Images of an Eternal Return

Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.[1]

The gypsy woman stares out at me with her perturbing gaze. Inquisitive. As though her unkempt hair, her shirt of asymmetric wildflowers and her pose of apparent control were not enough, what grabs our attention is the straight-on frontal view of the image’s framing. This confrontation enhances the tension in this image, underscoring the impossibility of its immediate deciphering by any means. In an interview, Iberê Camargo[2] reminds us that, “Reality is an enigma that time does not banalize and man does not decode. It is the Sphinx that devours us.”

It is through this perspective that I see Valdir Cruz’s long photographic essay on Guarapuava, the city and county where he was born and grew up. For approximately thirty years, his regular visits to this place were transformed into photographs, visual fragments that we now see selected in this ambitious project. They are images that lie outside any common notion of documentary, since for many people documenting a city means photographing its urban space, recording its thoroughfares and impressive buildings.

Here, contrary to what we might imagine, the county of Guarapuava is seen as a place shared by the various ethnicities[3] that make up the nation of Brazil – the European, the Indian, and the Afro-Brazilian – surrounded by astounding waterfalls and dazzling landscapes. This uncommon approach to documenting the city, by photographing its surroundings, is the unique feature of this essay that seeks, among other things, to reframe a childhood and adolescence lived with intensity in the 1960s. When the world was already enthralled in a headlong rush toward new behaviors and patterns of consumption, Cruz was experiencing the freedom of creating his fantasies and spinning his dreams of the future in a small city, in a sociocultural environment so adeptly described in the fascinating biographical text published here (page 146).

The essay is a unique exercise in the construction of memory. Rather than making a cartographic reading of streets and buildings, Cruz decided to portray the people and the local happenings, such as the movements of the cattle drivers and the landscapes that form the backdrop of his boyhood recollections. A fertile and dense repertoire of images took shape as these photographs were brought together into a coherent set of images that convey the depth of feeling that a citizen harbors for his home. For the photographer, as for any artist, curiosity must be multi-faceted to allow him to understand the world as a myriad of slices that can be ordered kaleidoscopically, providing a possibility for the comprehension of reality.

This is a rousing set of images that requires an attentive gaze and subtle perception, because the aim is not simply to document the city but above all to create a narrative woven from feelings, in the language of the two most classical genres in the history of depiction: portrait and landscape. Men, women and children, cattle drivers, river rapids and waterfalls. The book’s opening photograph depicting a magnificent specimen of the araucária tree typical of the state of Paraná already suggests the book’s proposal: the branches reach out in multiple directions, each offering a different way to experience the region.

This desire to better understand his terrain is what prompted Cruz to adopt a sensitive approach that encompassed the plurality of the cultures and activities of Guarapuava. Based on prior knowledge acquired during his first twenty-three years immersed in the city’s daily life, coupled with a later more refined understanding of that world, he was able to establish strategies for creating a visual record that clearly expresses the local identity. It brings to mind Tolstoy[4] when he espouses the idea that to be universal one only needs to talk about his own village.

“Photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mere mechanical record. Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.”[5] The photographs, taken from 1982 to 2011, convey an atmosphere of serenity and intimacy. Nothing is gratuitous in these images, which have nothing to do with brochure or advertising photography. Rather, everything is meticulously studied with the aim to recover situations and human characters typical of the region, in order to best evince the essential spirit of Guarapuava. In this sense, the photographs are outstanding not only for their documentary quality, but more for the photographer’s framings and the courageous choice of placing in the foreground some of its citizens who, thanks to this publication, will become an essential part of the city’s history.

The human characters portrayed are the anonymous heroes who inhabit Cruz’s imagination – a world of memories of a difficult, yet free and fully realized childhood. The landscapes and waterfalls are also references of his experiences, through which he grew in feeling and knowledge. It is actually an inventory of emotions far from the scene of power represented by urban space and its buildings; it is more akin to a family album that gathers an inventive history linked together by a narrative brimming with desires and imagination.

Cruz is able to transform the everyday into the extraordinary. They are not easy images; they require concentration and a degree of syntony with the theme developed. It is a question of understanding the photograph as a gathering of personal, social, and cultural values far removed from contemporary visual modes. This essay demands sufficient time to look at each one of the images and perceive their myriad of enriching details. As F. Von Schiller aptly pointed out, “The reality of things is affected by things, the appearance of things is the work of man.”[6]

For example, the two hands in the photo on page 81 coupled with the image’s absolutely wide range of black tones – from delicate charcoal shades to pitch darkness – result in a striking composition. The square format concentrates our sight on the intercrossing of the diagonals in a triangular shape that is open to other configurations that are echoed in the graphic rhombus pattern on the anonymous citizen’s sweatshirt. It is a visual and cultural commentary of a solitary gesture that caught the eye of this artist who strives to understand the different layers that model human complexity. This is also part of his artistic strategy.

In order for us to better comprehend this essay, Guarapuava, it is necessary to know something about the artist’s career, starting with his technical training and his experience as an assistant and fine art printer for important professionals. As observed by Walter Benjamin, “The decisive thing in photography continues being the relation between the photographer and his technique.”[7] It is furthermore necessary to learn about his previous work published in his books – Catedral Basílica de Nossa Senhora da Luz dos Pinhais; Faces da Floresta – Os Yanomami; O caminho das águas; Raízes – Árvores na paisagem do Estado de São Paulo; Bonito – Confins do Novo Mundo; and others.[8] Cruz developed his technical procedures producing photographs that are always close to documentary while never abandoning the search for technical excellence and aesthetically unique solutions. In the book Guarapuava the desire for transcendence is felt in every image, because besides summarizing his life experience, these photos increase the visibility of the people and the landscapes that are at the margin of the system.

The portrait of Waldomiro Lopes da Cruz, the photographer’s father, combines a number of qualities intrinsic to good photography. “The record that is deemed direct, objective, and exact is not enough,”[9] states André Rouillé. In this portrait a notable exchange of feeling and complicity takes place before the camera. It is evident that there was some incentive to de-automate the gesture and the pose, since with the face slightly turned to the left of the body, fixing his gaze on the camera’s lens (or staring at the photographer) the person portrayed deepens his vision as though this were his conclusive image for all time. For his part, Cruz concentrates his focus on his father’s softly lit right eye, hinting at a perceptible degree of fragility and sensitivity.

His landscapes are wide and evocative. Sublimely beautiful. In many of them we see the fog characteristic of the fields of Guarapuava. Others show the presence of araucária trees, typical of the region. And there are those that register the cattle drivers and their magnificent horses. But there are no clichés in this essay – one that establishes relations with the best of documentary photography, which wages a silent battle with what is depicted in it and opens a narrative field that contemplates different trends of visual investigation – ranging from the most traditional to the most contemporary.

In other words, as put by Rouillé, “The program of the photograph-document therefore has to give way to another program that is sensitive to processes more than to the final print, to problematics more than the statement, to events more than things. This is the program of the photograph-expression, according to which the document requires a writing, a format fully assumed by an author.”[10] That is, the most worthy photograph is vigorously authorial and full of attitude, ranging beyond the scope and purposes of the photograph-document.

Each one of the photographs published here has a particular story. A perception that not only investigates, but searches with feeling for moments that illustrate the artist’s life story in that terrain that sheltered his first experimentations. In Guarapuava, Cruz shows us that photography is above all a delicate expression of a moment that is made unique. In the face of such dedication we are compelled to contemplate this album, to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by these images that encourage us to penetrate the mysterious but not indecipherable universe idealized by the artist.

Rubens Fernandes Junior
Researcher and curator of photography
[1] Luis Buñuel (1900–1983), in Meu Último Suspiro, Cosac Naify, 2012.

[2] Iberê Camargo (Restinga Seca, RGS, 1914 – Porto Alegre, 1994) was one of the most important Brazilian artists of the 20th century. He was a painter, draftsman, printmaker, and teacher of printmaking.

[3] These three elements are the formative groups, valued as such in the 1844 text, How to Write the History of Brazil, by German explorer Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius. He was the first one to state that the key to understanding our history resided in the mix of these three races. The idea was resumed by Sergio Buarque de Holanda in Raízes do Brasil and, later, by Gilberto Freyre, in Casa-Grande & Senzala.

[4] “Talk about your village and you will be universal” is the celebrated phrase attributed to Russian writer Lév Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828–1910).

[5] John Berger, Modos de Ver, Edições 70, 1999.

[6] Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), a representative of German Romanticism and the classicism of Weimar, was a German poet, playwright, philosopher and historian.

[7] Walter Benjamin, Pequena história da fotografia, Editora Brasiliense, 1985.

[8] Catedral Basílica de Nossa Senhora da Luz dos Pinhais, Brave Wolf Publishing, 1996;  Faces da Floresta – Os Yanomami, powerHouse, 2002 e Cosac Naify, 2004; O caminho das águas, Cosac Naify, and Fundação Stickel, 2007; Raízes – Árvores na paisagem de São Paulo, Imesp, 2010; Bonito – Confins do Novo Mundo, Capivara Editora, 2010.

[9] Andé Rouillé, A fotografia entre documento e arte contemporânea, Editora Senac, 2009.[10] André Rouillé, A fotografia entre documento e arte contemporânea, Editora Senac, 2009.