Catedral Basilica De Nossa Senhora Da Luz Dos Pinhais – Introduction

With the camera as a strategic instrument for disclosure and interpretation, photographer Valdir Cruz has produced this complex and extended portrait of the Cathedral Basilica de Nossa Senhora da Luz dos Pinhais, a neo-Gothic structure in Curitiba, in the state of Paraná, in southern Brazil. Commemorating the occasion of the cathedral’s centennial, these studies evidence the attentiveness of an unaffected pictorialism, a specific clarity of vision, and the high quality of the printed image itself.

Born in Guarapuava, Paraná, Cruz arrived in New York City in the late 1970s at the age of twenty-four and found employment as a job-trained lathe operator, a trade requiring a high degree of mechanical ability and attentiveness. He became interested in photography through George Stone’s work for National Geographic magazine and began to study photography at the Germain School. He continued his investigations as a student of photographer George Tice at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. Carefully refining his technical abilities as an apprentice maker of prints, Cruz then worked with Tice in the authorized production of two important Edward Steichen portfolios, Juxtapositions (1986) and Blue Skies (1987). With this experience, Cruz dedicated himself and his resources to the realization of his own work, which evidences his command of pictorial landscape, architectural study, and observant, sometimes picaresque portraiture.

This engagement recalls the tonal and compositional authority characteristic of the work of certain nineteenth-century photographers, a resonance deriving in part form Cruz’s choice of the view or field camera, and from his engagement with specific darkroom processes, including the execution of palladium prints. The aesthetic and technical qualities of his prints are apparent with even casual observation, but the language of his imagery – his attention to the field beyond the lens and his intentions as an artist – is another matter.

Captured in the long moments of their exposure, light animates Cruz’s images in specifically active ways. It is, in a way, a northern light, given the distance of Paraná from the equator. Taken together with the northern vocabulary of the cathedral’s architecture, many of these images also recall the palpable depth and the stillness of time in the seventeenth-century Netherlands ecclesiastical interior of Pieter Saenredam. The quality of light in the Saenredam paintings stems in part from the severity of the church interiors, as though a scrim had been stretched tightly over the luminous interiors.

Not so in the cathedral at Curitiba. Cruz’s long exposures invite the play of light, controlled halations like air to breathe spirit into the cavernous interior. The movement of natural light captured in the image is not obviously discernible, but admits a luminosity that recalls the sort of paintings that incorporate more than one source of light. Pouring through stained glass windows, glazed quatrefoils, and rosettes, light floods through vertically opposed open doors, rebounds from holy figures high in their niches, softly emanates from a choir loft, and radiates intensely from still candles. Again, because of the length of exposure, these multiple sources of light animate the cathedral’s interiors with their glowing ambience. Visitors move, ghostlike, through the aisles and vaults, the white of a shirt tracing figures as they move to kneel in prayer.

In one haunting image, the interior of the church is darkened, and light floods in theatrically from a source above and to the left. A figure like Caliban out of Shakespeare’s The Tempest crouches in a central paved aisle, a trinity of back-lit Gothic windows beyond. Flanking this grotesque are seven other performers in the muted drama. Some stand, others sit in or on the ordered pews, floating up into the light, a chorus of witnesses. In fact, they are actors, not the celebrants or participants in the daily performance of the liturgy. They are among the cast of a presentation of Paradise Lost, the first such performance permitted in the cathedral. They are part of the history of this church today, enduring in a city that has grown and changed around it.

Cruz observes other elements of movement and change. In a somewhat oblique photograph of the reverse face of the cathedral’s clock, graffiti – names, initials, dates, the inevitable heart – are inscribed on its venerable glass surface. A fragmented arc of that surface is broken and gone, and through it appear a few details of the street below. Graffiti also figure a column separating two windows high up in one of the towers of the church, the open fenestration clearly outlining the city high-rises beyond. In another view, a similarly broken pane in a quatrefoil window reveals the narrow street below, and the prostitutes who frequent it. The moving cogs and gears of equipment that drive either clock or bells testify to another sort of machinery still at work: the mechanics of change, the marks of time.

Cruz moves far to the exterior, and high above the cathedral. He fixes the cathedral in its contemporary context: at an intersection, near an urban park, flanked by contemporary buildings that stretch out to the horizon. The church seems both diminished by the context and strengthened, as though it were an expression of the rock on which, as the story goes, the Church Militant was built.

Other interiors, more detailed seem to speak for the early incarnation of the church moderately Triumphant. Cruz turns his gaze by sections, informed by architecture and sources of light. Candles are motionless, while those who light them move. A wedding procession, seen from above, achieves the altar. Wraiths disappear like smoke, ghostly parishioners who recall the predeceased. Here, ornate carvings stand in high relief, and Cruz records detailed portraits of statues of the saints and several of the Lady for which the church was named, dating from the early days of the present structure. Another, a colonial Madonna from the original church, ravaged by time or iconoclast, eloquently lacks the head and limbs of a little stone Christ. Such images constitutes a living portrait of an occupied monument.

There is a notion about photography in Brazil, about how and why the nation’s photographers have achieved such international regard for their production. Perhaps it’s in the spirit of the young Nicoise Hercules Florence, recognized as one of the independent discoverers of photography. In 1824, at the age of twenty, Florence left France for Brazil. In the following year employed as a draftsman, he joined the expedition of Baron von Langsdorff, the Russian consul general, on a four-year, eight thousand-mile expedition to the interior. A collection of Florence’s drawings was sent on to St. Petersburg.

On the trek, Florence became greatly interested in the sounds of animals. He recorded those, like the scenes before him in ink on paper. There was only one press in the region, belonging to a newspaper, and Florence was thwarted in his intention to publish his notes and observations. He set out to find another way to reproduce text without all the machinery of typography and lithography. He adapted the medieval tool of the camera obscura in such a way that an image could be fixed on paper through the use of metal salts and acids. He called the process photographie. It was 1833. He knew nothing about Louis Daguerre or Henry Fox Talbot until 1840 or so.

Although little remains of his photographic work, Florence’s story iterates the power of invention, the adventurous drive located in the core of attentiveness, in the detail. Like his contemporaries, Valdir Cruz is heir to this amazing adventure. Through the achievement of this portfolio, and like Cruz, the pioneer Florence would have been astonished all over again.

Edward Leffingwell/1996
Curator independente e director executive da LAX: (The Los Angeles Exhibition).
Escreve sobre arte contemporânea e colabora na revista Art in America.