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Modern Inside Out: Photography and the City, Brazil, 1890-1930

Only professionals and a few amateurs had cameras in Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century. Even so, from 1900 onward, cities like Rio De Janeiro, São Paulo, Recife, Belém, Porto Alegre, and Belo Horizonte started to coexist more and more with photography and cinema as their innards were impacted by sweeping reforms. Concurrently, innovations in the graphics field enabled the printing of photographs in illustrated magazines, as well as the rapid proliferation of posters, postcards, and other publications. In 1907, the magazine Fon-Fon was launched in Rio de Janeiro, and in 1912, Kodak in Porto Alegre. Both periodicals covered general topics, with titles that referred to two of the era’s main symbols of modernity: the automobile (in Brazil, fon-fon is an onomatopoeia for the car horn) and photography.

Urban reforms such as bota-abaixo, which expelled the low-income population of downtown Rio de Janeiro and razed its colonial heritage between 1903 and 1908, and the inauguration of Cidade de Minas (later called Belo Horizonte), which was planned from scratch in 1897, fashioned the modern garb of the young Republic. However, a much overdue Abolition, proclaimed only one year before the coup that instituted the Republic, meant that modernity in that Brazil was not only synonymous with the actual times and progress, but also with violence, erasure, and eugenics.

In Brazil, as in the rest of the world, the State quickly understood the power of persuasion of cinema and photography. Marked by a patrimonialist bias during the First Republic (1889-1930), photographic production was representative of a political and economic class that was far removed from the needs of the general population. In the hands of the public authorities, the new mass media were an ideological instrument in favor of a deeply authoritarian regime in a society plagued by abysmal inequalities.  In this context, there was little room for formal experiments along the lines of what occurred in the northern hemisphere.

Modern Inside Out: Photography and the City, Brazil, 1890-1930 seeks to move away from official perspectives and show the various ways photography penetrated the urban imaginary: through the press, cinema, postcards, illustrated magazines, and amateur production, “artistic” and otherwise. Furthermore, magic lanterns, panoramas, and stereoscopes make the photographic image’s narrative vocation explicit, even when it is not directly associated with cinema. The idea of a modern visual language emerges in the snapshots taken in the 1910s and 1920s by Vincenzo Pastore and Francisco Rebello in the streets of São Paulo and Recife, respectively. In a more formal approach, it also materializes through close-ups and distortions in films such as Tormenta (1931) by cinematographer Igino Bonfioli, and in Edgar Brasil’s Lábios sem beijos (1929) and, above all, Limite (1931).

In this exhibition, however, modernity and modernism are first and foremost imprecise concepts laden with contradictions. The sophistication of the Amazon’s flora counters the architectural inelegance of the big fairs; scenes of child labor clash with the comfortable interiors of bourgeois homes; the delicacy of the floral ornament on the hat of a white woman with a flinty demeanor contrasts with the resilience of a man in baggy, threadbare clothes dancing barefoot at the Recife carnival. Modern Inside Out: Photography and the City, Brazil, 1890-1930 is, moreover, an incomplete portrait of a territory whose diversity and breadth are ungraspable. In the year that marks the bicentennial of Brazil’s independence, this visual essay points to the persistence of uncomfortable similarities between the past and the present of the country that thought it had a brilliant future.

Heloisa Espada