RETURN TO GUARAPUAVA
AN INTERVIEW BY ANNE WILKES TUCKERreturn
Anne Wilkes Tucker: I was thinking about calling this interview “Return to Guarapuava” because you had immigrated away. You had the perspective of five years of distance from where you grew up, before you went back and began to photograph it.
Valdir Cruz: Yes, I came to the United States in 1978 and first returned to Guarapuava in 1982.
AWT: When you returned in 1982 you only took a few photographs before coming back to the United States, where you then mastered photography in a way that was not present in the first photographs.
VC: Yes, at that time it was very experimental; I had no technical skills and no formal training.
AWT: And how did you learn those things?
VC: In 1983, I studied for a year at the Germain School of Photography in New York City. It was a program of study with a commercial emphasis that taught me the basics for various camera formats and lighting, but I really began thinking of photography as a possible profession when I met George Tice at the New School for Social Research in 1985. I realized that he was working without an assistant and proposed myself as a candidate. He accepted. So, I worked with him for about two years. Looking back it seems unbelievable, but one of my tasks working with George was making prints from original Steichen negatives. Although I didn’t know Steichen’s reputation, the power of his work changed my life; I started out working with one of the medium’s best.
AWT: There are a lot of dichotomies in your work, one of them is your passionate documentary approach and another is the way you maintain exquisite print quality, which you began, and eventually mastered, while working for George. Regarding your practice of toning your prints: have you always toned them?
VC: While first working with George I was having a hard time bringing onto paper the image I remembered photographing because I didn’t have the proper techniques, including how to tone prints. Although I was printing for George, he encouraged me to do my own work. He was a very good provider and teacher; never interfering yet always there to cover me. We would look at photographs and he would ask questions about them, such as whether or not I was familiar with their properties or techniques. Usually, the answer was no, so he would bring a book from his library to show me images that shared qualities with my own. I guess I was doing photography from my heart in a way. Then, with George, I learned not only printing, but also the history of photography.
AWT: And whom did you identify with most? Whose works resonated with you?
VC: In those days I was deeply influenced by George’s mindset and the work to which he was exposing me, which was photographers who worked mostly with large-format cameras, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Paul Strand. Those were the people whom I really studied. I learned about their photographs and their backgrounds and biographies, which sometimes interested me more than the photography.
AWT: Strand was the most politically driven of those photographers. Did that affect you?
VC: I think what affected me more than Strand’s life and work was learning about Eugene Smith — his life and photographs. I was working with mostly large-format photography from a static point of view. Smith’s work with 35mm film really made a difference in my vision.
AWT: Did you learn about Smith before, during, or after you returned to Brazil and began to photograph the first of the many tribes that you documented?
VC: I had begun to study Smith before I went to the rainforest. So, by the time I could travel to the rainforest I was prepared to work with 35 mm format. More than that, I had in my mind Smith’s commitment to interact with his subjects. So I was traveling, living with the people I eventually photographed, spending time and writing about them, and getting socially involved, seeing what I could do for them, especially with regard to their health issues. Photography was just one aspect of my time with the Yanomami people.
AWT: When you were photographing in Brazil, especially the rainforest tribes, had most of them seen photographs by that time? What was their level of understanding of this “box” that you had?
VC: The first group I worked with was the Yanomami. Certain Yanomami communities have many visitors, depending on how far they are from the river. I wanted to focus on inland groups that didn’t have as much outside contact. I had to search for a relatively untouched community because many good Brazilian and international photographers had already visited many Yanomami groups and had already expressed distinctive points of view. My first trip was more of a learning process as I tried to figure out how to gain the trust and cooperation of the community I found. Within the first three weeks I understood that the best approach was to focus on a topic that no other photographer had featured in his or her work, which became the health issues of the tribes.
AWT: You are referring to the diseases that were introduced to the tribes when western people began to come in?
VC: Some of the diseases were introduced by westerners, while other diseases were already there.
AWT: Malaria, for instance.
VC: Yes, health issues had not been visually depicted. Most documentaries made it seem like these people never got sick, but as soon as I got there I saw that their health care was pretty much a disaster. So when I returned to New York City after my first trip in 1995, I applied for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship to make an extensive trip to investigate and chronicle the health situation within Yanomami communities. The results of my trip in 1995 had provided me with enough material to receive the grant. Then, I changed my approach and decided to work with the Yanomami in Venezuela, whose health issues were actually much worse than those of the Yanomami in Brazil. I walked through the rainforest from the Upper Orinoco River in Venezuela into Brazil. So, while Brazilian Yanomami groups, whose health was damaged by contact with gold miners during the 1987 Gold Rush, are included in my book, Faces of the Rainforest (powerHouse/2002 and Cosac & Naify/2004), the primary focus is on the more secluded groups in Venezuela. I spent time with groups who had probably not seen a westerner, a white man, in at least two decades.
AWT: How did you feel about your pictures making more people in the west want to photograph a tribal community that had not been photographed before?
VC: With every work on subjects in remote areas, such as Africa or the rainforest, there is always a positive and negative. The only way for us to learn about the lives and problems of isolated people is to go to them and bring their stories out. This arouses the attention and interests of many others. I was conscious of the risk that my work could bring unwelcome attention, even danger, to the communities I visited. I explained my intentions to the leaders of these communities and I never photographed anybody until I had already been with them for days, nor did I photograph anyone who was spiritually prohibited from being the subject of a photograph. The leaders and all the members of the group eventually trusted my intent.
AWT: When did you start bringing in medicine and other supplies?
VC: On the second trip.
AWT: And that was part of giving back to the people?
VC: Yes, every time I returned to New York City, I worked to gain support for future trips, as well as to obtain donations from pharmaceutical companies.
AWT: When Vicki Goldberg was writing about this work she mentioned, “panthers, poisonous snakes, malaria, and hostile tribes.” Are those things you experienced while you were working?
VC: We didn’t have confrontations with hostile groups because we were aware of their locations and planned our trips to avoid any conflict. Also, the National Indigenous Foundation advised people to avoid contact with them, maintaining their philosophy of isolating the area and allowing the tribes to live by themselves because it seemed as though every time contact was made, it only brought more deterioration.
AWT: What about the natural dangers, like snakes? Was that a component?
VC: There is that danger because it is snake territory and we weren’t completely guests.
AWT: And you’re working in 35mm. How do you keep your film from becoming damaged? Especially while working in the most moist and damp conditions?
VC: That is very true. If you’re going to say, “This is not good territory for film” (laughs) it would be there. There is a kind of silicon that I kept with the film and, I packed them properly in professional airtight bags. I had no trouble with exposed film even though we went into the water with all the equipment and film many times. AWT: You’re living in New York but pretty steadily going back to photograph in Brazil. Brazil is about the same size as the U.S., right?
VC: I believe so, if you don’t count Alaska.
AWT: OK. So it has massive cities like São Paulo, it has a sophisticated culture, but I don’t think I have ever seen you photographing in the town where you grew up or city life. Your major work has been of either the rainforest tribes, and the region where you grew up, or the land around it, which is a very different land than the rainforest, but not the town — except maybe when you were shooting Carnival. Yet you now live in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. Have you thought of this sort of compulsion that you feel? Is it a matter of preserving? What drives you to these non- modern cultures that exist with nature and not within a context of modern life?
VC: It probably has to do with the fact that I grew up very free in a small town. Yes, nowadays I live in New York and live in São Paulo, two asphalt forests, but I am not attracted to the idea of photographing any of that. I’m more interested in nature and people in nature. Many times the question arises, “Why don’t you go to Africa?” I’m a Brazilian photographer, and if I came back and lived two more lives, I would still have subjects to photograph in Brazil. It’s such a culturally complex country. The city doesn’t attract me photographically or visually because it really seems like everything about it has been done before. On the other hand, when I go to a forest, I meet people that interest me as human beings and as photographic subjects. My current project, photographing cancer patients, is an example of what I like to do.
AWT: Here or in Brazil?
VC: In Brazil.
AWT: So all of your photography is in Brazil?
VC: Yes, all in Brazil. After my work in the rainforest, I completed three projects on waterfalls, trees, and the Brazilian landscape that focused on environmental issues. Now I’ve returned to social documentary, with Guarapuava, my hometown.
AWT: For the three books on nature you chose to work in black and white. Why do you stay with black and white?
VC: I think I just don’t see color.
VC: I see many colors in black and white. Even Carnival I did in black and white.
AWT: Are you still photographing with film?
VC: I’m still shooting film. Lately, the output has been pigment on paper, a process that my business partner, Leonard Bergson, and I came up with over the last decade.
AWT: So you’re making digital prints, pigment prints, and you are known for your well-crafted silver and platinum prints?
VC: Yes, Lenny and I did this by studying and using an Epson, but pretty much using just the printer’s body, and rebuilding the entire system. We even used a different software and our own pigments. We started working with five pigments, then six, and now seven. Our experimental efforts have enabled us to achieve astonishing quality. The key is to match the master print, which is a silver print, with the pigment print. Then, we feel free to enhance the quality of the new print.
AWT: So this sort of goes back to the dichotomy that I mentioned in the very first comments: that there seems to me always this tension in your work, sometimes visible and sometimes implied. For instance, as in photographing something like Gauchos, which is traditional, it must be affected by modernity in some way, but that’s not part of the photographs in your book. Yet you are using this absolutely modern state of the art technology to print it. It seems to me you are traversing back and forth between these traditional ways of life and this modern existence.
VC: I am drawn to images and faces that seem timeless. Technology is only a tool that, used properly, can enhance the final image and I am not against it. While I am impressed by modern techniques, I am still in love with silver prints and I think they convey an emotion that is sometimes missing from pigment prints.
AWT: Yes, they are evocatively beautiful.
VC: That said, my pigment prints are similar in quality to my silver prints.
VC: That’s what keeps me working, doing my projects, printing and working on my books. If I don’t adapt myself with modern tools then I will become a dinosaur. In a way, I am a dinosaur already because although the output is now pigment, I am still using film.
AWT: I wouldn’t use the analogy of a dinosaur because I believe there is a critical place in modern life for documentary. I still believe that there are levels on which all of us can learn about things that we will probably never see. I might go to a ranch where Gauchos are working, but I will probably never go camping in the rainforest. I get angry when people dismiss the value of photography because photographs are still our collective memories. It is just that documentary photographs are not cutting edge in the art world and are therefore more dependent on books than on galleries for finding their audiences.
VC: I am very passionate about documentary and silver prints. I am a very good technician; I do my own developing and printing. In fact I fantasize about having a larger darkroom in which I could make larger silver prints.
AWT: Do you think about the places and people that you are photographing in Paraná, as dying, as disappearing?
VC: No, not necessarily. It is actually the opposite. The Gauchos change, but do not die. They change the way they have to do business, but they keep their lifestyle.
AWT: So cattle are still an industry?
VC: In this particular area agriculture and cattle are the main sources of income.
AWT: And in addition to the portraits and landscapes, you include both the agriculture and the cattle industry in your book.
VC: Yes. Mostly the traditional aspects of the cattle industry.
AWT: What are the major agricultural crops?
VC: Some of the main ones we have are soybeans, rice, potatoes, and corn.
AWT: And are those critical to the cuisine?
VC: Some are export crops, so they are important for the economy as well as for local consumption.
AWT: You conducted research before going into the rainforest considering that this area was alien to you. But now you’re photographing a region in which you grew up, so how is that different in terms of the research?
VC: I started doing the hometown project on my own and then suddenly I ran into an elementary school friend, Valtinho, who had never left the town and still lives there. He works inland in communications, installing phones on farms and things like that, so he knows the territory better than others. One of the most incredible things about him is that he is welcome anywhere in the region, by Brazilians of African descent, indigenous people, farmers, and recent immigrants.
VC: Yes. They are a very difficult community to get into, but when traveling with Valtinho you are welcome. He is a very original character and he adopted my project. Every time I would go there we would use his old 1963 jeep, which he outfitted to the roughness of the land. He has joined me on 70 percent of my trips and I could not do the work without him. Every time I call him from São Paulo I say, for example, “Valtinho, I need to be set up for two weeks because we are going to do this and that, etc.” And when I show up those two weeks are very organized; rain or shine we do our work.
AWT: And in making this book, was it a conscious decision to include all those groups and ethnicities?
VC: Actually, that aspect grew over time while shooting landscapes and people. I started to learn the histories of the people and to see the strengths and the decay of their communities. For instance, some of the Brazilian Africans still speak their own dialect. I realized that these two indigenous groups were there first and once owned all the land. And now they are in poverty and struggling to keep their cultures alive.
AWT: And what tribes are those?
VC: The Kaingang and Guarani. And then later the federal, state, and local governments welcomed about five hundred Swabian families (people of a Germanic ethnicity who had inhabited parts of former Yugoslavia since the 18th century) to Guarapuava. So the ethnic mix is diverse in the extreme.
AWT: So people speak German, people speak some African dialects, and mostly speak Portuguese. What made you decide that this project had enough material to do a book?
VC: I have been shooting for about thirty years. If I don’t put an end to it and make a book then I’ll probably just be shooting and drop dead one day without a book.
VC: The historical text for this book was written by a 32-year-old history professor, who was born around the time I started shooting this project.
AWT: What would make you the happiest in terms of someone learning something about these communities? What is it you most want to communicate about your home region to people?
VC: To be honest, I haven’t thought about other people’s reaction to the project because I’ve been driven by a vision I have of these people. I feel their absence in standard histories of the region. Historically speaking, they hardly exist, but in reality they are an important part of the character and richness of my hometown.
AWT: So preservation is your goal?
AWT: To call or to implant in our memory of a place we will probably never see or know, you want to create something that says “This too existed.”
VC: Exactly. Photography is the one way that I can introduce Guarapuava’s people and history to others. I have images of Guarapuava in about twelve museum collections here in the United States. This level of interest encourages me to believe this is a very strong visual documentary project.
AWT: This project puts into context one of your early photographs of a very handsome woman...
VC: Ah, the image on the cover of the Guarapuava book. This is a photograph of an extraordinary Gypsy woman who lives somewhere near my hometown.
AWT: Yes, it puts her in context.
VC: Well, it was an instinctive choice to put that image on the cover. This is a universal image. Right away you understand her.
AWT: What have I not asked you about this project? If you were going to say something about it and what drove you to continue to go back there and do this work around all your other projects, what would you say?
VC: I guess I had to tell a story about the place where I grew up and lived until I was 23 years old.
AWT: Do you still have family there?
VC: I have uncles and cousins in the area but since the passing of my father, no immediate family there now.
AWT: But I wonder, I grew up along the Mississippi river. The Mississippi River has huge power over me now and I haven’t lived there since I was twenty. That’s forty years ago and still I’m thinking about the Mississippi. Do you feel something similar for this region?
VC: Yes, I think one’s hometown exerts a powerful hold on a person. In my case, I remember learning to survive there, among other things that I only later came to appreciate. That kind of life doesn’t exist anymore, or it is rare. To grow up in a small town where you know everybody and everybody knows you. It is fascinating to recall but that time was one of poverty and difficulty for me. It was not without grace and happiness and freedom, but one had to learn how to deal with life on one’s own.
AWT: And the land, which is really the subject of this book, along with the people on the land, was part of that survival.
VC: Yes, I closely worked with the farmers.
AWT: So it’s a spiritual connection?
VC: I would say so. And even after the book is complete I will continue going back to Guarapuava. Whenever I am there, if I have time I see my friends or camp in one of the waterfalls and remember when I was a child there. It refreshes me and I feel good about returning, not without a camera.
AWT: So you not only photograph trees, you photograph the roots.
VC: Yes, that’s it. In my text I call it memories.
AWT: Your memories manifested for us.
VC: It is more like the residue of memory that I find there. Specific memories elude me, but I have a sense of the place and a profound sense of belonging. Returning home has provided me with unexpected solace and strength. These visits give me the power to keep going.
AWT: It is nice, I think, that a lot of people will look at the beauty of the photographs and not immediately perceive struggle. It is there in the lives of the people. Again, I go back to the dichotomy. If you look at those photographs you realize that it’s hard being a Gaucho, and it’s hard working in the fields. One shouldn’t get too romantic about the physically demanding lives people lead in these communities, but the beauty of the light and tonalities and the atmosphere are also part of their lives.
VC: I think in the end the project pays homage to the people of Guarapuava.
AWT: What was that thing that drove you to keep going back to your childhood home?
VC: Chance compelled me to move to New York in 1978, where I learned photography. When I returned home I realized that I could use photography to honor the people and the landscape of my youth. I like to think that their part in the history of Brazil is now a little bit more visible. More than that, I think of Eugene Smith. A camera handled well and with strong intention, will convey a reality with a personal point of view. I photograph my reality, what I see and what I feel about people. I don’t know what it means to them to look at the paper and see themselves. I really don’t know but I’ll soon see when the exhibition opens in Guarapuava.
AWT: Ah, nice.
Anne Wilkes Tucker
Curator of Photography
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston