Book Review: Fotoclubismo by Sarah Hermanson Meister

A beautifully printed, densely informative catalog that accompanies the current MoMA exhibit (on view through September), Fotoclubismo focuses on the contributions of a mid-20th Century amateur photography club in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Largely unknown outside of Brazil, the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB) was comprised mostly of white-collar professionals, both men and women, who produced bold and innovative photographic works.

Organized by Sarah Meister, MoMA’s former curator of photography, the book and exhibit illuminate the contributions of the FCCB while challenging the ways that amateur status is viewed as a liability in the art world. In her opening essay, “Excelente, Bom, Sofrivel, Pobre: Judging Postwar Photography in Brazil,” Meister argues, “Their photographs attest to the seriousness and skill with which they approached the medium; their amateur status figures prominently among the reasons why this chapter of photographic history has been largely overlooked outside Brazil.”  

This neglect is unfortunate, since the Bandeirantes created dynamic, unconventional, and powerful images. This was by no means an accidental development. The club’s members prized innovation, valued originality, and adapted a range of approaches with an emphasis on developing one’s personal vision. They fostered what Meister terms a “culture of criticality,” utilizing in-depth, constructive critiques to help elevate their work collectively and prevent “the complacency that characterized so many of their amateur peers.” This was in line with the club’s monthly contests, rankings, portfolio reviews, discussions, and seminars—and a distinguishing feature from most other photo clubs.

In many ways, the club is comparable to New York’s vaunted Photo League, which had been founded a decade earlier. However, the Photo League concerned itself with documenting the social issues impacting New York City, while the less politically-minded Bandeirantes favored more avant-garde, abstract, and experimental work. They embraced the potential for Modernist compositions that Sao Paolo’s industrial transformation offered, rather than photographing, with a social conscience, the impacts of those transformations.

As a result, their striking and dramatic works place a strong emphasis on form, texture, and technique. When people happen to be present in a shot, they are often rendered in silhouette or shown with their back to the camera—or both. The selection of photos in the book (expertly curated by Meister) reveal that the practitioners were finely attuned to the strengths of black and white photography. There is an impressively diverse array of images on display, still Fotoclubismo is an apt title, since this genuinely feels like a collective body of work.

Julio Agostinelli. Circus (Circense). 1951. Gelatin silver print, 11 7/16 × 15 in. (29 × 38.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Richard O. Rieger. © 2020 Estate of Julio Agostinelli

The 140 tritone plates are divided into six sections. Each section explores two interconnected themes and spotlights an individual photographer while segueing from one theme to the next. The themes are inspired by the monthly photography contests in the club’s highly collectible monthly publication, the Boletim, and approximately half of the photos are from MoMA’s collection.

The sequencing is a major strength of the book. The sections are arranged like jazz compositions, offering variations on themes and finding cohesion in the process. There is rhythm and harmony, spontaneity and repetition.

Case in point: The first section opens with a collection of architectural photos. Lyrical photographic compositions showcase lines and curves, and play with light and shadow. Architecture seamlessly transitions to the early work of Jose Yalenti, a civil engineer and co-founder of the club. His fragmentary, geometric, and pointillism-influenced compositions, in turn, lead into the theme “Abstractions from Nature.”

The next chapter, “Solitude/Shadows,” highlights the club’s first female member, Gertrudes Altschul, whose 1953 photograph “Filigree” adorns the book’s cover. That striking image emphasizes the intricate veins of a leaf while imbuing it with an artificial sheen. It was selected for the cover partly because it illustrates an instance of an amateur’s day job overlapping with her photographic interests–Altschul had a small business designing handmade ornamental flowers. Born into a Jewish family, she had emigrated from Nazi-occupied Europe, as had Thomaz Farkas, a prominent founding member who at 14 years old was the youngest photographer in the FCCB when he joined. Meister alludes to their Jewishness in her opening essay without going into any depth, but it would have been interesting to explore, in greater detail, how this part of their shared history influenced their work.

Farkas’s body of work is particularly strong. His images tend to be visually playful and imbued with a humanistic quality. There is an intellectual complexity to them. I found myself returning to his photos as I looked through the book, and discovering something new each time.

Far from purists, FCCB photographers often cropped their work—sometimes radically so—and dabbled in the types of alternative processes familiar to most Beginning Darkroom students: solarization, photograms, printing from multiple negatives, and negative printing (a two-step process that involved first making a positive print and then contact-printing the positive in order to reverse it back to a negative image). Although those works may come across as antiquated and, well, amateurish at first glance, they nevertheless speak to the spirit of experimentation that the club had at that time.

Fotoclubismo deepens our understanding of 20th Century photographic history, and it will likely lead towards a greater appreciation of both amateur photography and Brazilian photography. MoMA’s bold decision to showcase the work of an amateur photography club should resonate in a positive way among galleries and museums and lead to more opportunities for works created by “non-professionals” to be discovered and rediscovered. It can’t completely overturn the biases towards amateurs in the art world, but it’s a huge step forward.

Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography and the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante, 1946–1964 by Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2021. 184 pages. Hardcover.

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