The Water’s Way

For more than two decades Valdir Cruz has concentrated his considerable artistic vision on making the public aware of those things that bind nature to its prodigal species, humanity. His photographs reveal that nature and humanity are one, rooted in a symbiotic relationship of irrefutable consequence. His landscapes are elegant metaphors for the whole of nature and a means which we can gauge the health of the planet. In our relationship with nature we are most often in awe of what we see and feel, but at times we are a danger to our host, losing sight of the essential harmony and balance that is dictated by our dependence upon it.

Cruz was raised in the midst of a geography where there was constant struggle for survival between nature and human beings. The greed for precious metals scarred both the landscape and humanity alike. Agriculture took its toll, but became a renewable natural resource for the benefit countless generations of immigrants. And there were always those who lived in the forests in seemingly complete harmony with nature. Cruz became a realist about the varied landscapes that surrounded him, seeking asylum in his observations, trying to reveal the imbalance wherever he has found it.

Marina Silva, Brazilian Minister of the Environment speaks with admirable clarity about Cruz as a photographer and his efforts as an activist for the environment, which includes both the human and natural landscapes: “Cruz’s work is not objective and scientific documentation, nor is it purely aesthetic, reportage, or aimed at propaganda. It contains a bit of science, art, skill and communication, but it is mainly the expression of personal anguish, an attempt to grab us by the shoulders, shake us and say, ‘Look!”

At times his photographs have given exquisite aesthetic witness to members of the human tribe, like the Yanomami of the Rainforest, who cannot survive without a balance of use and care for the landscape they live within. At other times Cruz allows the landscape to speak for itself. For over a decade he has followed the waters way though Brazil, particularly Paraná, the state that encompasses the most dramatic waterfalls of the region where he was born. As a young man growing up in Guarapuava, Brazil, near the world famous Iguacú Falls, he was immersed in a Rousseau-like environment, which was layered with abundant semi-tropical flora and fauna. But Guarapuava is also surrounded by lush pastures, farmland, and forests. Paraná is bordered on the North by Sao Paulo, the Atlantic Ocean is on the East, Argentina is to the South, and Paraguay is to the West. The Paraná River and its tributaries mark the western boundary of this diverse landscape, which ranges from a narrow costal area to a high plateau.

The human texture of Paraná is equally varied with a complex mix of inhabitants made up of Indians (the Tupi-Guarani and the Kaingang), Portuguese, Africans, Spanish, Afro-Brazilians, Germans, Japanese, Polish, and those of mixed blood between Indians and Whites. Sustenance for this population over the past two hundred and fifty years has ranged from living on the land’s natural bounty to agriculture, lumber, and cattle raising. As is the case wherever humanity becomes something larger than tribal, there have been agents of harmony and agents of destruction.

In this overwhelmingly beautiful country with such rich mingling of human cultures, Cruz became an explorer of the humanitarian values that were instilled in him as a young man. He immersed himself in the landscape as a youth and has returned to its essence once again in these pages. He grew up hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting in the farthest reaches of the most remote waters, marshes, mountains and forests. His desire to become a part of the environment was converted into a more realistic partnership by nature’s own often harsh demands for equal respect. He later found as an artist that the camera was the very tool he needed in order to be in touch with nature, while sharing a deeply felt aesthetic sense of his experiences. His realization that the power of aesthetic experience could be life changing was a direct influence on his now lifelong ambition to reveal the absolute symbiosis of all existence, fractured though it may be by at times.

In a good year when rain was plentiful and roads and trails were passable, there would be nearly two hundred water falls to select from for his personal exploration. For ten years he traveled an adventurous route of unparalleled natural beauty throughout the Brazilian countryside. He traveled by horseback, on foot, and when possible in a jeep, camping for weeks at a time to reach various waterfalls and to be as close to the landscape as possible. At times the waters way would lead him to venture into regions of the upper Paraná known only to local inhabitants, not previously visited or seen by visitors from the outside.
While Cruz is aware of a growing threat of developing hydroelectric plants to the maze of mystical waterfalls in Paraná, he is also mindful of the great benefits that controlled energy sources will bring to remote villages and towns throughout this vast and unique region. He knows that the inherent good of this kind of progress will come at a price, which may well mean an end to the extraordinary beauty and ecology of some of the waterfalls along the waters way. His decade long trek to photograph as many falls as possible has been an attempt to produce a cumulative portrait of a landscape that may soon change forever. In doing so he hopes to inspire a greater awareness of the waters way and the unique aesthetic experience of observing when water becomes its own monumental landscape. It is also clear that his photographs are not only records of that landscape, but inspired visions which transform nature’s creations into works of art.

His photographs exist in a parallel universe in that they do represent the waterfalls, but they are also objects in themselves, abstractions of reality, giving greater prominence to interpretation and qualities inherent to artistic vision, which do not exist in nature. While Cruz is a witness for posterity, he is also an artist with a desire to imbue what he has seen and experienced with visual significance, which reportage alone cannot do. Cruz is looking for something new, not seen before by others. He is painfully aware of the history of clichés and artistic monuments that surround the subject of waterfalls. He has, therefore, looked to the inherent nature of his medium to provide different aesthetic avenues. He photographs the falls at first light during the period before full sunrise and in the waning light of evening. He has said in this regard that, “In that way the Creator provides me with the soft light necessary for long exposures, creating images that otherwise do not exist. It is only on film and paper that one can perceive the beauty of the waterfalls in this form. It is a kind of surreal beauty that the eyes cannot extract from reality alone. It is my way of seeing the waterfalls as something beyond nature.”

There are many precedents in the history of landscape photography that would tie Cruz’s work to artists of the past like Gustav Le Gray, Carlton Watkins, or Ansel Adams. However, it is more rewarding to follow the trail of his ideas within the philosophic character of landscape photography, because of his reference to the “surreal beauty” of his images.
To a large extent we know and appreciate most landscapes through images, subjects that have been photographed, painted, or filmed. It is a great gift when we can travel to any unfamiliar landscape or even more fortunate when we can live in the midst of a natural wonder. But in general it is more and more rare that we can travel to places where remote or exotic landscapes inspire deep aesthetic pleasure. Among those who enjoy this book by Cruz, few will ever have the opportunity to visit the waterfalls, which took him over a decade to photograph. And even if we could physically be there, it is unlikely that we would be able to experience in person the reality of the moment represented by his images. That is as it should be because what he offers in these images is something that he has created from the raw materials of nature in order to reveal the very essence of what makes the waterfalls aesthetically significant.

His work may be seen along the lines of geologists who study landscape in terms of inherent evidence about the nature of time. Views of cataclysmic events throughout the earth’s history remain observable on stone cliffs and land masses, rendering time and space as mirrors of the passage of time. It is this visual sense of time that Cruz has extracted from the essence of what a waterfall represents: a continual renewal of intrinsic form, despite the fact that a changing mass of energy is in motion, every millisecond, with its own constancy. Cruz’s manipulation of that millisecond by using long exposures to smooth out all of the energy, allows the passage of time to reveal itself aesthetically as the form and structure of the waterfalls.

The photographic technique of photographing moving water with long exposures is not new, but in general the motive of photographers throughout history has been to layer scenes with romantic, sublime, connotations. Such images were about shrouding reality in an emotional fog for the sake of linear concepts of beauty (conventional precepts) and the so-called spiritual qualities of a subject. The concentration was on the overall scene for its pictorial content. And while there are aspects of these historical antecedents in Cruz’s photographs, such as inherent visual references to a kind of transcendental beauty, the affect is a by product of content, not a considered effort to imply deified intent as in the nineteenth century. The common challenge for all artists who have chosen waterfalls as their subjects is that by their very nature waterfalls are evocative of life forces both within and beyond the scope of our own experience. That difference is inherent to the biologic and geologic evolution of landscape and its cumulative reasons for existence, contrasted with our emotionally driven perceptions of its seeming stasis. In fact it is to photography that we owe an awareness of the opposite through re-photographic efforts, which reveal the futility of our desires, aesthetic or otherwise, for preservation of an unchanging reality.Early manifestations of modernism advocated the need to manifest the spirit of a thing and later to represent the essence of the thing itself, regardless of medium and subject. Later, postmodern concepts of artistic expression promoted the notion that historical formulations of schools of thought and styles were artificially limiting to a new democracy of expression and forms of art. But the drive to seek the essence of an idea or subject remained relevant. Only the approach has changed. Where once landscape imagery was the result of a lifelong quest for variations on a common theme, now the expectation is that landscape and other iconic subjects will find aesthetic equilibrium among a range of subjects by an artist. The visual character of an artist’s works is the essence of the thing itself. In other words, Cruz’s waterfall and Yanomami images share an essential characteristic of letting the beauty of their individual natures strike at the heart of human indifference and abuse. But the images are also aesthetic recreations of the physical world for the sake of helping the world to see things as Cruz has seen them, as independent works of art with their own cumulative reasons for his vision of the essence of the thing itself.
©James Enyeart, 2006


James L. Enyeart is the founding Director of the Anne and John Marion Center for Photographic Arts at the College of Santa Fe, 1995 -2002. Now emeritus, he was the first scholar to hold the Ann and John Marion Professorship. He was Director of The George Eastman House: International Museum of Photography and Moving Images from 1989 to 1995. Before that, he served as Director of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona from 1977 to 1989. In the mid-1970’s he was Director of the Friends of Photography in Carmel, California and prior to that was Curator of Photography at the University of Kansas from 1968 to 1976. He also held professorships at the above universities.

Mr. Enyeart has received numerous international awards and honors including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts Curatorial Fellowship, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, the Josef Sudek Medal from Czechoslovakia, the Photographic Society of Japan Achievement Award, and the Photokina Obelisk from Cologne.

He is the author of a number of books published by Knopf, Little Brown, Inc., Schermer/Mozel, D.A.P., Arena Editions, Harry Abrams, and the Museum of New Mexico Press, among others. He is also a photographer with his work collected by the National Museum of American Art, the George Eastman House, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, The Center for Creative Photography - University of Arizona, Sheldon Memorial Gallery – University of Nebraska, and other museums and private collections.