John Sevigny

“Black and white photography is about subject. Color photography is about color.”

No amount of repetition by myopic purists or traditionalist professors can make this tired generalization any less of a lie, and no contemporary artist exposes it better than Miguel Rio Branco.

Born in Spain, raised in Brazil, and trained as a painter, Rio Branco renders subject and color inseparable. No photographer in the Photoshop age produces pictures as violently saturated as Rio Branco’s film-and-darkroom prints. No color photographer in the history of the legendary Magnum Agency which represents him — founded by photographers Robert Capa, Henri-Cartier Bresson, and others in 1947 — even comes close to the Brazilian’s force, beauty and raw sensuality.

David Allan Harvey, far more commercially successful, has built a career out of imitating Rio Branco’s use of light, color and composition. But Harvey lacks the profundity of formalistic training, the depth of thought, the technical skill and the journalistic street smarts to create work that compares to that of the almost anonymous Brazilian he mugged on his way to the Photographic Hall of Fame.

Alex Soth’s stunning, large format portraits appear stilted, frozen and prefabricated alongside Rio Branco’s. Martin Parr’s color street photography, spontaneous and masterful though it may be, never approaches Rio Branco’s close-up intimacy, or cut-to-the bone brutality. Indeed, few photographers in the age of color have managed to fuse beauty and violence, along with an almost conservative formalism and knowledge of photographic tradition as seamlessly and effortlessly as Rio Branco does nearly every time he offers up an image.

In his best work, Rio Branco’s use of color and approach to subject are joined like Siamese twins sharing one heart. Separate them, and both will die. Remove the color from a Rio Branco photograph, and his prostitutes, street kids, slums and indigenous Amazonians become bloodless and boneless, shadow puppets on paper. Conversely, when Rio Branco, on rare and unfortunate occasions turns his lens on the mundane in search of the exotic therein, his critically important and skilful use of color falls by the wayside – further proof of his circular, yin-yang relationship between color and subject matter.

That Rio Branco is not better known is a shame. Blame it, perhaps, on a generation that seeks to categorize photographers as either journalists or artists but never allows them to be both. Rio Branco’s work has appeared, rarely, in National Geographic magazine, that photographically perfectionist, but artistically dull temple of tech-savvy, globe-trotting camera operators who might make better livings providing stock images for nature calendars. Rio Branco’s list of solo exhibitions since 1964 includes photography shows at Throckmorton Fine Art Gallery in New York, and Magnum Gallery in Paris; three simultaneous installations at Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro; and a show of paintings at Columbia University. Still, Rio Branco’s unwillingness to be either a documentary photographer or an artistic one, a painter or photographer, or his insistence on being all at once, put him far outside the lines of the international art media’s narrow conception of art and its market-driven need to singularly categorize everyone.

As a result, he is seldom discussed in photographic circles, and aficionados of contemporary photography are not even likely to know his name.

Rio Branco’s fourth book, Miguel Rio Branco (Aperture 1998), best explores the journalism-fine art dichotomy, that leaving art industry small-mindedness aside, is what gives his work such strength. It begins with a selection of black and white prints. It’s a nice selection of formative work, but an opening act that does little to prepare us for the explosive onslaught of color work to that makes up the bulk of the volume. It ends with a selection of photographs of Rio Branco’s site-specific installations.

At its core, the book takes us inside rough, Brazilian brothels where passion-spent prostitutes lay nude, dirty, vulnerable and almost violated on makeshift beds; laugh, drunk, naked and hysterical in dimly lit rooms; or pose for the photographer in a style that recalls New Orleans Storeyville work by early-20th Century New Orleans photographer E.J. Bellocq. The women in the posed portraits, despite their nudity, are not sexy. Like Bellocq’s work, they provoke questions about why they were taken, and from what sort of artist-subject relationship they evolved.

The book travels through Brazilian slums, where men gather on street corners, idle in their poverty, and dogs and homeless men lay side by side with their balls dangling on the pavement.

In the Amazon jungle, in a scene Diego Velazquez would have envied, two indigenous men arm wrestle as a third looks directly at the viewer. The underexposed scene is rendered in a warm, reddish orange and the only other color in the picture is black, as the bare light fades away.

In one of the best photographs from the same series, Rio Branco gives us a close, overhead view of an indigenous man laying face up on a sheet of black plastic as another person applies decorative paint to his face and body with what appears to be a small brush. A scrawny dog sleeps in the upper right corner completing a trio of subjects. As in the arm wrestling photograph, Rio Branco has no fear of shadows. With the exception of the traces of light that barely illuminate the reclining man’s right eye, nostrils, chin and neck, the upper left corner of the frame is almost entirely lost in black. A lesser photographer might have tried to illuminate the scene with flash, but Rio Branco knows better. A painter first and a photographer second, his first visual language is that of Murillo, Zurburan and Goya, whose masterful use of near-darkness Rio Branco seems to naturally, involuntarily emulate, and with great success.

In another overhead photograph called The Fruit, Rio Branco’s mastery of color is on full display, along with his gutsy approach to difficult composition. On the left side of the picture, two hands tear into the carcass of a golden-bellied turtle, spilling purple-red blood and amphibian innards onto a ground covered with long banana leaves that take up more than half of the rectangular frame. On the right side, four feet jut into the frame, planted on a mustard colored strip of broken earth. The hands are dabbed with fresher, bright-red turtle blood and that color is mysteriously echoed on the souls of the feet, highlighting their delicate vulnerability. There are no faces in the photograph, only hands, feet, an unfortunate turtle, and the wide leaves. There is no rule of thirds. Rio Branco is way beyond that. But the photograph is perfectly balanced, with the diagonal lines formed by the banana leaves breaking up what would otherwise be a static and overly symmetrical composition formed by the feet on the left and the hands and turtle on the right.

In series of square format photographs taken in the early 90s in a Rio de Janeiro boxing gym, topless prostitutes, looking for potential customers, mingle with boxers. Blood red ring ropes highlight the violent nature of the sport at hand and hulking male bodies are rendered with a classicism that lends them a dark, almost sinister sculptural force and volume. The florescent lights of the gym are converted to an eerie aquarium green on the Fuji-brand Provia transparency film Rio Branco uses, an emulsion produced for use in natural, not artificial light. Male figures move, nude or semi-nude, in quick blurs among sweat-smeared mirrors used for shadow boxing. In a photograph called Missing, a one-armed boxer poses for a portrait, his face expressing a willingness for combat. His red shorts are complemented by the sloppily painted red wall and the bright red ring ropes behind him.

Only after a long look at Rio Branco’s work do we see references to the master photographers who came before him. Pissing Corner, the centerpiece of which is a square tiled column, is William Eggleston drunk in Rio’s slums, a near-random urban study that seems to have no nameable subject, but entrances us nonetheless with the motiveless street-corner activity on either side of the column.

In Red Opens On Blue, 1985, a man standing on a sea wall looks up at a pyrotechnic rocket now out of view. We know it was just fired into the sky because of the trail of sparks left behind. Two men and one woman are clustered on the right of the frame. Both men wear sleeveless T-shirts, are of African descent, and one has a piece of fabric tied around his head. It is, intentionally or not, a tropicalismo interpretation of Josef Koudelka’s 1971 photograph, Spain. In it, stiff men in three piece suits look on as one of their group launches a bottle rocket into the sky. The Czech photographer’s image is remarkable for the perfect posture, which almost appears painful, of the figures. Rio Branco’s fireworks-watchers are Margaritaville-relaxed and gaze upward almost without concern.

The introduction to the book was written by the omnipresent David Levi Strauss, who offers four pages of inane babble injected with a few unnecessary French terms, an essay aimed at showing us how clever the critic is, which seems to be Levi Strauss’ full-time job. In his typical, rambling, academic Artforum Magazine style that does little to explain the work in the volume, Levi Strauss offers us references to writers Goethe, Jean Genet, Jorge Luis Borges, Rainer Marie Rilke, as well as Diogenes, and Charles Darwin. Like other critics who seek to obscure rather than enlighten, Levi Strauss can’t be bothered to tell us who those great thinkers were, or what they actually did. He’s just dropping names and showing off.

Better testimony to Rio Branco’s importance as a photographer comes in the afterward to the book, co-written by black-and-white master and purist Sebastiao Salgado, perhaps the finest documentary photographer of our times, and his wife Lelia Wanick Salgado an urban planner and book designer.

“By capturing the joy and sadness of his land, he has discovered the joy and sadness of being Brazilian,” the Salgados write, speculating that being born outside of Brazil to parents from that country has given Rio Branco an urgency to find his own roots. “He views his subjects – whether Brazilians, Cubans or Americans – through the prism of their common conditions as animals, beasts, creatures of instinct.”

Click here to see Rio Branco’s photographs.

John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. His has a blog called Gone City.

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