O Caminho Das Águas

Photographer Valdir Cruz is internationally recognized for his sensitive images of the daily life of the indigenous people of the Rainforest, an ongoing study that has commanded much of his attention and resources for years. Since 1981, he has also devoted his efforts to the creation of an interpretive, photographic record of the region around the agrarian city of Guarapuava in the southern state of Paraná, Brazil, where he was born. Photographs from the project’s early years show specific interest in images of cattle raising and the life of the Brazilian cowboy. More recently, he has turned his attention to the creation of O Caminho das Águas, a portfolio that further explores the region through the waterfalls that dramatically figure its landscape. Part of the patrimony of the country, many of these waterfalls are known principally to the people who live in their vicinity.

In the late 1960s, Cruz first came to these sites on hunting and fishing expeditions along the Jordão’s River, which flows through and on past Guarapuava to create the remote, remarkably beautiful falls of Salto Vaca Branca and Salto Curucaca. The photographs included in O Caminho das Águas concern these and others of the many waterfalls that extend from the capital of Paraná at Curitiba to Fóz de Iguaçu in the Western tip of the state at the junction of Paraguay and Argentina, a distance of about 400 miles. Cruz photographed these waterfalls in 1994, when he visited the cascades of Salto Vaca Branca as part of the broader subject of his Guarapuava project. Pleased with the work, he decided to visit and record the waterfalls from there to the city of Prudentópolis, in what is appropriately called the Land of Giant Waterfalls, and to the famous falls of Iguaçu, sometimes regarded as the Eighth Natural Wonder of the World.

The cataracts of Fóz de Iguaçu first became known outside of the country through the Spanish explorer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who headed an expedition towards the Rio de la Plata and Paraguay after spending eight years in the Gulf region of what is today Texas. While three-quarters of the falls are within the territories of Argentina, those considered most beautiful are viewed from Brazil. There, in high season, Iguaçu numbers around 270 falls spanning up to 1.6 miles, spilling down over cliffs as high as 24-story buildings. An important factor in the utilization of the waters of the region, the power plant of Itaipú, developed by both Brazil and Paraguay, is on the Paraná River in the Fóz do Iguaçú area. In recent years, Itaipú produced one quarter of the energy supply in Brazil and three quarters of the energy in Paraguay, annually visited by up to nine million people from 162 countries. Over the years, Cruz has witnessed the disappearance of waterfalls and entire landscapes due to the construction of dams for power plants. On the other hand, he appreciates what those plants have done economically for the region. Knowing that some of the falls in the region may fall prey to future economic development, Cruz regards this opportunity to document a landscape of such beauty as a trust, an obligation. His photographs serve as witness to the beauty of what is there now.

Given that Cruz is widely known for the almost tactile quality and tonalities of his silver gelatin, platinum and palladium prints, there is something new and immediate about these waterfall images. As he continues to work with non-digital cameras in the field, he produces large format, 4 by 5- inch negatives to facilitate the best possible scanning, making possible the production of digital prints of astonishing detail, size and quality. His newest book, O Caminho das Águas, is forthcoming. 

Edward Leffingwell

An independent curator and critic living in New York, Edward Leffingwell writes frequently about photography and is Art in America’s corresponding editor for Brazil.