THE PORTRAIT OF SILENCES
Sometimes the silence has the power to suggest the same spaces of freedom as a blank canvas. This appearance of nothing contains the possibility of everything. And if the anguish of emptiness contrasts with the glory of absolute, and for this reason the postulate of Mies van der Rohe is still valid, for whom less will always be more. Over time, the cultural life of Porto city has been constructed multiple metaphors about this dialectic tension between noise, with inconsequential frequency, and silence, either depressing or creative. In a city where excesses are so many times another way of appealing to the comfort of ideas, or to the conformist resignation, the contrast between everything and nothing, imposes itself as a singular expression of that will to build the new, and not only the different.
Diverse situation is when this capacity and will to go further combine in the same moment the daring of newness and the impulse of diversity. When the world of photography made in Portugal was still young, and in Porto especially, there is a defining moment of the audacity of a group of men, who are still very much influenced by the scarcity of international contacts and by the adventure contained in the exploration of a whole new world with constant technical discoveries, accompanied by timid steps in compositional innovation.
We are in 18886 and Porto welcome the International Exhibition of Photography from the 4th of April, to the 4th of May that same year. Before the exhibition, happens the publication of the revue “Photographic art”. Produced by Head of the House Fotografia Moderna [Modern Photography], it is before everything else, the result of the work of a group where operated Carlos Relvas, which has nowadays an historical value and an unrivalled international recognition.
The most paradoxical of all that crucial moments for Photographic History in Portugal, with Porto as an epicentre, is acknowledging the inexistence of any photographic image which pictures, or rebuild the vivid imaginary during a single event, which dealt which the first initiative of its kind and one of the first in the whole world. This is how the visual silence speaks in all its splendour. It stays pictures, piecemeal approaches, assumptions, imaginary hypotheses, exhibition halls, but there is no portrait which pictures an event designed to glorify the excellence of the new possibilities of expression allowed by black and white photography.
This is something unbelievable in contemporary world. Credible estimations indicate that by 2018, thanks to mobile phones with integrated cameras, millions and millions of people around the world have become prolific photographers responsible for a trillion images captured. This number is far from the one our quantitative perception can embrace, and for this, perhaps the material representation of that – 10 to twelfth power - can contribute to a closer notion of the bottomless pit into which the universal image bank begins to transform itself. At every moment, at every corner, in the memory of every mobile phone, is saved the iconography of the moment, changed every second.
The vertigo of the image transforms the future, near or far, in the space of which there is no more space for the present living now. In every shot there is a present designed to rebuild other presents, that never became so because they soon became a past consigned to the black holes of memory.
The golden age of photojournalism was marked by the activity of great photographers who fixed the news reality through images whose symbolism would be said to be eternal. Eddie Adams, on the 1st of February shot the photography considered as the main example of the more iconic photos of history of images. It is a fraction of a second. It is just an instant. It is a powerful scream against war, the moment of the last blow of life of the north-Vietnamese warrior Nguyen Van Lem, executed in cold blood by the south- Vietnamese police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan.
This time died. The digital journalism and social networks changed the way we consume images. Every second, in every part of the world, various audiences are bombed with the same images, so many times carrying an argument, not always true, so many times fake. The photography does not escape the ideological war and frequently acts as a powerful means of affirming alternative truths.
We have reached the age of noise in the world of image. Time is not always the extract measure occurring in the maelstrom of days. the time contained in 170 years can spill over into a vastness so intensely that even infinity may seem close. And, nevertheless, from what we know, the oldest photographs from Porto date back to 170 years. They were shot in 1849 by the Scottish Frederick William Flower. Already the years before, other Porto people had begun to get interested in the newly revolution of image capture.
They did so with scarce resources and technical means, in an attitude of pioneers available to exploit the unknown. It is still a time without noise. Scarce are the images and rare are the elected captured with the experimentalist attitude of the photographer.
In spite of the multiplication of photographic studies in downtown Porto, the people still had not came to photography. The photography still had not come to people. Democratization of technology is in a slow process, with unexpected priors, like the multifaceted merchant and industrial Emílio Biel, born in Amberg, in German Bavaria, in 1839. Based in Porto, he got, in the 1870’s, “Fotografia Fritz” ["Fritz Photography"], in Almada street, a study from which E.Biel & Cª results.
It became one of the biggest studies of the Country, with various albums published set in various regions of Portugal.
With Aurélio da Paz dos Reis, a convinced republican, frequent customer of the then Cadeia da Relação do Porto [ Porto relationship chain], which is today the Centro Português da Fotografia [Portuguese Centre of Photography], appears photographs with people inside, and the street was a privileged setting.
In the Gallery of Heroes of the Photography of Porto, appears, sequentially, the primacy of Domingos Alvão. His work brings questions which go further of photography as an esthetical option with artistical pretentions, a novelty introduced by him, to be rooted in a very complex debate about the beginnings of the use of photography as a tool in the service of a regime.
From an unquestionable esthetical beauty and an unrivalled technical quality, Domingos Alvão imposes himself as a photographer of a dictatorship unavailable to accept or allow the photographic utopian desires of who intend to picture the other side of a suffocated country.
Photography, like in the other arts, was compelled with a long silence during decades, only subverted by the bravery of a few. The news, in an expression turn to be famous, pictured the seated Portugal. The official Portugal. The accommodated Portugal. The censorship prohibits images of demonstrations or opposition meetings, nude photos or accidents, crowds or other misfortunes. Documenting reality was so audacious, so dangerous.
With the democratic explosion provided by the Revolution of the 25th of April of 1974, the photographers come out on the streets. The emergency of photojournalism begins at the centre of a daily life full of constant changes. At every hours and at every moment. With daily city newspapers, new generations of photographers are urged giving the stage to unexpected visions of reality.
What was silence becomes a powerful symphony made up of permanent variations in tone and rhythm. The photographers were on the street, because they were on the street all their lives. There begins a luminous process of regeneration of photography in Porto. After the urgency of the daily life, the photography desire is imposed as an expression of feelings, alternative visions, reflection of new looks. Photographers adopt a new attitude by exploring the possibilities of the environment to the limit. They create a new language.
It is another time with repercussions on artistic institutions. If it is true that the Cooperativa Árvore soon opened doors to photographic expression, the decisive step is taken with the creation of the Serralves Museum, with emphasis on all the previous work developed by the essayist and professor Fernando Pernes in the definition, development and implementation of the idea of a contemporary art museum with space for photography. Pernes opens doors to the full and definitive overthrow of the many silences over the decades created around photographic production. The Serralves Collection today has photography as one of its great specificities, based on the work built by various national and foreign artists.
The performative experience of the photographic work develops and gains a consistent visibility, to the point of becoming part of the exhibition circuit of art galleries in Porto. In their diversity, they build a new universe. No longer of imposed silences, but erected from various speeches where silence, now conscious, sought after, meaning as expressive matter, can configure the materialization of a sublime form of artistic dissemination.