I have always had special fascination for photoprinting. I did not know exactly what it was, but when I went on holiday to my paternal grandparents’ house in Sabino, in the countryside of São Paulo State, I was intrigued by that oval painting, with sky blue background and golden frame, both being represented from a frontal angle. Today, this same photograph has pride of place at the farm which my parents constructed and is now being cared for by my other Odette, in Santo Antônio do Pinhal. When I grew up, I got to know that that picture was ordered by the family after both had died, based on a small black and white photograph. When I started roaming around Brazil, especially around the Northeast, I started finding, quite often, other similar photographs that made my fantasies run free, imagining under what circumstances those photographs had been taken. They were young couples, chronologically advantaged people, engaged couples, children, whole families, all seeking perpetuation through this support mechanism. Some happy, others not so, some with a lot of colour, others with less, but all with the same objective.
I met Titus Riedl, the collector of the material that can be seen in this exhibition, because of another photographer of Crato, Telma Saraiva, who I had the pleasure of showcasing in 2008, establishing a dialogue with the last photographs of Marilyn Monroe, clicked by Bert Stein.
The importance of this work is to show part of our history. With the curatorship of photography critic Eder Chiodetto, there it is, for us all to enjoy.
In the second half of the 19th Century, having a photographic portrait became one of humanity’s most important wishes. Images that could perpetuate someone’s appearance for generations to come, like the reflection of a mirror, mobilised and excited the imagination of a significant part of Western society.
Having one’s photograph taken at that moment of industrial advances and acceleration of the development of large cities was an innovative gesture that reflected a collective desire for expansion and modernity, while also becoming a counterpoint to the representations that painting had, until then, made of the nobility, which we can now see in museums throughout the world.
However, the first photographic portraits made in the pioneering studios of Europe often disappointed the clients. The long exposure time necessary to obtain a picture, caused by the materials of the time which had low sensitivity to light, meant that the people being photographed had to sit still for several minutes, in what amounted to real torture sessions. The results were always frustrating, even more so for those generations who were used to the idealised pictures of painting, in which the artists were required to embellish the clients, using generous touches of the paint brush, while photography showed itself to be cruel, as it showed all the imperfections of the client.
This was one reason which made it urgent to create a trick to mask raw realism. Thus in 1855, only sixteen years after photography had been invented, Franz Seraph Hanfstaengel from Germany shocked the world on presenting his technique of touching up images at the Universal Exhibition of Paris, which was the first event at which photographs were put on show. On showing the same photograph with and without these touches, Hanfstaengel opened the possibility of this “magic mirror” simulating a situation, creating a new “reality”.
Based on the invention of black-and-white touches on photographic paper, researchers started to look into the possibility of doing the same with colour paints, to mimic the colours and hues of nature, thereby increasing the degree of realism present in the photographs. Historians place the creation of the process of photopainting at around 1863. The creator of this process was apparently André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri (1819-1889), who, starting out from a photographic base with low contrast, would apply paints to give colour to the images. In this process, photography therefore became a draft of the shapes, and a facilitator in the execution of the portrait, meaning that the painter would no longer have to redo the image of the client’s appearance.
Therefore, on the one hand we have painting creating visuality which tends to be more creative and idealised, while on the other hand the photographic base is like a parameter, a limiting factor which blocks the excessive creativity shown by the photopainter, as the similarity with the person photographed needs to be maintained, lest the work be returned and not paid for.
A photopainting, therefore, brings in its double layers a historic clash between representations, with painting and photography as the leading players. From Disdéri in the 19th Century, to the photopainters in the Cariri region (in the state of Ceará) of the 2nd half of the 20th Century, little has changed from the conceptual point of view.
The collection of some 5 thousand photopaintings of the German researcher and sociologist, Titus Riedl, who has lived in the city of Crato (Ceará) for sixteen years, is emblematic for us to think, among so many other issues, of the tension that involves the free creation of painting and the mimesis made possible by photography.
Titus Riedl’s master’s degree dissertation, “Last memories: portraits of death in Cariri, a region of the Brazilian Northeast”, which was a base for this collection, centres the research on memento mori. In several different elements in his collection, without us even realising it, we are facing the portraits of dead people who have been photographed on their death beds. They are brought back to life through the skill and dexterity of some photopainters who normally reopen their eyes, which have already been closed for ever in the photographic original. Painting therefore resuscitates what photography confirmed as being dead.
In this way, the family members manage to get one last glimpse of the relative who died, free from the morbidness of a dead person’s picture which normally occupies the prominent spaces of the living room of the house, in a composition that gets artificial flowers, a bit like a sanctuary. Therefore the dead person becomes someone mythical and sanctified.
The people presenting this “miracle” are the bonequeiros, these being a kind of street vendor who sets out through the Brazilian interior with the task of convincing widows to colour pictures of the dead husband – often finally generating an unprecedented picture of the couple together – of mothers of stillborn children who want to keep a last picture of their angels in the coffin.
However, the magic of transformation of a reality which is not always generous, in a fantasy gaining airs of documentation, can occur in photopaintings in many different ways apart from these. In the collection by Titus Riedl there are many portraits in which single women finally “wear” their dreamed-for wedding dress, and whole families meet for the first time, even if those who are alive have never met the oldest family members on this Earth, and Padre Cícero and Friar Damião materialise alongside common people, people who have never worn, or shall wear, a suit and tie appear with these symbols of social progress, as also their wives who appear alongside them in beautiful dresses, bedecked with jewellery and precious stones.
The collection of photopaintings owned by Titus Riedl has mainly works produced between 1950 and the end of the 1990s, in the period when digital photography had not yet massified and expanded the circulation of pictures as happens today. At that time, the poorer people who were in the Brazilian countryside had few photographs, often only the document photos on 3x4 paper, in black and white, or precarious photographs taken in public squares.
Soon the strong colours used by photopainters were also a way of rising up against black and white, considered sad and lifeless. The hypersaturated colours in the portraits, to a certain extent, found some equivalence in the façades of the countryside houses painted in primary colours. Apart from the disappearance of black and white, one common request of the clients was for the shadows, also known as “coal”, to be removed from the original portrait. As Titus Riedl well remembers, this imparts on photopaintings a hyperrealistic aspect which finds an echo, for example, in the characters of Mexican wall paintings.
As can be seen at the exhibition at the Estação Art Gallery, there is a wide variety of styles and technical quality between different photopainters. Some of them make the physiognomy traits revealed in the original photographs disappear completely, often generating a caricature typical of a comic strip. This can occur either through the unrestrained impetus of the photopainter, as also through the fact that the original photograph is in poor condition, making the artisan have to invent most of the traits of the person depicted. Other photopainters let the photograph be visible on the surface of the picture, thus creating an even more instigating form of tension between mimesis and free creation.
Since the start of the new century, the trade of photopainters has almost become extinct, at least in this artisanal way. With the advent of digital cameras and the ever-growing difficulty in getting films and photographic paper, a few of them have migrated to a new trade of photopainting on computers, while the vast majority had to change their area of activity. This is yet another aspect which makes the photopaintings of the Titus Riedl connection an asset of high cultural and artistic value which deserves to be preserved and documented in the best way possible.
Among so many styles, representations made by photopainters with a certain amount of talent, the curatorship started from the principle that they should not, in their selection of about 4% of the total collection, arbitrate about what is “good” and “bad”, “attractive” or “ugly”, these concepts being excessively ideological, deformed and worn out.
It is in the diversity of styles, the richness contained in the re-creation of the people of the Brazilian Northeast, in visible ties of affection, in details of the clothing, the textures, the contrasts between saturated colours and the tussle between truthfulness of representation and artistic creation that rests a beautiful and involving statement of popular culture, with regard to our identity.
Often forgotten and badly treated by the official mechanisms of culture, popular art has embarked on an emphatic reflection, as we can now see on the walls at the Estação Art Gallery, the dreams and designed roles of a people in particular, but also of humanity at large, in a way that is captivating, poetic and involving.
The Estação Art Gallery opens the exhibition on “Photopaintings – Titus Reidl Collection”, presenting 200 portraits painted from photographs – a technique which is now almost extinct – showing the aesthetic universe of the hinterland inhabitant (sertanejo) of the Brazilian Northeast. With Éder Chiodetto as curator, this exhibition shows part of the private collection of sociologist Titus Reidl, which has some five thousand items, most of which were acquired in Juazeiro do Norte (Ceará) and surrounding region.
The curatorial cut prioritised the clash between photography and painting. According to the curator, while in some of the pictures the photographic aspect is quite visible, in others the photograph is completely hidden, with the physiognomy traits bordering on caricature. “The sum of the pictures, however, has the capacity to reveal not only body features but also the dreams of projection, affection, memory, and also the social values of the people of the Brazilian Northeast”, Chiodetto adds.
The end of analogue photography and the invention of digital photography and image treatment softwares have brought the demise of photopainting. The technique – carried out based on photographic originals, normally old 3 x 4 document photographs, duly reproduced, on which there is the recreation of the general appearance of people, with clearly characteristic paints and features – for example, it is possible to bring together, in one single image, couples of even whole families who have never taken a photograph together.
Photopaintings bring characteristics such as revived dead people, dead and living people in the same photograph, embellishments to eliminate physical defects, or the inclusion of details which give the subjects social prestige. It is very common to see photographs where a sertanejo of limited means appears dressed like a business executive, and single women dressed up in bridal wear. “As the clients often ask the bonequeiro to remove the shadows from the photograph, what often happens is that the results often border on hyper-realism”, collector Riedl highlights.
The famous English photographer Martin Parr, from the Magnum agency which is known for its interest in the controversial aesthetics of the nouveau riche, after getting to know the Riedl collection some three years ago has got so enthusiastic with the photopaintings that in 2010, together with the sociologist who lives in the Cariri zone of Ceará, Brazil, has carried out an exhibition and produced a book about the bonequeiros of the Brazilian Northeast: Painted Portraits (Retratos Pintados), at the Yossi Milo Gallery of New York City, which this year (2011) shall go to Los Angeles, California.
This is the second time that the Estação Art Gallery has an exhibition of this technique. In 2008, the same gallery presented the works of Telma Saraiva, a photographer who lives in the city of Crato, State of Ceará, Brazil, and who, without ever having ventured outside her State, has materialised her dream of becoming a Hollywood star based on a series of self-portraits and photopaintings.
Exhibition: “Photopaintings – Titus Reidl Collection”
Opening: 5 April at 7 p.m. (guests), runs until 21 May 2011
From Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. – Admittance free.
Estação Art Gallery
Rua Ferreira de Araújo, 625 – Pinheiros / Telephone: ++ 55 11 3813-7253
Marcy Junqueira – Pool de Comunicação
Telephone: ++ 55 11 3032-1599 Fax: ++ 55 11 3814-7000
Photopaintings | Titus Riedl Collection. Exhibition from 5 April 2011 to 28 May 2011.