No, Argentina isn’t crying for you
Images by Argentine photographers at the Getty Museum
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Pacific Standard time: LA/LA, the multi-institutional exhibition of art by people of Hispanic descent, in this country as well as from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, is winding down. But one of the more impressive shows still on view is devoted to a chronologically panoramic constellation of photographs from our farthest neighbor to the South.
There are 60 photographers and nearly 300 images in “Photography in Argentina, 1850-2010: Contradiction and Continuity.” That’s a hefty title, so I won’t again refer to it by name until the end of this overview. Now, what strikes me first is that the men and women who took these photos are pretty much unknown in the United States. In fact, apart from Brazil’s Sebastião Salgado, how many South American photographers can any of us name? Literature is a different horse altogether, and most of us have read or know about Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Manuel Puig. But photographers? Well, let’s get started.
Photography was introduced into Argentina in the early 1840s. Back then, the country had many of the same policies and ambitions as the United States. What we referred to as our “Manifest Destiny” equates somewhat to their “Conquest of the Desert.” In both cases, the native population was steamrolled into near extinction.
By 1869, about 50 percent of the population of Buenos Aires was comprised of immigrants. After all, who wouldn’t want to emigrate to a city dubbed the American Paris or the New York of South America?
With the Indians kicked to the sidelines, it was the gaucho (the pampas cowboy) who became a national symbol and the idealization of masculine virility. Later on, however, they would become the stuff of caricature and stereotype. Francisco Ayerza (1860-1901) photographed them, but his pictures are reminiscent of Roger Fenton’s 1858 “Pasha and Bayadère” suite. That is, they’re staged tableaux despite the sitters being authentic gauchos. But, better that than no image at all. As for the indigenous peoples, perhaps the first photographer to humanize them in a longer sequence of images was Grete Stern (1904-1999), but that wasn’t until the mid-20th century.
The exhibition and the catalogue that accompanies it are divided into four categories or themes, starting with “Civilization and Barbarism” and “National Myths.”
Many of the early photographs are compelling because what they depict, whether people or the dwellings they lived and worked in, no longer exist (as with the Getty’s recent “Thomas Annan: Photographer of Glasgow”). Among the earliest photographers here is Christiano Junior (1832-1902), whose ambition, in the words of catalogue authors Abel Alexander and Luis Priamo, “was to set up a portrait studio in each of the provincial capitals in order to raise money, then spend the rest of his time capturing views of the city and its nearby rural areas.”
Among the few things many of us associate with Argentina are the gaucho, Eva Perón, and… the tango. The first photograph of people dancing it seems to date to 1905. We think of the tango as erotic and forbidden, but in this early print it’s not at all suggestive. Sing me a picture, Argentina Turner!
Argentine photography from 1930 to 1960 was influenced by Hollywood glamor magazines, but also Surrealism and gritty realism. In the catalogue,Valeria González writes about Horacio Coppola and his wife Grete Stern, Annemarie Heinrich, Juan Di Sandro, and Sameer Makarius. A lot of work presented here bears some resemblance to the images of Alexander Rodchenko and László Moholy-Nagy. Good ideas never stay put, but travel; and then artists elsewhere copy and/or elaborate on them. This is something to keep in mind while considering the show in its entirety.
As for Eva Perón, a figure as symbolic and iconic as Carmen Miranda and Marilyn Monroe, her presence runs through this exhibition as well. There’s Heinrich’s 1944 portrait of her, Di Sandro’s “The Coffin Arriving at the Palace of Congress” (1952), and Santiago Porter’s “Evita” (2008). The latter image is one of my favorites because of what it suggests and conjures up. It’s a photograph of a now headless statue, and not only does it bring to mind memories of the Juan Perón dictatorship and Evita’s own legacy, it resonates with more recent events such as the destruction by ISIS in Palmyra or the desecration in this country of statues depicting Junípero Serra, Christopher Columbus, and Robert E. Lee. Carlos Masotta cites various books about Evita, but I recommend the novel “Santa Evita,” by Tomás Eloy Martínez.
Recent history (“Aesthetic and Political Gestures”) is largely centered about Argentina’s military dictatorship which lasted from 1976 to 1983 (in Brazil it was even longer, 1964 to 1985). Needless to say, there are numerous images confront this era in the country’s history.
Among them is Eduardo Gil’s photographs of lifesize human silhouettes that are meant to represent some of the 30,000 people who were “disappeared” during the dictatorship. Here we have the convergence of politics and art, resulting in sociology and anthropology. “The disappearance of persons is perhaps the most sinister form of state violence,” Ana Longoni and Natalia Fortuny write in the catalogue. “Disappearing, as opposed to outright killing, makes the healing of bereavement impossible. It is a suspension of death, a wait, a pure pain.”
Related to this as a lingering coda or aftermath is Julio Pantoja’s series of portraits of the children of the disappeared (the “desaparecidos”), each one holding a photograph of their missing parent or parents. These pictures were taken 20 years after the parents vanished, never to be seen again, and a connecting thread is established in that the disappeared and the children left behind are now approximately the same age.
Conceptual to contemporary
Concurrently, the 1960s and ‘70s gave rise to many types of conceptual art, and a great deal of this is given too much ink, especially in favor of work that is now in the Getty’s own collection. There’s Alberto Greco, who had himself photographed with large placards with his name on them; Edgardo Antonio Vigo, who ceremoniously buried a piece of cedarwood and then dug it up exactly one year later (well documented, of course); and Carlos Ginzburg, who ambled about in Fes, Morocco, photographing a cardboard sign held by a boy in front of various streets and buildings (“The Occidental Denture at Fes, Morocco” 1980).
This kind of Merry Pranksters imagery is more impish than profound, and if it was pushing boundaries then it had more to do with the freedom of expression than anything else. Grupo Escombros had a lot of fun posing its members as pinioned butterflies and the like during the late 1980s. It’s all a corollary of sorts to the political protest work of the same period.
Art based upon or motivated by sociological, political, and economic setbacks can present a different intellectual-emotional take before assuming its place as part of a nation’s historical dialogue with itself. And, as always, there are the haves and the have-nots. “Behind Closed Gates” is a photo essay by Sub Cooperativa de Fotógrafos that takes us into the elite communities where the well-to-do reside. The work is reminiscent of Lauren Greenfield’s in this country.
The exhibition, best described as prodigious, is curated by Idurre Alonso and Judith Keller. Alonso’s essay, towards the end of the catalogue, boils down to this: “Photography, and especially the production of ‘documentary’ images, has played a crucial role in the evolving, ongoing process of shaping national identity in Latin America.”
There’s a lot to digest here, and much to think about, especially with the prevalence of images in our daily lives. Few photographs are strictly objective, with most tilted one way or another to convey or emphasize someone’s point of view. It’s a minefield, but the show is one such minefield worth stepping into.
Photography in Argentina, 1850-2010: Contradiction and Continuity is on view through January 28 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Hours, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free; parking $15 per car; $10 after 3 p.m. (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER