When you’ve got a single Saturday afternoon in São Paulo and you need to whittle the city’s hundreds of art exhibitions, world-class museums and iconic architecture down to a manageable – and memorable – handful of visits, it helps to have expert guidance.
My expert, Casa Vogue Brazil Art Director Tammy Takenaka, was precise: “IMS and MASP.”
MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo) was founded in 1947 and houses one of the world’s great collections, of European as well as South American art. IMS (Instituto Moreira Salles), a few blocks north on Avenida Paulista, is a baby in comparison. Part of a non-profit cultural organisation founded in 1990 by philanthropist Walter Moreira Salles, with centres around Brazil, the institute opened in São Paulo for the first time in September 2017.
The seven-storey glass-fronted building houses a film theatre, photography library, book shop, café and restaurant, along with airy gallery spaces. Photography is the institute’s main focus, and it claims a collection of around two million images from a roster of mainly Brazilian or Brazil-based photographers. Names like Maureen Bisilliat and Marcel Gautherot may be unfamiliar to an international audience (they certainly were to me) but, if the current exhibition is anything to go by, they are treasures just waiting to be discovered.
Chichico Alkmim Fotografo surveys the life and work of Francisco Augusto “Chichico” Alkmim (1886-1978), proprietor of the local photography studio in Diamantina, Minas Gerais. A diamond-mining centre in the18th- and 19th-centuries, Diamantina was a handsome colonial town (and is now a UNESCO World heritage Site), and its inhabitants seem to have enjoyed nothing better than gathering – in bars, cafes, the street, and most of all the studio – to have a picture taken by Chichico. Five thousand negatives from the photographer’s archives were donated to IMS in 2015, and they create a captivating insight into Brazilian life in the early 20th-century.
Chichico set up his studio in 1919, and much of this exhibition is dedicated to studio portraits. An excellent short documentary film shows the building where he worked: a deep, high-ceilinged room, with sunshine blazing in from both sides that the photographer managed with curtains and screens. He painted the backdrops himself.
The subjects are formally posed, with solemn expressions and intense eye contact. For the working classes in early 20th-century Brazil, one commentator explains, having your portrait taken was not simply a celebration of events or commemoration of milestones: it was evidence of going up in the world.
The exhibition displays a selection of these portraits printed life-size, so walking through the exhibition you encounter the citizens of Diamantina eye to eye. It’s an extraordinarily strong and intimate experience.
A young woman in a flapper dress, beads and darned stockings holds a black umbrella like a treasured possession. A gangly young man in a wrinkled jacket and rolled-up trousers rests his wrist awkwardly on an étagère, oversized hat taking pride of place beside him.
Pride is an emotion that comes out clearly in these pictures. The women of Diamantina, according to one of the film commentators, prided themselves on being fashionable – and on their independence. One particularly delightful composition shows three young ladies lost in reverie whilst posing with two wine bottles (and glasses). Another shows a group of three women and three men, all raising glasses of beer in a solemn toast to the camera.
As well as studio portraits, Chichico photographed hundreds of street scenes. Crowds of children in school uniform; young guards in dress regalia; factory workers and municipal picnics; and lots and lots of musical groups. His ability to choreograph the crowd is a marvel: in scene after scene, dozens of faces stare directly at the photographer, not a blink or blurred expression in shot.
As well as documenting the attitudes and pastimes of Minas Gerais, Chichico’s practice recorded the hardships of life in rural Brazil. One very poignant section of the exhibition shows photographs of dead children in their coffins, their grieving parents and siblings standing behind.
Another image, of the photographer’s own family, shows Chichico seated with a baby on his lap, his wife and little son standing by his side. Some versions are cropped to show only the family, but the whole frame reveals two more figures, a servant woman and child, propping up the backdrop. The woman is holding another toddler, out of shot, by the hand. The dirty, barefoot servant child contrasts strongly with the spit-and-polished Alkmim offspring. Chichico may have had a democratic approach to photography, but he was still a product of his times.
The last section of the exhibition presents close-up portraits made for official use, but here printed life-size. Again the effect is almost shockingly intimate. The photographer exposed two or more portraits together on glass plates, printing them like a contact sheet and cropping the individual pictures afterwards. The subjects have cards printed with numbers pegged to their jackets for later identification.
Again, the sitters look straight into the camera, some with expressions of anxiety, some with pride. The exhibition provides no information about these people, their names, their circumstances, even when the pictures were taken. But it’s impossible not to read more into these faces, to imagine their lives – and, even more, to imagine their feelings.
As the first major exhibition in the new IMS, Chichico Alkmim Fotografo sets the bar very high. Lucky Paulistas can anticipate more great shows to come: meanwhile we photography lovers in the rest of the world can only hope that IMS is working on international partnerships and will be sharing some of Brazil’s photographic treasures very soon.
Chichico Alkmim Fotografo, IMS São Paulo, until April 15, 2018.
© Fiona Hayes 2018