Interview by Pablo Corral Vega, Photos by Facundo de Zuviria
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
It did not appear that Facundo ZuvirÃaâ€™s destiny was to be a photographer. He comes from an influential family of lawyers and politicians, and was expecting to continue this centuries-old tradition. But, shortly before graduating as a doctor of law, he told his family he was going to devote himself to photography. Since then, Facundo has documented the city of Buenos Aires over the decades, its neighborhoods, its streets, its shop windows, and its particular geometry. And in 2006, he published Buenos Aires, a special black and white book which was the culmination of his urban exploration. He co-authored it with Horacio Coppola, who was then celebrating his 100th birthday.
- What was your first experience with photography?
- When I was six my aunt gave me a Kodak box camera, and after that I could never let go of images. In my group of friends I was one who took pictures. At 17 or 18 I definitely started taking it more seriously, but it remained a hobby. Later, I studied law and while doing so took pictures of social events, and managed to cover the costs of the habit. It didnâ€™t occur to me that this could be my job or my passion. My family thought it was very nice, as long as it was just a hobby.
- But eventually it stopped being a hobby and became your profession.
- Shortly before I graduated as a lawyer, I announced that I wanted to devote myself to photography. My family took it as a catastrophe. I had trouble making the decision, but the truth is that all I did was wait for the weekend to take pictures. I wasnâ€™t fully aware that my fate was being decided, all I knew was that I wanted to experiment, to look for different angles, positions, to break the conventional forms of framing. By then I had learned to develop my own pictures. That was a tremendous revolution in my head.
- What topics interested you?
- I found that I could discover something interesting in any subject. I photographed what was at hand, which was the city. I also started to look at books. Without anyone showing me, I discovered Rodchenko and the Russian avant-garde. It was my first fascination. I thought Rodchenko was great, this way of twisting angles, working diagonals, rhythms, and geometries. I started preaching the idea of absolute freedom in photography, I donâ€™t remember who I was preaching to, but photography offers the chance to do whatever you want, and there is no reason to respect the horizons, or lines, or classical compositions. The rest of life is for respecting convention. I played a lot with the idea, absolutely real, that you reduce three-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional plane, where depths are transformed in ways that have meaning and eventually their own language, which is found only in a second reading of an image.
- Your eye is informed by design.
- In fact the only thing I studied outside of law was design. I took a workshop with Leonardo Aizenberg, a wonderful designer and quite mad, who had a single obsession, which was symmetry. He was so obsessed that he parted his hair in the middle, carried two notebooks, two wallets, two sets of keys, two pens. He carried one on each side… and he designed a car that was symmetrical facing forward or back. It had a steering wheel facing the front and another facing the rear. I think symmetry has a great deal of influence on my photography.
- And where did these images of Buenos Aires that we are presenting in Nuestra Mirada come from?
- Sometimes one has a concept and goes to look for things that fit that concept, but in the case of these photos I went out as a hunter of images imbued with a personal mission: I had to rescue the spirit of Buenos Aires before time erased it.
- Where is the spirit of the city?
- It’s in the neighborhoods. Downtown Buenos Aires is cosmopolitan, not necessarily less personal, but the essence of the city is in the neighborhoods. Itâ€™s in the melancholy, itâ€™s in the tango, in the flat city, in being a city of the plains with large open spaces. Itâ€™s in the sky. It is difficult to find the essence because that belongs to a mythical city, a city that was but is no longer. Buenos Aires may have a much more cosmopolitan soul these days. There are now Koreans, Chinese, Paraguayans, Bolivians, Peruvians, and people from the interior of the country. But the main thing I still associate with the ritual of the neighborhood is coffee, friends, and tango. I donâ€™t know, a life with more time.
- In your book Estampas PorteÃ±as, you quote a phrase from AndrÃ© Malraux saying, “Buenos Aires is the capital of an empire that never existed.”
- This phrase defines us, defines Buenos Aires, and defines Argentina, in the sense that we believe in ourselves so strongly. We believe in this place being great, important. We believe it to be the center of the world. Buenos Aires has the dimensions of the capital of an empire but behind the heroic city there is an inner core that is underdeveloped. One would expect that behind such a city there would be a whole country with tremendous power. Nonetheless, Buenos Aires has a great spirit.
- You are curating a collection of photography for a major local bank. You recently showed me a few original vintage images by some of the great masters of Argentina. What, in your opinion, are the great themes in Buenos Aires photography?
- The city has been the protagonist in the work of several important photographers. There is Gaston Bourquin, and obviously Horacio Coppola, who records the city but also used it as a means to find his own vision. In the ’30s the city vibrated with modernism, with literary movements, with Borges. It was a great cultural moment and Coppola has emerged as the greatest exponent of that vanguard. In the early ’60s Sara Facio and Alicia D’Amico made a great book with texts by Cortazar called Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, a very personal look and extraordinary. Grete Stern also made many portraits and photographs of the city. Until the â€™60s the two major themes were portraits and the city. After that came a much more politicized phase, based on social issues; one example of that would be Humberto Rivas. And then comes the idea of authors, the idea of authored photographs, in contrast to commercial photography, such as commissioned portraits. In fact, Annemarie Heinrich was despised at the time for doing a commercial photography. She used a technique that now we all admire.
- What has photography given you?
- It has given me everything I am. Devoting myself to it was the best decision I made in my life. It has given me the chance to move in and out of worlds completely different from my own, worlds I could not enter if it were not behind a camera. I have photographed the favela in Rio de Janeiro and very difficult social situations. I have known houses, characters, and incredible moments. For example, I was the Dalai Lama’s personal photographer for seven days. My introduction to Buddhism was through photography. Imagine such a possibility, such a privilege. The last day he took the camera from around my neck and asked the translator to take a picture of us together, I had tears in my eyes. He wrote a blessing for me and my family on a piece of cardboard. And something similar happened with Gorbachev. Although we are alone in any place, photography gives us a poetic way of seeing the world.