November 7: Saudade

Date #7November 7: Can photography, that most prosaic of media, express the cry from the depth of the soul; suadade?

Suadade, somewhere between melancholy and nostalgia, a love still felt for the now lost, is that plaintive Portugese word so poignantly expressed in the fado, or song of fate, and in voices so heartrending as that of fadista Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999) in song, or Alvaro de Campos’ in poetry, he being a heteronym, an alter-ego, that Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) used to express in his Maritime Ode the yearning of the now landlocked, unemployed sailor/shipbuilder for the sea;

My past resurfaces, as if that mariner’s cry
Were a scent, a voice, the echo of a song
Calling up from my past
That happiness I’ll never again know.

We, who are not Portuguese, may glimpse this sense in melancholy, when we are transfixed by a kind of sadness that though it pervades us, is something that we do not, or cannot, let go, though melancólico is the word for that. We might feel it as we look back and are filled with nostalgia, though the word, and meaning, is the same in Portuguese. But saudade encompasses also that very act of Passoa in assuming the persona and emotions of Alvaro de Campos; it is a yearning for yearning that can be experienced by proxy, through another, or through a representation, the fado, especially.

What do we feel, we who have never been there, when this photograph has us stand before the columbarium of the ancient cemetery in the Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval, at the pilgrimage destination, Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain?  The marble in each funerary niche, in vivid contrast to the stained masonry structure, reflects the late sunlight which casts onto some the shadow of the lone cypress next to the Convento de Santo Domingo de Bonaval behind and to the north-west. Each panel is transformed by this light into a window onto the blunt frankness of death.


If the camera transports us to some unnamed street in England and we seem to see the same cobbled laneway duplicated, as if in a stereoscope pair discovered in a junk shop, can we not help but be overwhelmed by a sensation of decay? Is what we see darkly in the glass some future, past, or some alternative reality?


At the Abbaye de Montmajour, in Arles, due to a trick of perspective eroded steps seem to process ceremoniously into a blank wall while to the left an archway leads off, and to the right is a yawning black void. Mysteriously parts of this architecture have vanished in time while others still stand.

Humberto Rivas (1993) Montmajour, Arles, France.

But here, a wall, battered by the backs of chairs now gone, dissolves between two figures; a shaft of dazzling light and a sombre Ionic column, and seems to open to the wavy sea. Even when we have realised that the waves are a projection of rumpled, worn and nearly translucent awnings shading the picture window of a defunct cafe from the harsh light of morning, we continue to mistrust the solidity of that wall.


An exhibition The image maker, by Humberto Rivas, who died on this date in 2009,  currently continues at the Sala Bárbara de Braganza Foundation MAPFRE, Barbara de Braganza, 13 28004 Madrid, until January 1, 2019, with more than 180 works and archival material. It is a tribute to Rivas who moved to Barcelona from his native Buenos Aires and contributed to a revival of photography in Spain from the first half of the seventies. The exhibition covers the work of the artist throughout his career, which covers the period from the 1960s to 2005.

Joan Bautista (n.d.) Santiago de Compostela, watermarked image via Shutterstock

At right is a more prosaic view of the columbarium in his photograph above of the cemetery in the Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval by another photographer, from a stock photo agency.

It serves to demonstrate the quality of Rivas’ treatment; in which a pall appears to have been drawn over the subject, darkening the stone and pockmarking it with the brightened spots of lichen in his higher contrast, more heavily printed rendition.

While the niches are made blank, expunged of any of the tone we see in the colour stock photograph, the image still carries, through the addition of subtle vignetting of the sky, and the intrusion of the shadow a sense of subjective emphasis, a poetic stress and metrical weight completely lacking in the generic colour image which is merely a bland recording.

Humberto Rivas (1987) Barcelona

Even where Rivas uses colour himself in Cibachromes dating from the 1980s, it retains this elegiac quality; we hardly know if it is day or night as rich-hued notes of a sepulchral purple, against a scuff of blue on the kerb, modulate the symmetry of this battered corner.

Clearly these are images carefully considered and planned, not grab shots but patient, rigorous and a little obsessive. Rivas walked a great deal and recorded possible subjects in tiny notebooks and realised them at the moment that the densest, most saturated tones still retain detail. His almost black voids invite the curious to plunge as into tenebrous depths. There, we must acclimatise and, in attention, return to the image the time that it took to expose.

In this pair, the alignment of the dusk image creates a counterchange of whitewashed walls against dark surrounding cobblestones and walls,  while in the second image, flare from the previously invisible street light breaks the roofline and equalises the tones of whitewash and bare brick.

Riva’s photographic printmaking supports the sombre quality of saudade that pervades his architectural and landscape imagery. It is the dark minor-key voice of Fate that echoes through these passages of shadow. The portrait, of which there are numbers by him in this retrospective exhibition, but his least favoured genre, fails him. Mostly, though beautifully printed and sympathetic, they are conventional.

Humberto Rivas (1982) Barcelona

Between 1956 and 1960 Rivas was part of the Forum Group which applied the subjective photographics of the German photographer Otto Steinert and his ideas of photography as a means of expression beyond the documentary with principles such as the freedom of individual creation, visual inquiry and experimentation. Between 1970 and 1971, Rivas worked as a photographer at the General San Martín Municipal Theatre in Buenos Aires, and between 1970 and 1973 at the Centre for Research in Mass Communication, Art and Technology, alongside his own advertising photography business. Formative in the development of his individual approach was the trip in 1972 that Rivas made with his wife, Maria, and writer Nelly Schnaith, to the north of Argentina, to the towns of Tucumán, Salta and Jujuy where the cracked walls and landscapes in the mist of dawn or at dusk attracted his attention.

Humberto Rivas (1987) Mataro.
Humberto Rivas (1990) Tigre

Arriving in Barcelona from Buenos Aires in 1976 Rivas discovered Spectrum Gallery, open since 1973, which was the only space in Spain where photography was shown. Among the young group of Catalan photographers who exhibited their work there were Toni Catany, Pere Formiguera, Manel Esclusa, Josep Rigol and Joan Fontcuberta, who sought an alternative to the documentary that dominated photography of the fifties and sixties of the Iberian peninsula. Gallery founder Albert Guspi, along with his wife, Sandra Solsona were important promoters of photographic culture in Spain and also launched in 1975 the Grup Taller d’Art Fotogràfic, which functioned, among other things, as a photography school; and, later, in 1978, they created the important International Centre of Photography Barcelona, ​​known as CIFB, which would operate until 1983. Quite in contrast with the era Pictorialism of José María Álvarez de Toledo (1881–1950), Eduardo Susanna Almaraz (1894–1951), Francisco Andrada (1894-1977), José Lozano, the Marquis de Sta. Mª José de Loygorri, Joaquim Pla Janini (1879 –1970) and others, and most famously by José Ortiz-Echagüe (1886–1980) in Spanish photography until mid-century, and despite the existence of important magazines focused on art photography such as AFAL and Nueva Lente, Spanish creative photography barely survived (as there was no market for photography) in comparison to the North American and European photographic cultures.

Humberto Rivas (1994) La Alfandega

Albert Guspi invited Rivas to participate in the Mediterranean Photography Workshop in Cadaqués, and later to exhibit at the Spectrum gallery twice during 1977; exhibitions which made Rivas known to the small but devoted  world around the Spectrum gallery.

He then taught at the Grup-Taller d’Art Fotogràfic, where he gave a seminar on portraiture. Among his students was Manolo Laguillo, who would become his friend and with whom, in the following years, he would go out to photograph in the outskirts of Barcelona. Above are very different pictures made of the same building (at the same time—note the urine stain on the shutter, the puddle on the pavement) by the two companions as they ventured out together mostly in the mornings on Saturdays and Sundays into the periphery of Barcelona: to Poblenou, Carmel, Sants, Poble Sec, Zona Franca, but also the old town (la Ribera, El Borne), Gràcia and Horta, then crowded and neglected neighbourhoods. Laguillo’s more factual photograph (right, above) is exposed for the shadows and records the entire width of the facade, while Rivas sets the sky as a mid-tone, giving it one-quarter of the frame by cropping out all but the side of the forbidding industrial building. The street lamp projects a theatrical pool of light while the surrounding architecture is rendered as dark, sculptural slabs.

1996 and 1997 brought recognition as Rivas won the Plastic Arts Prize of the City of Barcelona and the National Photography Prize.

Humberto Rivas (1994) Coimbra

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