Brazilian artist Geraldo de Barros was a street photographer – but not in the normal mould. Just as, in the late 1940s, Robert Frank and Ted Croner picked up cameras and started roaming the pavements, so did he. But whereas they picked out faces in the crowds, he preferred to hold his lens up close to the urban fabric, discovering abstract forms hidden in walls, windows and doors.
Henri Cartier-Bresson regarded his camera as a sketchbook. De Barros, who had trained as a painter, took this approach to its extreme. For him, photography was “a process of printing”. His “decisive moment” happened in the dark. There, under the influences of Gestalt theory and his abstract heroes Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, he would scramble his negatives, fragmenting them and enlarging sections, drawing and painting on them or super-imposing them. The resulting series, Fotoformas, was exhibited in São Paulo in 1950, and won de Barros a scholarship to study in Paris, where he abandoned his darkroom antics to concentrate on painting and design. It was only half a century later, after suffering a series of attacks of cerebral ischemia, that de Barros returned to the medium, with the series Sobras.
What’s so striking about the selection of images from Fotoformas on display at the Photographers’ Gallery (de Barros’s first solo show in the UK) – is that over 60 years on, they still retain their experimental and playful spirit. It is easy to imagine the frowns spreading over the faces of traditionalists in the Bandeirante Photo Club, of which de Barros was the youngest member. Not only had de Barros the audacity to single out just the roof of São Paulo’s train station as a subject, but he printed its iron grid and squares of sunlight over and over, transforming it into a monochrome kaleidoscopic jumble – perspective and clarity gleefully ignored.
When it came to scale, he was a trickster. Recognisable but unconventional views of facades would be shrunk to contact print size, while fragments of doors, bird cages and iron railings would be enlarged for the retina to get lost in. Where humans enter his frame they take the form of tiny silhouettes, an arm reaching out of a window or a shadow clutching a Rolleiflex. (It makes you wonder if Lee Friedlander, another photographer fond of confusing urban compositions and one who fell in love with his own shadow, saw de Barros’s images).
Only a sample of the Fotoformas series is on display here. One pines for more, but the images selected are some of his most peculiar; collages that pose questions, and that conjure thoughts of an easel over a camera. De Barros is often associated with other pioneers in abstract photography such as Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy. He certainly could have been a dadaist, with his mischievous attitude to borrowing: “A photograph belongs to the one who makes something out of it, not necessarily to the one who took it,” he once said. But his images are far more mysterious than those of his predecessors.
Back in 1950, the experimental installation of Fotoformas reflected the ethos behind the series, with the prints hanging from tubes connecting the ceiling and floor. While sadly the white cube of the Photographers’ Gallery cannot mimic this, a vitrine in the middle of the exhibition does elaborate on the process and toil involved in Barros’ practice. It contains all manner of curiosities: discarded versions and original colour snapshots before their monochrome metamorphosis – some even with rectangles marking areas for further darkroom exploration.
Particularly startling are the small, intricate cut-outs mounted on to glass that produced his series Sobras (in English, “leftovers”), which comprise about half of the prints on display. These images – landscapes and portraits with key elements (lakes, eyes, windows) snipped out and replaced by blackness – are more straightforward than his early work. But with their dark voids, they also have a melancholy, sombre edge, created as they were in the two years before his death, as he rummaged through his life via his photo collection.
Geraldo de Barros: What Remains, The Photographers’ Gallery,
Geraldo de Barros