FCCB members on an excursion to Paquetá Island to visit the Sociedade Fluminense de Fotografia. Boletim foto-cine 17 (September 1947): 3. Image and annotations courtesy Rubens Fernandes Junior

The Ambition and Originality of Fotoclubismo’s Amateur Photographers

The weekend hobby of a group of photographers in 1950s Brazil connects to the way we frame our world today.
Sarah Meister May 7, 2021

Groucho Marx famously quipped that he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member, but most of us appreciate the feeling of belonging derived from spending time alongside people who share our interests.

FCCB members on an excursion, from Boletim 79 (November/December 1952)

FCCB members on an excursion, from Boletim 79 (November/December 1952)

The men and women who joined São Paulo’s Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB) bonded over their passion for photography: the club was instrumental to their individual artistic development and their esteemed reputation across a dynamic international circuit of amateur photo salons. The works on view in Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography, 1946–1964 highlight the achievements of more than 20 club members with unforgettable prints that traveled extensively along these networks. These are not intimate snapshots of family gatherings intended for the album page (a slightly different twist on the photographic amateur) but works of ambition and originality that had and continue to have a commanding presence on the walls of salons and museums. FCCB members’ success owes much to their distinctive blend of camaraderie and competition, nurtured in part by their frequent excursions.

FCCB members on an excursion to Paquetá Island to visit the Sociedade Fluminense de Fotografia, with some of the women photographers signaled out

FCCB members on an excursion to Paquetá Island to visit the Sociedade Fluminense de Fotografia, with some of the women photographers signaled out

A spread from Boletim 57 (January 1951) featuring club rankings on the left, and snapshots from the Bandeirante Christmas (Natal Bandeirante) on the right

A spread from Boletim 57 (January 1951) featuring club rankings on the left, and snapshots from the Bandeirante Christmas (Natal Bandeirante) on the right

Beginning in 1946 the FCCB published a small (often monthly or bimonthly) magazine, the Boletim foto-cine, which was given free to members and sold in local photo shops. Its modest scale belied its scope and seriousness: it won special awards for editorial content in the Photographic Society of America’s International Competition in 1949 and 1951. (It should be noted the Boletim was published exclusively in Portuguese, so perhaps the PSA was influenced by the fact that its own members and their writing—in translation—appeared frequently.)

The Boletim played a central role in advertising a social environment that drew people to the club, and also encouraged the competitive atmosphere within it. For many years, the Boletim published each new member’s name, birthday notices, wedding announcements, and snapshots from excursions, openings, and holiday celebrations at the club headquarters (Santa’s annual visit was a recurring feature). These personal touches served as a counter-balance to the equally prominent presence of club rankings: charts and accounts of prizes won and accolades received both domestically and around the world. One might conclude the social niceties were instrumental in fostering an environment in which critical feedback was possible, which in turn contributed to the club’s capacity for creative innovation.

It can be useful to acknowledge the ways in which something as invisible and inescapable as taste influences our judgment of a work of art.

Geraldo de Barros is arguably the best known member of the FCCB. He earned a living at the Banco do Brasil, but his creative spirit was not squelched by his day job. His satirical cartoons are peppered throughout the Boletim. This one betrays the anxiety of those whose work is being judged: three diminutive members, one waving a white flag, are menaced by others wielding a gun, a bomb, and a knife. He experimented with collage, montage, multiple exposures, and other interventions in his photographs, he was a founding member of the Grupo Ruptura, an inventive association of painters, and he later pursued a successful career in furniture design. The Museum of Art of São Paulo held a one-person exhibition of his photo-based work in January 1951, which was so confounding to his fellow FCCB members (some photos were rendered as sculptures on pedestals; all played fearlessly with conventions of representation) that this major accomplishment went unmentioned in the Boletim. Despite occasional moments of misunderstanding, de Barros was a principal force in the presentation of work by FCCB members in the second São Paulo Bienal in 1953–54, by which time even the club’s leadership had embraced the spirit of innovation de Barros had championed for years.

Satirical cartoon of the concursos internos by Geraldo de Barros, from Boletim 41 (September 1949)

Satirical cartoon of the concursos internos by Geraldo de Barros, from Boletim 41 (September 1949)

FCCB members’ photographs were awarded prizes in amateur photo salons on six continents throughout the 1950s, and the success of a given work might be proved by turning it over and looking at the stamps and labels that adorn the versos of those prints accepted for display. In the Boletim, club members voiced their concern that truly inventive works would be rejected by these salons, thus denying the FCCB the recognition they sought (and deserved). With righteous indignation, they bemoaned the “stagnation” of the “salonite”—photographers whose “main concern is collecting salon labels, albeit at the cost of standardizing their work in accordance with conformism and the annihilation of their own personalities. And the outcome of ‘salonitis’ is a serious disease whose virus leads its sufferers to spend year after year flooding the salons all around the world with dozens and dozens of copies of the same works in a pure manifestation of vanity, collecting the numbers and statistical rankings so dear to North Americans.” Given their own considerable attention to rankings, this warning rings a bit hollow, but the club clearly grasped the dangers of failing to innovate.

Ivo Ferreira da Silva. The Mark of Time (A marca do tempo) (verso). 1951

Ivo Ferreira da Silva. The Mark of Time (A marca do tempo) (verso). 1951

German Lorca. White Roofs (Telhados brancos). 1951

German Lorca. White Roofs (Telhados brancos). 1951

The excursions were not merely social outings: they were opportunities to learn alongside fellow members in the field, and to attempt to capture the “best” view of a particular subject. In one view of this distinctive building, German Lorca has accentuated the contrast between the corrugated roof and the adjacent shadows; in another, José Yalenti chose to frame the angular structure against the undulating form of a nearby building; in a third (noted in the Boletim as having been submitted to the club’s internal contest), Euclides Machado offered a study of texture, tone, and form. Although the club used “scorecards” to judge the relative strengths of images such as these, many of the attributes being judged were grouped within the category “factor psicológico” (psychological factors), which are surely more challenging to rank objectively. Then and now, it can be useful to acknowledge the ways in which something as invisible and inescapable as taste influences our judgment of a work of art.

Euclides Machado. Lines and Tones (Linhas e tons). 1951. From Boletim 62 (June 1951)

Euclides Machado. Lines and Tones (Linhas e tons). 1951. From Boletim 62 (June 1951)

José Yalenti. Angles ( Angulos). 1951

José Yalenti. Angles ( Angulos). 1951

Gertrudes Altschul’s FCCB membership card. Courtesy Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante

Gertrudes Altschul’s FCCB membership card. Courtesy Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante

Although the members most avidly pursuing the “Ansco Girls” (a group of models on a promotional tour for Ansco film across Latin America) were predominantly men (and boys), the FCCB made a considerable effort to encourage female members, offering discounted membership fees and featuring their work in the Boletim. This, in turn, contributed to the convivial, even familial, atmosphere of the club, as many female members were cousins, sisters, or wives of other members. But it also contributed to the club’s many successes, both domestically and abroad. Dulce Carneiro was a regular contributor to the Boletim, penning memorably critical assessments (describing the work of a French amateur group as “run-of-the-mill documentation and belongs to that ‘kindergarten’ stage of Art Photography we imagined to have been long surpassed”). When she joined the club in 1952 (“older than most beginners,” according to the Boletim), Gertrudes Altschul’s achievements were soon heralded around the world, and her day job making artificial flowers for millinery informed her singularly inventive approach to photographing leaves.

While it is easy for us to recognize the objectification in the images reproduced on this page, it is also possible to empathize with the enthusiasm of seeing the world through a camera’s lens—even if today we are just as often doing so with our phones.

“Visit from the Ansco girls” (“A visita das ‘Ansco-Girls’”), from Boletim 79 (November/December 1952)

“Visit from the Ansco girls” (“A visita das ‘Ansco-Girls’”), from Boletim 79 (November/December 1952)

Dulce Carneiro. Tomorrow (Amanhã). c. 1957

Dulce Carneiro. Tomorrow (Amanhã). c. 1957