Pure Forms and Impertinent Abstractions

“What is real is the continual change of form: form is only a snapshot view of a transition.” Henri Bergson

Photography is the first technological manifestation in the history of the visual arts and is also the language that has been reinvented the most over the last 170 years. A retrospective view allows us to understand that since the outset the supports and technologies have been successively modified with the aim of providing an increasingly convincing, true and renovating graphic result. And with each new paradigm, we have the opportunity to perceive how much man has striven to create a technical register that would also stir our imagination.

This is the case of the photographs by Valdir Cruz published in this book, which document the region of Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul, known as one of the most beautiful areas in Brazil. An exhaustive work, which demanded many trips and a delving into the history and peculiarities of our natural beauties. It also required the photographer to make his own unique reading of the different tropical lightings of Brazil’s Center-West region, in order to conceive an essay that could convey some of Bonito’s visual singularities with the technical characteristics that define his photographic work.

Valdir Cruz has a very specific background in Brazilian photography. His technical and aesthetic training, realized in the United States, began under the orientation of professor George Tice, who gave him a solid basis for the comprehension of the entire photographic process and allowed him to approximate the creative methods and visual expression of Eward Steichen and, later, Horst P. Horst, Mapplethorpe, and others. For Valdir, it is difficult to think about his photographic production without the large-format camera, without the long exposures that ensure depth of field and distinct information on the different zones of light and shadow, while providing a preview of nearly all the details before the photo is taken. There is rarely anything unforeseeable in his sequential and classic photographic procedure.

For Valdir Cruz, photographing is an act that demands discipline and rigor, it is a sophisticated technical operation that requires concentration and profound knowledge of the variables involved in the process. He knows that only in this way is it possible to register an image with a transformative essence, which contains some spark that can clothe it in magic. This discipline acquired through his training and experience is what allowed him to produce this photographic essay, developed with the utmost naturality and starkness. A set of photographs characterized by an uncommon lightness and freedom, which sets it apart from his previous works.

This essay on Bonito demonstrates his maturity as an artist, because even while maintaining a strong relationship with the tradition of landscape photography, he developed this work as though he were carrying out an exercise to comprehend the photographic appearance in its possibility for transcendence. He knew how to incorporate a poetic atmosphere to his photography that seems to clearly guide the ideas he developed for this essay. Ideas that reflect a keen awareness of his creative process.

This is perhaps why it is possible to detect a reflection in these photographs that is less circumstantial, but of great interest to those who consider the landscape in contemporary art, because it seems to me that this essay involves the relation between image and nature, the theme most present in Valdir Cruz’s work over these last decades. The difference is that here he assumes the charm and the freshness of fleeting sensations.

His composition is elegant and imaginative. Nothing escapes from his attentive gaze that elaborates a visual universe based on a map of procedures that reveals pure forms and impertinent abstractions, with strange and pulsating lights. His large-format matrix registers a teeming, nearly pristine nature. One can perceive that Valdir waited patiently for the moment at which the entire improbable natural order of everyday scenes enters into revolution and explodes into the beauty of his photography. He discovers certain visible structures and creates a connection between them; he concentrates a disconcerting power in the image that excites our senses.

Although the documentary character that pervades his work did not, in this case, constitute an obstacle to the expression of feelings and emotions, the displacement brought about by the in natura environment of Bonito seems to have required an aesthetic and artistic concern different from that of his previous works. These photographs by Valdir Cruz have the power to lead us to a new level of perception, distributed in different layers, based on a surface, the water, which reflects and refracts the light.

Valdir Cruz’s photography, the result of a qualitatively singular technical operation, is elaborated on the basis of various procedures that allow for total control of the variables. He photographs with knowledge and passion. In some of the photographs – as for example the surprising Encontro de Exus [Encounter of Exus] – we find a succession of events amalgamated in simultaneity. Our first impression is a feeling of strangeness, since it is a noisy image with a wealth of details. The photographic result requires concentration to understand the imprecision of the outlines, the different times brought together into the same space, or the different landscapes depicted together in the same photograph (see Cachoeira do Amor [Waterfall of Love]).

I believe it is important to describe the situations and the methods used to produce these photographs. While the technical aspects can be described, the artist’s subjective considerations are difficult to detect, and yet both possess specific interests and values that allow for a better understanding of the work. The place where he sets up his tripod is the vantage point from which a tenuous border is delimited between the surrounding objective reality and the photographer’s own subjectivity. In certain photographs – such as Abismo Anhumas [Anhumas Abyss] – he obtains a rarefied graphic aspect through frontality with the object and registers a profound atmosphere, as though obliging us to observe the potent space of that fragmented time. In others, he works with the reflections to produce a spatial and sensorial disorientation that instills a certain enchantment. This essay represents a transition in relation to the various moments of his artistic career.

In some of the images – for example Nascente do Rio Bonito [Wellspring of the Bonito River], 2009 – the spatial disorientation leaves us perplexed, stimulating our interests, evoking admiration and enchantment. They are perturbing. The photographs that tend toward abstraction also bear a controversial question, that is, they have a polysemous character that allows for various and complex readings. In other photographs – Paisagem com Travertino [Landscape with Travertine], Córrego Seco [Dry Streambed], Nascente do Rio Chapena-III [Wellspring of the Chapena-III River] and others – we can observe that time marks its passage on the sensitive surface of the film, a flow that fades the luster of the crystalline water, inserting something profound and somber into the image. Mysterious for the unaware.

Valdir Cruz did not forget the legacy of the great masters of photography, and produced an essay that summarizes a purely visual immersive experience. A perfect balance between intuition and intellect. Bonito is an innovating essay, the result of decades of work polished and tested in different thematics. If “technique [is a] test of a man’s sincerity” as poet Ezra Pound held, Valdir Cruz brought all of his experience to this work. With his technical and emotional competency he potentized an invisible force that organizes and aligns the different objects – stones, leaves, pebbles, branches, fish, and others – that upon being photographed lead the viewer’s gaze into a reverie.

Form, time and movement. These are some of the variables that Valdir Cruz masterfully combines in this essay, and when one is determinant in the image, the other two clash uneasily. This is what makes his photography different and strangely harmonious. The truth is that through his inexhaustible repertoire of forms, framed in an elongated time, he has managed to instate a privileged relation with the sacred. A sort of preciseness and beauty. A delicate weave that is simultaneously dense and light, disorganized and balanced. For example, this water that becomes a mirror – Rio da Prata [Prata River] – which reflects the sky and the clouds, the forest and plant life, also reveals its depths through its transparency. How many cultures are impregnated in these photographs? What sort of palimpsest did he manage to inscribe in these photographs?

Nature is extremely complex, and the natural world of Bonito registered in this essay becomes an image through which we can better understand its meaning and spiritual power. This natural movement that is constantly transforming the visible world is what these photographs seek to register. Actually, what quickens the artist’s interest is the lapse between singular moments that by some chance sets everything into motion and generates an image.

Valdir Cruz creates images even in settings where the lighting is precarious. He knows how to valorize the interplay of shadows and the chiaroscuro that is born among distinct textures and materials. Considering the distance, the scale and the points of view, we perceive that he was able to capture that fleeting and transitory moment in his photography. A momentary scene that is perpetuated in his images.

Overall, the essay engenders a paralyzing effect that leaves us astonished because the photographs seem like enigmas immobilized before our eyes. This is what spurs our confessed admiration, since the oneiric realm is evoked. I have followed Valdir Cruz’s work for more than twenty years and I can affirm that this is his freest essay insofar as he allowed himself to work with the combinatorial interplay of perception, conceiving photographs that distance themselves from certain aspects of reality. Paradoxically, it is a precise study of appearances.

Marcel Proust wrote that “the true journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in possessing new eyes.” And this is exactly what drove Valdir Cruz in this essay, since at the same time that he avoided the hurried and vulgarized image of the contemporary world, he sought registers that are impressive for their temporal density, for the disintegration of their forms, and for how they imbue that ancestral landscape with a dazzling, nearly unexpected air of fantasy.

Rubens Fernandes Junior, researcher and critic specialized in photography

George Tice (1938, Newark, New Jersey), North American photographer, professor with the Maine Photographic Workshops, since 1977.