MARC FERREZ: VIEWS BEYOND VIEWS
© 2000, Fernando Azevedo
The history of photography in Brazil begins unexpectedly early. The first daguerreotype produced in the country dates from January 17, 1840—taken in a public demonstration by the French abbot Louis Compte only six months after Arago had officially announced the process in Paris. This event together with the premature experiments with image reproduction using light-sensitive salts, by another Frenchman—Hercule Florence— in São Paulo, in 1833, became the creation myths of Brazilian photography. The presence of the fifteen-year-old, emperor-to-be, d. Pedro II at Compte’s demonstration indeed influenced the precocious dissemination of photography in Brazil. The monarch’s enthusiasm made of him not only the first Brazilian to practice the daguerreotype, but he became also an avid collector and patron of photography throughout his life.
Marc Ferrez was born in 1843—just three years after photography’s notorious announcement and the young emperor’s coronation. The three—Ferrez, d. Pedro II and photography—are intricately connected. In the early 1870s, the monarch gave Marc Ferrez the title of Photographer of the Imperial Navy for developing an ingenious process of making perfectly sharp images of ships. In 1875, he served d. Pedro II as photographer of the Geologic Commission of the Empire of Brazil and was made Knight of the Order of the Rose in 1885. These titles clearly establish the official connection between the photographer and the emperor (associations between photography and governments were by no means specific to Brazil, being common in other countries too). I want to stress, however, a less evident relation between d. Pedro II and photography. In fact, I will expand this connection a little beyond the historical using it as my rhetorical leap into the structural aspects of this essay.
In her introduction to As Barbas do Imperador (The Emperor’s Beard), Lilian M. Schwarcz discusses a split she identifies at the heart of the emperor’s figure—one between the "king’s body" and the "king’s image." "During the second reign," she writes, "[…] it is possible to perceive how the ‘king’s body’ is the ground for diverse forms of symbolic battles."
Many are the signs of a vast symbology used by that tropical monarchy, but it is maybe in its iconography and in the originality of its rituals that the traces of such a path […] are concentrated. … This history does not begin with d. Pedro II, but the majority of images and representations act upon him, as if the "king’s body" were the media for these two instances: on one side, the political and institutional creation of royalty, on the other, the mythical figure that marks popular imaginary."
D. Pedro II—the actual human being and his personal life story—gives support and substance to institutional and popular representations of the monarch, as Schwarcz explains:
Emperor from 1840 to 1889, d. Pedro II had his life told on the basis of episodes full of drama. (…) He lost his mother at the age of one, his father at ten, was made emperor at fourteen and exiled at 64. It is difficult to notice in his trajectory where the mythical talk of memory starts, where the political and ideological discourse ends; where does history begin, where does the metaphor remain.
The man and his image feed back into each other giving form to the complex and contradictory figure of the emperor. This conflation has a curious analogy to the structure of photography itself. In the photographic print, as well, reality and representation are in a permanent and recursive circulation. When we show someone a photograph we say, ‘this is d. Pedro II.’ But even if we have said, ‘this is a photograph of d. Pedro II,’ the viewers, despite of holding a flat piece of paper on their hands, would immediately disregard this fact and start talking about d. Pedro II as if looking at the emperor himself. It is exactly this ambiguous status of the photographic print—simultaneously reality and sign—which differentiates photography from other forms of pictorial representation.
Searching for the essence of the photographic image—for what makes a photograph a photograph—Roland Barthes traces back the medium’s ambiguity to its chemical-physical constitution. Chemistry, on the one hand, bringing immediacy to the process—the directness of light leaving a photochemical trace of the world on film—is responsible for the perception of photographs as objective reality, as evidence. Physics, on the other hand, introducing mediation in the form of optical-mechanical choices (lenses, cropping, lighting, angles, f-numbers, shutter speeds, etc.), constitutes the place for subjective intervention: the site of art and myth.
This polarity at the heart of photography is never resolved; quite contrarily, photography has a paradoxical structure—opposing terms producing tension exactly in their resistance to any kind of resolution. It is precisely the constant and perverse flipping, back and forth, between reality and representation, which gives photography its uncanny power and accounts for the uniqueness of its experience—this is the madness of the photographic sign.
If the photochemical nature of the process is the indexical trademark of the photographic representation, the distinction between different photographic practices, from documentary to art photography, is to be found on the optical side of the photographic scale, in the manipulation of the camera—being a matter of rhetorical calibration, of discursive emphasis. There is, in documentary photography, for example, a rhetorical investment to make rhetoric itself transparent. Camera angles tend to be frontal or logic, lighting natural, in short, all the optic parameters are chosen to signify the absence of subjective choices; it is almost as if things had photographed themselves. In art photography, contrarily, photographic choices become prominent, opaque, signifying authorship. They point to the photographer as author and to the discourse of aesthetics and all its intrinsic categories, namely, artist, oeuvre, career, and the gallery wall.
The whole gamut of applications of photography was foreseen right at the onset of the medium. "The history of photography," Solomon-Godeau argues, "is, in reality, bound up with numerous discourses—those of science, of geographic expansion and imperialism, of reproduction, of architecture, of archeology, and so forth. …" In the beginning of the medium, the notion of photography as document predominated in the same way that today’s photography (even documentary photography) tends to be homogeneously perceived as art. As histories of 19th-century photography are being written, it is opportune to question, with Solomon-Godeau, how useful it is to be caught, into this document/art dichotomy; how much of this intricate and rich history will be overlooked—we have to ask—if we simply reduce it to archetypal positions ascribed a priori? The history of 19th-century photography must be written case by case, with each coherent body of work (not rarely a production of more than one photographer) being addressed according to its circumstances of production and reception including, of course, the unavoidable circumstances of our own contemporary reception.
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The case of the work of Marc Ferrez is both complex and typical: a photographer of views of Brazil (according to his own definition); a photographer of expeditions and surveys; almost never a portraitist; a highly technical and rigorous professional with refined aesthetic sensibility and consistency in his compositions; well connected to both the world of art and sciences in Rio; an entrepreneur; a teacher and a pioneer of the movie business in the country. He is probably the 19th-century photographer working in Brazil of whom we have more information about—mainly through the work of the historian and the photographer’s grandson, Gilberto Ferrez, whose publications have helped to preserve and make public Marc Ferrez’s images.
By the mid-1850s, with the advent of the wet collodion glass plates and the albumen paper, the negative-positive process began to surpass in popularity the daguerreotype. These developments marked the beginning of the era of multiple copies, bringing along as result the photographic publishing industry. Place photography, as Carol Armstrong points out, "quickly became the kind of photography most immediately and widely assimilated into the book trade and publication industry." During the period of Marc Ferrez’s photographic career—between 1860 and 1910—panoramas, cabinet cards, postcards, travel books and stereoscopic views were in great demand. Two-dimensional and strictly visual, they were representations of places tamed and re-ordered by photography. Turned into image, place, was now safe and ready to be offered as visual narratives to an emerging and long-living audience of "armchair travelers." It offered them visual memories of exotic regions of the world in which they had never been before and, most likely, would never be in their lifetime. Brazil, Rio de Janeiro in special, with its tropical natural beauty qualified as a perfect photographic subject. Travelers and foreigners living in Rio constituted the main market for Marc Ferrez’s photographs, which they bought to send to friends and relatives back home.
Marc Ferrez was one of the few local photographers who defined place photography as his primary field of work. In a promotional pamphlet, he affirms that his photographic business was "especially dedicated to produce views of Brazil." Outdoor photography, however, was a secondary practice among professionals operating in the country who almost exclusively supported themselves through studio portraiture. To make his practice viable Ferrez looked for work compatible to his interest. He joined, for example, the Imperial Geologic Commission and went in an expedition to the interior of Brazil led by the American geologist and geographer from Cornell University, Charles Frederick Hartt. While photographing for the expedition he also did work for himself—as in the case of Alto do Picão, Recife [fig.1]. He traveled the southern states in commissions to document railroad constructions. Five prints in the exhibit are from these trips to the south—three extracted from the actual railroad jobs and two (the Brazilian pine tree images) [fig. 2, fig.4] shot for his own use. Ferrez normally reprinted scattered views of Brazil selected from his expedition and survey images to offer to foreigners and travelers. These prints ended up in European and American photographic collections and eventually made their way into the museum. Seeing them in Beyond the Document, side by side with works of sixteen 20th-century photographers—mostly contemporary art photographers who produce images with the gallery space in mind—inevitably brings to the stage the well-known argument on the problem of appropriating images that belong to the discursive space of the archive into that of art.
Marc Ferrez’s outdoor images, for example, have little or no connection to the developments in landscape painting of the second half of the 19th-century. As Rosalind Krauss argues, while landscape painters were in a process of compressing pictorial space towards the flatness of the canvas, or that of the wall (Monet’s Water Lilies being the classical example), the photographer’s views were responding to a different phenomenology, having to do with illusionistic strategies of depth. From mammoth prints and panoramas to the stereoscope and the movies, Ferrez pursued all the techniques of visual illusion. In the viewing experience of the gallery, the internal space of the work of art co-exists with that of other works of art and with the real space of the room; contrarily, in panoramas, stereoscopes and movies—in different degrees—the external space is blocked off from view constraining the visual experience of the observer to the illusionistic space of the photograph. This recession into the space of the photograph is clearly shown in the dramatic use of perspective in O Aqueduto [fig.5], Viaducto da Laguna [fig.6] and Alto do Picão [fig.1]; in other images, depth is achieved by a clear distinction between foreground, middle-ground and background normally worked on the print (cf. Entrée de Rio de Janeiro[fig.7]).
It is not by mistake, however, that in Beyond the Document the views of Marc Ferrez share the museum gallery with so many art photographers. By association with the latter the photographic strategies of Ferrez’s work become less transparent, complicating and resisting their unproblematic fixation simply as documents. There is a lot happening in these images beyond the purely informational. Basically, so far, Marc Ferrez’s works have been addressed either in biographical terms or through its subject matter. The books on him supplement biographical narratives with essays on the architectural and urban histories of the places photographed. This is appropriate but not sufficient. Beyond the Document invites us to break with this tradition and pay attention to Ferrez’s images also as representations, reading them more analytically in terms of their photographic strategies. Without rejecting the status of Ferrez’s images as views or documents—there is a certain degree of instability in their presence in the show that constantly reminds us of that—the exhibit allows us to reassess them in terms of form, and, structural form, as it has been said elsewhere, makes ideology and history more available. The merit of Beyond the Document, in synthesis, is to reclaim Marc Ferrez’s images as photographs.
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The work of Marc Ferrez stands in a category of its own in 19th-century Brazil—not only among photographers but also in terms of the visual arts in general. Painting in Brazil at the time was still highly derivative of French salon painting while his photographs—as history is now showing—stood in equal basis to the best photographic production around the world. Consider an image as Entrée de Rio de Janeiro. Ferrez uses the extended format of half a plate in order to echo and emphasize the sinuous horizontality of hills and mountain ranges that surround the bay in Rio de Janeiro. It is a poetic and delicate three-level arrangement: in the foreground, the top of a hill exhibits in full detail its diverse vegetation; in middle-ground, in less detail and amidst a mirror of water, the Sugar Loaf Mountain towers between islands and other hills as the center of the whole composition; in background, the light and flat silhouette of a mountain range softly merges with the sky. The three layers of mountains harmonize like different melodic lines in a symphonic composition, as the perfect positioning of a palm tree that with extreme delicacy cuts vertically across them disrupts any possibility of monotony. It is an exquisite and highly conscious composition creating what is one of the most original and beautiful views of the entrance to the Guanabara Bay in Rio. The arrangement also perfectly responds to the requirements of the stereoscope, with an object in the center—the Sugar Loaf Mountain—and the three levels of ground gradually fading into the picture plain in order to create depth.
Pine Tree (Man on Horse) [fig.2] is another photograph important to be noticed. Strangely enough, Ferrez began by placing vertically a half plate that is normally used horizontally for panoramic views—I am aware of no other 19th-century photograph in such a long vertical format. A gigantic Brazilian pine tree takes up the whole frame in a very symmetrical and banal composition with a man on a horse squarely positioned in front of it, as a human prop, to give a sense of scale to the picture—it is the typical instrumental use of the human figure in Ferrez. To his left, a second man, almost indiscernible in the shadows, looks as if part of a tree [fig.3]. He is strategically positioned on a platform of the terrain right behind and above a chopped tree trunk, which seems to provide his roots to the earth. The man is also right in front of another tree that seems to grow straight out from his head. It is a very surreal play with visual illusion that interestingly and subtly finds its way into the work of this otherwise very detached photographer. But what is even more striking in this apparently conventional composition is how we experience the photograph phenomenologically.
There are two distances involved in the perception of this image. First, from close to it, the viewer tends to connect to the two figures and to experience space from within the scope of their scale. As the eyes move up following the huge tree trunk the viewer is pushed back to another distance from the print that allows her or him to grasp its totality. It is as if there were two pictures in one—the man on the horse scene and that of a pine tree seen slightly from below. Moving from one to the other provokes a dizzying effect similar to what one probably experiences from standing under such a gigantic tree. Ferrez uses a similar strategy, now horizontally, in Viaducto da Laguna [fig.6] to convey the sensation of a bridge disappearing into infinity. Again, the scene of the men sitting by the shore and the long bridge almost constitutes two pictures.
I want to finish the essay with a close look at what I consider to be one of the most interesting 19th-century photographs, both formally and historically, Reservatório D. Pedro II (Morro do Pedregulho) [fig.8]. The picture was taken in Rio de Janeiro in 1879. D. Pedro II and his official accompanying group stand still inside the city’s future water reservoir. It is an intriguing and audacious composition. Ferrez placed the group in the lower right corner of the frame; in their black suits and top hats, they contrast with the general pale atmosphere of their surrounding space and echo the verticality of a maze of huge carved stone pillars that recede in perspective. The pillars have the rhythmic pattern of tombstones in a cemetery and the group, in its stern isolation, seems to have gathered to attend a funeral. They are not looking down to the ground, though; they look up at us, at a camera unusually positioned above them. A ruler is always photographed from below never from above—a question of hierarchy and of the symbolism of power. But this is a special situation. D. Pedro II is a monarch who wants to associate himself with technical and industrial progress. He patronized photography (and understood its power); he cherished the great works of engineering like this reservoir. So, in order to convey the monumental scale of the enterprise, Ferrez did not hesitated to sink the emperor and his associates to the bottom of the future water container. In agreeing with it (or maybe even in requesting it), D. Pedro is trading the stature of his own figure for that of the work under construction in the belief that it would function as an allegory of the grandeur and vision of his ruling. But the effect is the opposite. The pillars hold on to the scale of the viewer and it is the bodies that become miniaturized—the photograph reading, instead, as a picture of an isolated and shrinking monarchy. This, in reality, is an accurate image. As we now know, in a few years from the moment when the photograph was taken, the empire would collapse under the pressure of republican advocates and the anti-slavery movement with D. Pedro dying a couple years after during his exile in Europe. This photograph, as an image of death (but which photograph is not—one may ask with Barthes)—personal and institutional death—is premonitory.
The photograph, however, is not just about death: work is also presented here. Hand tools to work the stone casually lay here and there in the composition pointing to the eminently manual character of the construction. Two big steel pulleys to the right of D. Pedro’s group—used maybe for excavations or to move stones—give a touch of an incipient mechanization. But I want to call attention to some ghost figures that found their way into this photograph. Barely visible, workers are hidden everywhere in the image. At the left of the government officials we have an opaque worker—the exception that makes the rule—sided by three other translucent ones. If we move our eyes up and look attentively enough (maybe with the help of a magnifying glass), we see right above the pillars, all across the photograph, other ghosts of man at work. As the official photographic session proceeded they continued to work to build the reservoir. In order to do so, they had to move and by moving they lost their photographic density. We have then a curious hierarchy established: the power to exist as image is directly proportional to one’s social possibility of not moving. It is those who can afford to be still that are entitled to have full presence in the photograph and, as result, in history. If this image had been painted the workers probably would have been suppressed from it; they do not seem part of the photographer’s program, at least in full density, otherwise he would have ordered them to stand still. Their presence, even as ghost images, is due to photography’s indexical nature, which brings to the sensitized plate—like in reality itself—way more information than any photographer could hope to control.
Reservatório D. Pedro II [fig.8] documents an important political event; it is an evidence of who was there at the time; it documents the construction technology of the period; it offers us a view of the reservoir that we can no longer have. Water, work, slavery, monarchy, republic, a maze of historical questions can be addressed and elaborated out of this photograph. In departing from the image—as opposed to using it simply as an illustration for pre-established historical narratives—we can maybe afford to escape the burden that the inner logic of these narratives may impose on us. By being the indexical record of a slice of time and place in history a photograph forces us, in its spatial simultaneity, to deal with themes that we might otherwise not have the insight to connect together when following the conventional logic of the historical discourse. But, in the uncanny aesthetic beauty of its composition—which points to the many photographic choices that Ferrez made and the respective ideological implications of his vision—in all the contemporary interpretations that we now bring to it, this image like many other 19th-century photographs go well beyond a straight concept of document.
2 See Lilian Moritz Scharcz, As Barbas do Imperador. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999. 20-21Translation mine.
3 See Roland Barthes.Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 1981. 80
4 See Rosalind Krauss. "Photography’s Discursive Spaces" in The Originality of the Avant-Garde…. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1985. 142-143
5 See Solomon-Godeau. 167
6 Gilberto Ferrez, O Rio Antigo do Fotógrafo Marc Ferrez, 1865-1918. São Paulo: Editora ExLibris Ltda.,1985
7 Carol Armstrong. Scenes in a Library. Reading the Photographs in the Book, 1843-1875. October Books. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998. 277
8 Pedro Vasquez. Mestres da Fotografia no Brasil-Coleção Gilberto Ferrez. Rio de Janeiro: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, 1995. 30
9 See Rosalind Krauss. 133-135
10 Ibid. 137
11 Roland Barthes, Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. 112