“Album,” a masterfully edited black-and-white analog photography exhibition by artist Mauro Restiffe currently on display at the sister museum of the Pinacoteca, is one of the best solo shows of 2017 in São Paulo. Curated by MASP curator Rodrigo Moura, the 143 images spanning 1996 to 2017 were selected from a total of 40,000 by the curator and the artist over a three-year period. It represents only a fraction of Restiffe’s archive of 140,000 images begun in 1989 when he embraced black-and-white photography through the lens of a loyal 35mm Leica he carries to this day almost twenty-four-seven in a counter-current stance to the digital invasion.
The show occupies all the three grand exhibition rooms at the fourth floor of the Pina Estação, an early 1900 warehouse that later held the headquarters of the repressive police during Brazil’s dictatorship. In the talk at the Pina auditorium with the museum’s director Jochen Volz, the artist and curator Moura, they disclosed the exhibition was edited like a book and should preferably be read from left to right. To enjoy the cinematic fluidity of the documentary continuum of his snapshots and their closely knit visual connections at their fullest, begin in Room 1. Here is “Landscapes and Multitudes,” one of the four series comprised in “Album.” You will grab the concept and get into the tempo required to indulge in this admirable body of work and its precise storybook-like narrative that unfolds the artist’s many visual experiences and interests.
The “Landscapes and Multitudes” series also signals the opening words in the catalog by photographer Allen Frame, the artist’s teacher at New York’s International Center of Photography (ICP): “Throughout his work Mauro Restiffe has explored the boundary between photography and painting.” It justifies why the meticulous hanging clusters in the three rooms display the artist’s softly granulated images juxtaposed with twenty-five canvases by Brazilian painters of the nineteenth- and mid-twentieth centuries (including a 1957 Metascheme by Helio Oiticica) from the collections of the Pinacoteca and the MASP museums. The paintings bring patches of color but most significantly they underscore the themes that engage the lens of this prolific São Paulo State-born artist and his interest, as the American professor puts it, in “frame-in-frame quotations,” explained by the artist in the interview that follows.
When entering Room 2 you will be taken aback by the “Album” series, the centerpiece of this artistic endeavor. This is Restiffe’s major oeuvre to this day, donated by the artist to the Pina collection. The seventy-three-photo twenty-meter-long polyptych unravels the artist’s familial intimacy in all its joyfulness and sadness. This chronologically harmonized, mesmerizing piece is a universal account of the banal moments in all of our lives, rich or poor alike, based on the daily clichés of the Restiffe family life for two decades. Facing the opposite wall is the “Portrait” series which unfortunately loses its punch after the emotional tsunami just experienced. The third room houses the “Framings and Constructions” series, an ode to architectural esthetics, another theme dear to this artist.
Mauro, what led you to photography?
The cinema. During the end of the 1980s, I took cinema and photography classes in college but when I discovered the possibilities of the photo lab, I fell in love with photography. Soon after, I began to shoot pictures and develop my own films. What moved me was the autonomy in the photographic process. It is a lonely and independent medium in which you only need a camera, a film roll, a lab and the work was done. I admit I wasn’t very talented in the other fields and photography came very fast to me; soon enough I was developing my personal projects.
Do you define yourself as a photographer, an artist or both?
For sure, I’m a photographer. However, I’m privileged to have my photos included in the realm of fine art. So is photography art? I guess this dilemma has been solved. I’m a photographer who shoots photos that are considered art, as simple as that…
How do you explain your own work?
I am a photographer who investigates the possibilities of photography. My practice in photography is classic, traditional, analog, devoid of any kind of manipulation, effect or intervention but it is ingrained with my peculiar view on things and the world. My interests are quite diverse and hard to list. My focus is the relation of photography with the act of seeing, framing and re-framing. It is the constant action of perpetuating the image in multiple frames, either in the act of taking the picture or in the act of exhibiting the photos.
I was in Russia in 1972 during the Cold War and you have been there several times. In 2016, your show, “Post-Soviet Russia 1995-2015,” was exhibited in Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and at Galeria Fortes Vilaça, in São Paulo, where I saw it. I was very impressed with how you captured the frozen-in-time feeling I experienced in the 1970s. What attracts you so to Russian culture?
I’ve been to Russia several times. The first time at the turn of 1994-95, I spent a whole month there with a Russian girlfriend I met in New York and I came back very impressed. I was twenty-four years old, l loved classical music and St. Petersburg remains a hub for music lovers. I had never seen snow and experienced the Russian winter with its long nights and short days. It had a time-tunnel dimension since its culture took me back to a past beyond my childhood days to a frozen time and space that had nothing to do with the contemporary life I had experienced in New York in the nineties. I came back to Brazil wanting to visit it again, so when I finished college I went back and spent eight months shooting photos and learning the language and about the Russian culture. Twenty years later, I was invited by the Garage Museum to develop a project for the museum combining the photos I had made there in the nineties with new photos specially made for the project. Going back to Russia after so long was wonderful and it was great to go through all the material from nineties and connect those images with the new photos specially taken for the Garage project in 2015-2016. I consider this project one of the highlights of my career because I was able to trace temporal associations present in my work that were accomplished in the project. I had the opportunity to mount the photographs in a more dynamic, film-like narrative. Sometimes it had a musical discourse, as in reference to sheet music, at others it was akin to a cinema sequence. The photos were mounted in clusters and polyptychs creating a modular rhythm in the reading of the images in the museum space. I worked with Garage curator Snejana Krasteva and Brazilian architect Martin Corullon of Metro Arquitetos, in São Paulo, who has been a constant collaborator including in the present exhibition at the Pina.
Now lets move on to your present work at the Pina. The revealing intimacy conveyed in the seventy-three-image polyptych of “Album” at times made me feel as if my gaze was violating your family privacy. It reminded me when I first saw Nan Goldin’s photos at the MEP in Paris. Did your family members give you permission to hack their intimacy?
This is a special project for me for obvious reasons. It is a family portrait built along twenty years with no prior intent to be transformed into a work of art. In the end, it became the main oeuvre of the show as well as the title of the exhibition. It sums up my practice in a very peculiar way and introduces a less-known aspect of my work to the public, which is my work-in-process diary with the camera portraying intimate moments of my family’s daily life. They are unaware of the presence of the photographer; however their intimacy and complicity is always revealed in the images. Its twenty-meter-long extension obliges the viewer to observe it step-by-step as with the passing of time following the chronological organization of the images. Regarding my family and my use of the camera, what I can say is it all feels very natural for us. My friends are aware I carry a camera and no one is bothered by its presence. It is viewed rather as a complicity than an invasion.
Among the seventy-three photos in “Album” there are very intimate images of your family such as your wife Lianna giving birth and your father’s illness. How did you process the editing? Was there some sort of censorship by you and curator Rodrigo Moura?
The edition of “Album” as well as the whole exhibition was a very fluid process. In my archive, we went through circa 40,000 images—I looked into 30,000 and Rodrigo 10,000—separating them according to themes, genres, affinities, etc. “Album” resulted from one of these nuclei and there was no censorship involved even when the image was more explicit or compromising because we focused on the photos relevant to the project. I have to stress that Rodrigo Moura’s participation was very close and intense both in editing the images and conceiving the project itself. Sometimes I even don’t remember who decided what. It was a project conceived with two pairs of hands and eyes…
How do your family and friends regard the more explicit or compromising photos?
When the work was finally disclosed in the exhibition there was a feeling of surprise and commotion among my family and close friends portrayed in the photos. The only one who saw the selection before the showing was Lianna [Restiffe’s wife]. She felt very emotional about being the main protagonist of “Album.”
How did the idea emerge of juxtaposing your photographs with classic paintings of the collections of the Pinacoteca and the MASP museums?
The juxtaposition emerged quite naturally during the whole process. I have been working on the theme of photographing paintings since the mid 1990s and already had a showing in New York on this subject matter in 2002. At a certain point, I felt a deep urge to explore my photo archive in relation to the museum space itself. That is when the idea of a dialogue between the photos and the museum’s “collection of images” came about. The paintings [totaling twenty-five] underline the work by creating a dialogue as well as a rhythmic tension; they also bring an element of color to the black-and-white photographs, resulting in a very specific reading of the images. This is why we used the term appropriation because they serve a very specific function in the exhibition of the three series by emphasizing the relation of the images. The exhibition was organized to orient the viewer in a fluid reading of the images much the same as the cinematic experience. There is a strong concept based on reading one image after the other or reading a cluster of images because we organized several groupings, image blocks and polyptychs to create analogies that resulted in a dynamic in each cluster moving from wall to wall, room to room. The paintings underline this orientation. Ever since I started in photography, I have been interested in the relation of painting and photography, specially the way we visualize painting and photography in space—a great deal of my work is based on this assumption. The fact the paintings are next to the photos emphasizes this premise.
A technical curiosity, what camera do you carry with you?
I have been using the same camera for over twenty-years, a 35mm Leica with only one lens. I don’t like changing equipment, I try to make photographing the most simple and economical I possibly can. I use the same film, the same lens. I don’t use a tripod and no special lighting. Nothing in my photos is manipulated; I like the natural rawness of photography. I don’t develop my own films anymore but I follow the whole analog process of printing, nothing escapes me. This is a significant part in analog photography. I participate in every single decision from the framing of each photo to the hang of each picture. In analog photography the process is vital. All the details are fundamental. “Album,” for example, shows a stretch of time of over twenty years, starting before the advent of digital photography in the beginning of my practice as a photographer till now. If I had updated my equipment the work would have lost its strength since the structural unity is crucial for the linear reading of the images in time. Contrary to digital photography, what seduces me so in analog photography is not its immediateness but the deceleration of time and the physicality of the process: having to send the film to the lab, sliding over the contact sheet with a loupe analyzing image by image to begin the edition process. It all has to do with the development of a physical archive in constant transformation.
Who or what contributed to your formative years in the arts?
It happened in the mid 1980s thanks to my visits to the MASP museum when I moved from my native town in the state of São Paulo and lived nearby Paulista Avenue. It was there I had my first contact with the visual arts and immediately fell in love with painting. I don’t have any master or specific artist who inspired or influenced me instead it is my group of friends and artists who influence and inspire me. Lately I have been going through the works of iconic photographers such as Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar and Luigi Ghirri, for example.
After this exhibition is over what are your plans? Are there plans to show “Album” in another institution?
Since its production was a lot of work in the last three years I want some time off and I must dedicate some time to reorganize my photo archive and my studio. Unfortunately we do not have plans to itinerate for now but we plan to offer it to other institutions but nothing concrete as yet.
What do you have to say for a beginner in the art of photography?
I find it hard to give away advice however I would tell a beginning photographer to shoot as many pictures possible of his family, friends, daily life, trips, lovers, frustrations, his town… Everything changes with time and registering the past is precious. The ability to freeze time and have it on paper or, as today goes, in the monitor of the computer or the cell phone is one of the things that makes photography a remarkable art.
Before the closing question, a curiosity. In 2009, you photographed Obama’s inauguration in Washington D.C., which was in your exhibition “Mirante” on show in Madrid, the same year, also curated by Rodrigo Moura. What about Trump’s inauguration?
I only photograph what moves me and arouses my curiosity. This has driven me to capture the inaugurations of Lula and Obama, the wakes of Fidel in Havana and Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia, the protests against the coup in Brazil in 2016, the transformations of the city of São Paulo, the Maré favela complex in Rio, as well as architecture, ruins, my family, friends, trips. I have no interest whatsoever in Donald Trump’s inauguration and for that matter the inauguration of Michel Temer last year in Brazil.
Last question, do you always carry your camera twenty-four-seven?
Most of the time, I do, yes. Sometimes I take a break but when I go to bed I prefer to lie down with my wife…
Mauro Restiffe is represented by Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel in São Paulo
“Mauro Restiffe: Album”
Curated by Rodrigo Moura
Through November 6, 2017
Pina Estação, São Paulo