Beneathall: the Eldest, whorlingreturn
root of arising's course,
beyond any beholding,
secret at the source.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnetsto Orpheus
Three presences dominate this collection of photographs by Valdir Cruz: water, trees, human beings. They intertwine, and even when only one is the apparent subject, the others are always there. A philosophical commonplace is that photographs, all photographs, enshrine an absence, the no-longer-there of the captured subject, now changed and gone. The photograph holds open the instant that time’s movement would seal up; yet that stasis, that balance on a point, only makes the relentless movement of time more apparent. But is it really that simple? Isn’t it the case that a photograph’s transfixing fascination is to render presence, both in time and above or beyond time, to offer both anecdote and symbol that remain vivid? This is a different kind of presence, the presence of an archetype, exemplified in the subject, recognized by us. How do these presences appear and confirm each other in the work here represented? That is the question I have been trying to answer for myself in order to understand the cumulative effect of these photographs, which seem to me to add up to a life project of self-comprehension. The artist is present in the presences he invokes. As did Gaugin’s famous painting, these photographs pose fundamental questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Best to begin here with a universal subject. Anyone from almost any culture can understand that water in an image has an originary status and a terminal one, where life begins, how it is sustained, and – metaphorically, at least – how it ends, with a dissolution of self. The magnetic center of Cruz’s work is Brazil’s southern Paraná state, where the vast network of tributaries and waterfalls expunges the boundaries between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Especially in Iguaçu, with its gigantic waterfalls, one has the sense of the earth itself in constant motion. Water seems to come from every corner of the forest, not merely from the rivers that meet there. Water is a force, throughout this part of the world, and everything is process, not fixity. You can hear the water when you can’t see it – like the ocean. But unlike the ocean, its motion is not repetitive but one of ceaseless transit.
Irrespective of the environmental concerns associated with this place, and of the photographer’s own commitment to its preservation, his artistic encounter with the water is deeply existential and dauntless. His need to confront the facts of nature feels similar to the desire that animated many early landscape photographers. Carleton Watkins is the one Cruz most resembles, for his ambition (certainly not for political or commercial agendas). Nature challenged those photographers to set the camera against a terrifying sublimity and fashion images of a world not made for them, indifferent in the most profound sense, unattainable and ultimately beautiful for all that. Cruz does not suggest that the water’s formal properties as captured by the camera confirm a transcendental unity between mind and world. Instead he grants the water an indisputable presence by interrupting it. His immobile waterfalls have a transparent density, like a cloud, like ice. In the end, the fact that we are here, in the midst of such a world, we who have no gods and cannot personify the forces of nature, is unfathomable.These photographs result from decisions based on an indefatigable desire, a feeling for form, a commitment to expand the character of black and white film, and a unique capacity to render his intuitions about the natural world by making a representation, one that has its own consistency and presence. “Immersive” is the word used by the critic Rubens Fernandes Junior to describe their capacity to convey a viewer to that place. But where, exactly? To see the physical photographs of this work on exhibition is to encounter Cruz’s waterscape, a parallel world that for many may be as close as they ever get to southern Brazil. It is not that world, it cannot be that world; it is a group of extraordinary photographs, Cruz’s photographs, that operate according to their own rules. And yet, at the same time, it is that world, dense, liquid, and material.
Water is, I believe, the nurturing source for Cruz’s art. Implicitly it engenders his other subjects, human beings and the trees and forests of Brazil. Trees have become such a loaded subject for representation that we think of, for example, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic symbol in Sonnets to Orpheus as hopelessly antiquated and distant. Today we ask: what sort of tree? Is it endangered? Invasive? Is it a sign of destruction or reinvigoration, a lone survivor or a new beginning? Cruz has at least indirectly grappled with such questions. He has explored important ecological zones, especially in the Serra da Bodaquena region of Mato Grosso do Sul. From his own homeland to the Amazon basin he has seen the battle lines between the human exploitation of nature and its preservation.
But his fascination with trees reaches much deeper than that, to the depth of the poet, whose task is to forge the most disparate connections among phenomena, so that they seem inevitable. Like so many great photographers before him, Cruz revels in the intricacy of structure, the chaos of forms, the vegetative disorder that is the natural world. He resists metaphors and analogies common to photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and other American transcendentalists, however, in favor of more particular insights. He shows us how trees define scale in a landscape, how they orient us in an open space and confuse us in a forest. For that matter, how they confuse a camera in the way they alter light and shadow.
He focuses his most attentive gaze on the trunks and roots of the tallest trees, in a series titled Raizes (Roots). As with the waterfalls, his camera creates a second nature, with extreme viewpoints and an exaggerated sense of towering growth. “Pure ascendance,” Rilke calls it. Rich darkness of root and bark replaces the milky whiteness of plunging water. The motion of the trees is all upward rather than downward, a vast defiant struggle against gravity and time. Formally and in every other way the opposed subjects represent two sides of the same coin. Yet these photographs of roots and ascending trunks do not arrest time but almost seem to deny it. When Cruz renders the stem and roots of a massive fig tree, its growth is already too protracted to capture. The camera wants to slow everything to a halt, but this frame of time, these embodiments, are already slowed. They scorn the camera’s magic, they exceed it. What I am trying to say is that the instantaneous and the infinitely slow, the microsecond and the gathering of eons that Cruz renders, ultimately unite in a comprehensive vision of natural process.
Within that interconnected process, human beings find their place. An introductory image of Cruz’s project Faces of the Rainforest shows the beautiful bend of a jungle river, the Rio de Los Periquitos in the Upper Siapa Mountain Range in Venezuela. It defines the territory and life horizon of the people who live there. Though the image is not reproduced in this volume, it haunts me as a unifying symbol. Water and trees as a fabric implicate at least a third thread, a third presence, that of human beings – who, of course, have enormous capability to alter the fabric. Cruz does not come to the cultures of the rainforest, the Amazon, or the Mato Grosso as a classical anthropologist. That model, established by Franz Boas at the end of the nineteenth century, aimed at cultural salvage. It saw collecting, photographing, recording, and documenting as barely satisfactory substitutes for the foreclosed possibilities of vanishing human diversity. Implicit here is the belief that for so-called primitive societies change is loss and, less obviously, that these living archives imply a critique of modern capitalist society. As Claude Levi-Strauss asked, why study them if they have nothing to say to us about us?Cruz’s photographs of people offer a more complicated perspective. In the first place, he is not an us or a them. As someone raised in rural Brazil, he is as close to many of the people he photographs as he is to denizens of the urban milieus where he has built his career – in New York, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro. In his autobiographical project Guarapuava, the people of his birthplace and childhood come to life in the context of the land around them. No less than the Yanomami of the north, in memory and present fact they exist for him as inhabitants of a particular landscape. They are not defined exclusively by place, they may suffer within it, and they may not even like it, but they are of it. They are not the same kind of presence as water and trees but they are intimately related.
Politically, Cruz’s portraits have less to do with salvage than advocacy. In the contemporary world, the liberal valuation of cultural diversity expresses itself as support for self-determination. His photographs have brought attention and assistance to people whose lifeways are being altered against their will (and often against the law). He seems to want viewers to understand certain things about the autonomy of his subjects. When I first saw his rainforest series, I was struck by how people made a world within the world of the forest and river. I noticed how they held bows, spears, children, and the brushes they used to decorate their bodies. Now when I look at the photographs, I see the broader, marvelous fact of life-fashioning. His portraits taken among the native people of the rainforest are all heavily shadowed, dappled by light, as it falls through the tree cover where they live. He never lets a viewer forget where his subjects are.Just as when he observes the waterfalls or traces the upward thrust of giant trees, Cruz evokes presences with his portraits. He seeks an impossible goal, which is to confer essential substance through the presentation of appearances. Technically speaking, the photographic portrait is a slice of time in which a person resides. It is a durable fiction that such momentary encounters can reveal what lies hidden (Westerners tend to believe) beneath the surface of the face composed for the camera. Only photographs hold out the possibility of a deception and its unmasking. Roland Barthes calls the conventional photographic portrait a mask. It’s an especially fraught term for subjects such as native people, who are already in danger of becoming mere projections of viewers’ fantasies.
ruz seeks to bypass these contradictions. He does that by focusing on the fact of his subjects’ inwardness. I would say so many of the people in front of his camera are uncomposed but self-possessed. In some ways, although these photographs seem very different, Cruz’s commitment is similar to that of Thomas Struth, who from the outset has sought to grant his photographic subjects maximum autonomy within a situation that is not entirely of their making. People exist in a context, of course, bounded by nature and time. Yet in the end Cruz’s portraits affirm the absolute sovereignty of another person, another presence, another subjectivity, independent of circumstance. He is not a documentarian or photojournalist. He does not come to witness or report or explain or extol. He photographs his subjects either straight on, confronting him and his presence, or looking away from the camera, lost in thought or observing elsewhere. For him, as an artist and a human being, the strongest form of advocacy and the foundation of moral responsibility is simply to acknowledge the person in front of you.
And of course, that encounter with the other is the place where self-comprehension must begin.