I’m very lucky to be in Lima right now because kicking off this week is Lima’s first ever Photography Biennial. As part of the event there are over 30 official shows, about half a dozen of which opened last night. My first stop was at a show of painted photo portraits entitled “Memorias Visuales, el retrato iluminado y la historia cotidiana” (Visual Memory: the Illuminated Portrait and Daily Life). The exhibit, which is curated by Carlos Sánchez Giraldo and Sofía Velásquez Núñez contains painted photo portraits from the 1920s to the 1970s.
The wall text mentions that the curators were inspired to mount this show because they themselves had grown up with the constant gaze of these portraits (of grandparents, great grandparents) in their houses. Painted portraits were very common across Latin America. The involved painting directly on black and white photos. They have this weird way of bringing the subjects to life (in color) but also sucking the life out by removing the photo-ness of the image.
There seems to be a lot of interest in retratos pintados today. Photo historian Geoffrey Batchen has written about fotoesculturas in Mexico as part of his interest in vernacular photography. Yossi Milo Gallery in New York did a show of Brazilian retratos pintados in 2010. In Argentina, Florencia Blanco did a series of photos placing retratos in different contexts. While I was in Iquitos recently, nearly every house I went into had one of these portraits hanging on the walls.
The curators did a fantastic job of mounting the show, decorating the space with vintage wall paper and furniture, making the gallery into a cozy, domestic space. It allows the visitor to appreciate the domestic function of these portraits and makes visiting the show an experience that cannot be reproduced in a book or website (or blog post!).
In viewing some of the portraits I was reminded of the Fayum Portraits from ancient Roman Egypt, some of my favorite works of art. I was particularly fascinated by a few of the portraits where the paint was laid on very lightly in places.
There is an interesting play between the painted surface and monochromatic undersurface. Where the paint is light, it’s like the flesh is dissolving away. This is cheesy, I know, but I was reminded of the end of Terminator, when Arnold’s flesh is gradually stripped away in places, revealing the silvery robot underneath.
The front room of the exhibit has painted images from the last 20 years. The practice of directly painting on black and white photographs has died out and one of the many current vernacular practices of family photography involve making painted versions of pictures, often snapshots.
It’s weird to see these pictures all hung together. I haven’t paid much attention to these recent photo-paintings before. They lack the formal stiffness and nostalgic charm of the retratos pintados and sit in this sort of uncanny valley of being too recent to be revered. Still, I appreciated their inclusion for showing the ongoing customs of vernacular photography in Peru.
The show is up until April 28, 2012. If you are in Lima, do go see it.