated a more eclectic approach.3For a discussion of Photo Clubs in Rio, see Angela Magalhães and Nadja Peregrino, Fotoclubismo no Brasil: o legado da sociedade fluminense de fotografia (Rio de Janeiro: Senac, 2012). In São Paulo, the FCCB explicitly endorsed a modernist artistic vocabulary that explored the technical specificity of the camera and emphasized experimental features through a range of techniques, including photomontage, photograms, and solarizations.

Although the photographic endeavors of the FCCB were pioneering efforts in Brazil, such aesthetic experimentalism had already been explored by photographers in the 1920s and ’30s. Straight Photography, Soviet Constructivism, New Vision, and surrealist experimentations of the 1920s had introduced a range of new photographic vocabularies that shaped aspects of what would become the modernist canon. In Rio de Janeiro, the individual efforts of distinct photographers produced images according to the new modernist aesthetics. José Oiticica Filho (1906–1964) made remarkable photographic images that experiment with abstraction, photosensitivity, and technical manipulation, and he was an active interlocutor in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Likewise, Thomaz Farkas engaged intensely with the photographic art scenes in both Rio and São Paulo.

In the 1940s and ’50s, when the FCCB was in its prime, the city of São Paulo was growing so rapidly that in 1954, during the celebration of the 400th anniversary of its founding, the slogan “São Paulo, the fastest growing city in the world,” which was emblazoned on commemorative coins, aptly mirrored the aspirations of the city’s elite. Construction, development, and industrialization were key in the 1950s as São Paulo, the nation’s foremost industrial metropolis, exemplified Brazilian modernization. The city’s astonishing growth, entrepreneurial spirit, large immigrant communities, and burgeoning middle class all reflected the unbridled impetus of modernization. If Rio was still the postcard of the nation, São Paulo offered an aspirational image of a competitive future that would unshackle the nation from its colonial past.

If the rapid transformation of the city and the growth of its industry were testaments to its increasing modernization, in aesthetic terms, the link between the city of São Paulo and artistic modernism had already been acclaimed through the famous Modern Art Week of 1922.4Held at the Municipal Theater of São Paulo from February 13 to 17, the Modern Art Week of 1922 was an avant-garde event that brought together a range of artists intent on renewing the Brazilian art scene. Combining novel modernist aesthetics with a reinvention of Brazilian popular culture and legacies, the Modern Week Movement was met with outrage and derision in 1922. But it would have a lasting influence in reshaping modes of national consciousness, in recasting national identity, and in promoting vocabularies of modernist aesthetics attuned to the innovative agendas of the international avant-garde. Influenced by the international avant-gardes, the modernists of the 1920s were also actively concerned with the creation of a distinct Brazilian modernism, one that sought to render the diversity and hybridity of cultural forms in Brazil innovative through the combination of popular culture and modernist aesthetics.

By the 1940s and ’50s, the mainstream press depicted both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro daily through photography, a medium that had gained widespread currency and broad public acceptance through the popularity of magazines such as Cruzeiro (1929–1985). In Rio de Janeiro, the photographs of José Medeiros (1921–1990) and Marcel Gautherot (1910–1996), among others, revealed an array of arresting landscapes, aspects of popular culture, and the unexpected beauty of modern life. In the 1950s, as one of the main photographers of the illustrated magazine, Cruzeiro, Medeiros produced a vast repertoire of images of Brazilian life. Although he adhered primarily to a humanist-realist style of photojournalism, his images include staged poses and shots showing unexpected geometric angles. A lengthy friendship with Thomaz Farkas fomented mutual influence between the two photographers. Working within the framework of journalistic reportage, Medeiros’s images provide a visual counterpoint to narratives that offer interpretive perspectives on urban life.

German Lorca. Everyday Scenes (Cenas quotidianas). 1949. Gelatin silver print, 11 × 15″ (27.9 × 38.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund
José Medeiros, Tram Lines, Rio de Janeiro. 1960. Courtesy Instituto Moreira Salles Collection.
André Carneiro. Rails (Trilhos). 1952. Gelatin Silver Print, 11 5/8 × 15 9/16″ (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
Gertrudes Altschul. Lines and Tones (Linhas e Tons). c. 1953. Gelatin silver print, 14 7/8 x 11″ (37.8 x 27.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Amie Rath Nuttall

The images of São Paulo reflecting the geometric, more abstract, and universal city seemed more suited to the modernist ethos of the artistic elites of the 1950s. In contrast, the city of Rio de Janeiro, internationally renowned for the beauty of its tropical topography, lent itself more easily to postcard cliché. During the 1950s, Rio was the cultural arena of public intellectuals and artists, a site of political power, and through its popular culture of samba and carnival, an expression of Brazilian national culture itself.

The 1940s and ’50s consolidated the reputations of the beach-lined neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema as havens of a emerging youth culture, tropical chic, and new forms of consumer culture, and as a hearth of musical innovation with the emergence of Bossa Nova in the late 1950s. Medeiros’s pictorial representations of popular culture and images of Copacabana and Ipanema that appeared in Cruzeiro contributed to the mythology of the carioca lifestyle of informality and sensory engagement within the natural setting of the city.

José Medeiros. Atlantic Avenue, Rio de Janeiro. c. 1955. Courtesy Instituto Moreira Salles Collection
José Medeiros. Pedra da Gávea, Morro Dois Irmãos and the Beaches Ipanema and Leblon, Rio de Janeiro. 1952. Courtesy Instituto Moreira Salles Collection.
José Medeiros. Photographer at Flamengo beach, with the Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. 1950s. Courtesy Instituto Moreira Salles Collection.

Like São Paulo in the 1950s, Rio de Janeiro was also experiencing a shift in cultural influences reflected in the waning of French cultural models and the rapid absorption of American films, fashion, and musical rhythms. Aside from consumer culture and entertainment, the American model of modern art museums, notably MoMA, also influenced the elites of Rio and São Paulo, who sought to create artistic institutions of international standing. By the start of the second half of the century, both cities had inaugurated relevant modern art museums, the MASP (Museum of Art of São Paulo) in 1947, and the MAM (Museum of Modern Art) in São Paulo and the MAM (Museum of Modern Art) in Rio de Janeiro, both of which were inaugurated in 1948. During the same period, photography in Brazil entered the international art circuit, ostensibly during the second São Paulo Biennial in 1953–54 as the FCCB had a special room for its exhibit.5Costa and Rodrigues da Silva, A fotografia moderna no Brasil, 96.

Thomaz Farkas. Gustavo Capanema Palace, Headquarter of the Ministry of Education and Public Health, c. 1945. Courtesy Instituto Moreira Salles Collection.
Marcel Gautherot. Gustavo Capanema Palace, headquarter of the Ministry of Education and Public Health, c. 1955. Courtesy Instituto Moreira Salles Collection.

The differences between an abstract international vision of the modern city and an appreciation of the cityscape as a site of historical enactments are contrasted in two images of the iconic modernist public building of the Ministry of Health and Education in Rio de Janeiro. Thomaz Farkas’s striking vertical shot of the first modernist public building constructed according to the tenets of Le Corbusier’s new architectural style stresses the sheer vertical thrust of the concrete construction, the facade of which is shadowed by an electric pole. The composition is abstracted and the building is not recognizable. The photograph emphasizes the contrasts between light and shade, and between verticality and the slender horizontal line of the electric cable. Gautherot’s image, by contrast, presents the features that made the building renowned. It depicts its columns and the pattern of tiles in the background, and even portrays a man in a white linen suit, the classic mid-century tropical outfit, striding between the pilotis. Farkas’s picture speaks of a placeless modernity, while Gautherot’s refers to the specific realization of modern architectural principles in the capital city of Rio de Janeiro. 

The decade of the 1950s in Brazil ended with the foundation of Brasília in 1960.  During that subsequent decade, São Paulo became the nation’s largest city, and the site of its economic power and most recognized art market. By contrast, for Rio de Janeiro, the 1960s signaled a period of decline, and the city’s loss of political power was further intensified by the impact of the military coup of 1964. The relevance of public intellectuals, national projects, and cultural critique was undermined by the advent of the military dictatorship and the ensuing censorship of arts and public life.

The images of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s and ’50s not only reveal the compelling quality of modernist photographic endeavors, they also make visible the considerable differences between the two cities as topographical spaces, arenas of culture, and political agency. Yet these images nonetheless share common modernist aspirations toward a better future. In their beauty, diversity, and singularity, the images made by Lorca, Farkas, Medeiros, Gautherot, and others reveal a belief in a visual modernity of inventiveness.

In reproducing the images contained in this text, the Museum obtained the permission of the rights holders, whenever possible. If the Museum could not locate the rights holders, notwithstanding good-faith efforts, it requests that any contact information concerning such rights holders be forwarded so that they may be contacted for future editions.

You can read the second essay in the series here.

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