Rooftops over Rainforests and City Scenes


By Tanya Silverman

Paolo Gasparini, This Sky We See Here. Sao Paolo, 1972. Copyright Paolo Gasparini. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

A portal into city life in Latin America was recently installed in the basement of a Midtown Manhattan museum. The trip through time and space is Urbes Mutantes: Latin American Photography 1944-2013. It’s at the International Center of Photography (ICP), where the walls of a boxy subterranean vessel are clad with over 200 photographic prints from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.

The images of these concrete jungles are organized into thematic rooms, like “Living Walls,” “Nightlife,” “The Forgotten Ones,” “The People and Protest,” “Pop Street Culture,” and others.

Urbes Mutantes (Mutant Cities) is engrossing and, at times, overwhelming. While the prints themselves are glossy, polished, and beautiful to look at, very many of these pieces effectively pose darker elements of daily life. Miguel Rio Branco’s Man Dog, Maciel–which was printed in Brazil in 1980–presents a juxtaposition of two top-down shots, one of a dog and one of a man, each lying on the sidewalk. Grey and gritty, these eerie images leave the viewer unsure if the subjects depicted are asleep or if they are even alive.

Gertjan Bartelsman, From the series The Passengers, Colombia, 1978. Collection Letica and Stanislas Poniatowski. Copyright Gertjan Bartelsman. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Throughout the halls, photographs of unglamorous graffiti, commercial advertisements depicting media globalization, and side-shots of the passengers in transportation vessels offer un-staged portrayals of city life.

The stories behind the images tend to run far deeper than what is apparent at first glance. A couple of untitled Colombian prints from the ‘90s taken from Fernell Franco’s Demolition series may initially come off as banal rubble that’s uncared for. Yet they represent a developmental strategy of knocking down historical buildings to clear for modern architecture, along with the nostalgia that the practice offsets.

“When I saw all the photos in the series together I realized that what they contain goes far beyond Cali, [Colombia], although it was the sadness caused in me by the destruction of my city that generated this series,” Franco explained. “All cities in Latin America have the same problems in one way or another.”

Alberto Korda, El Quixote of the Lamppost, Cuba, 1959. Collection Letica and Stanislas Poniatowski. Copyright Alberto Korda. Courtesy of International Center of Photography.

Appropriately, when guest curators Maria Wills and Alexis Farby were leading the media-preview tour through Urbes Mutantes they made clear that each Latin American locale harbors its own experience with modernity. They added that amidst any general ideas of the region as a whole, we should note that each place contains its own unique historical narrative.

As such, you can use parallel parts of the exhibit to delve into specific cases of national history. For example, there’s Jaime Villaseca’s 1979 series, Closures, which consists of boarded-up Chilean doors and windows. Alexis Farby explained that such closed structural entrances “metaphorically allude to dictatorships,” as in Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile.

You can further examine elements of the timeline of public reactions to Pinochet’s rule over in “The People and Protest” room. Several photographs document the street movements in 1983, monthly protests against the dictatorship that ultimately turned violent. Later, from 1986, there’s Hector Lopez’s La Victoria–a barren, uneasy Chilean scene meant to display the atmosphere of “the fear, the threat, the loneliness of the streets” that prevailed in daily life during Pinochet’s repressive rule.

Amongst the stratums of narratives to comprehend, some of the photographic prints are much simpler just to take in as a single layer of aesthetic interest. For instance, Graciela Iturbide’s Our Lady of the Iguanas is a 1979 portrait of a woman taken looking up from breast level. Though the subject portrays a stern facial expression, she can only be taken so seriously: there are several iguanas sitting atop her head.

Upstairs, on the ground level of the ICP, the Caio Reisewitz exhibit comes in a form that is easier to digest, as it contains fewer prints. Further, the entire exhibit features the work of a single artist–who is also the namesake of the show.

Caio Reisewitz, Sucupira, 2011. Courtesy Luciana Brito Galeria, Sao Paolo. Copyright Caio Reisewitz. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Reisewitz’s photographs are often epically sized, monumental depictions of affected architecture or lush flora. Nothing looks blurry or unfocused; all subjects are captured brazenly, whether it’s a modern, curved staircase, or a line of tropical trees or stream of water.

Technically trained in Germany, one notable theme throughout in Reisewitz’s art exists far from Europe, yet is an integral aspect of his home country of Brazil–the rainforest. Capturing the outdoor environment, Reisewitz often implements a personal technique of inserting digital collages of rooftops, cityscapes, or even subtle outlines of single houses.

As curator Christopher Phillips guided the media preview, he took the chance to pause at several of these intensive rainforest scenes to point out the patches of architectural imagery embedded throughout the leafy settings.

Several of Reisewitz’s smaller prints are also on the walls, and some of them make use of photographs originally taken in China. One of these was digitally edited to make the Great Wall look more like an Aztec ruin–but these seem a bit overshadowed by his more mammoth works.

Caio Reisewitz, Casa Canoas, 2013. Courtesy Luciana Brito Galeria, Sao Paolo. Copyright Caio Resiewitz. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

After Phillips concluded his explanations, I approached Reisewitz about his philosophy behind producing his symbiotic scenes of natural and urban environments.

“There is a harmony in the forest; I can also tell there is a chaos in the forest,” he replies. “That’s the same way I see the city–like the city that I live in, Sao Paolo. It’s a chaos, but at the same time there is a harmony within the chaos, so I try to put both together.”

Reisewitz continues that regarding Sao Paolo, there is a tendency for people to dismiss his hometown as “just buildings and chaos.” He notes the ubiquitous forests that grow around the city limits, and says it’s important for him to mesh these elements in his art.

Throughout the dozens of photographs showing rainforest landscapes, political histories, portrait portrayals, and city life currently curated around both levels of ICP, the multifaceted myriad of Latin American imagery allows patrons a multitude of routes to mentally explore.

Urbes Mutantes & Caio Reisewitz will be installed at the International Center of Photography until Sep 7, 2014.