Boulton & Soto: The Eyes of Venezuela @Henrique Faria

JTF (just the facts): A total of 66 black and white photographs by Alfredo Boulton, displayed framed in black, unframed on shelves, or unframed in vitrines, in the back gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints mounted by the artist on custom metal displays, made between 1944 and 1950 and printed in 1981. All of the prints are roughly 10×8 inches, and are unique. (Installation and detail shots below.)

The show also includes two photobooks documenting the particular project (published in 1952, and 1981 respectively), as well as a selection of other Boulton photobooks (one of which was reviewed in 2015, here). (Cover shots below.)

In the entry area, a small selection of paintings by Jesús Soto is also on view.

Comments/Context: In 1944, the photographer Alfredo Boulton and his wife Yolando Delgado Lairet bought a house on Margarita, a Caribbean island just off the north east coast of Venezuela. In the two decades prior, after returning from Europe, Boulton had firmly established himself not only as a successful Modernist photographer, but as a wide ranging artistic force in Venezuela. Across his career, he was not only an artist, but a critic, an essayist, an art historian, a curator, and a publisher, among other roles, and the house on Margarita provided an escape from the bustle of that busy life. And while Margarita is now known as a tourist spot, with wide beaches and duty free shopping, at the time, the island was primarily a fishing outpost, with a thriving pearl diving industry and local traditions reaching back to the indigenous era before the Spanish arrived.

Over the course of a handful of years, Boulton made a patiently layered photographic portrait of life on Margarita, immersing himself in the rhythms and histories of the community he found there. In terms of subject matter, the project was quietly systematic and comprehensive, gathering together sensitively seen portraits of the local residents, images of the daily work of fishing and pearl harvesting, island landscapes, views of boats, the harbor, and the sea, architectural studies of nearby houses, garrisons, and churches (many with a colonial past), and details of the archeological ruins of Conquistador settlements and even earlier indigenous artifacts. By roughly 1950, Boulton had made enough photographs to tell the story he wanted to tell, and so he proceeded to sequence the images together into one of Venezuela’s first photobooks, La Margarita, which was published in 1952.

The project lay relatively dormant for the next several decades, until the early 1980s, when Boulton decided to republish the photobook, with a new expanded design. This coincided with an exhibition at the Museo Francisco Narváez, for which Boulton made another set of prints of his Margarita images (the original vintage prints now reside in the collection of the Getty.) This gallery show offers a chance to view those 1981 prints, complete with their unusual custom-made metal backing brackets (see detail image above) which allowed them to float away from the wall.

Boulton’s eye is rooted in a broader sense of Venezuelan nationalism and an observational interest in the transformative modernizations taking place around the country at that time; his photographs intentionally offer a documentary counterpoint to the forces of change, celebrating a traditional way of life that was being threatened by the influx of oil riches and the push to turn Margarita into a tourist destination. By turning his camera toward the honesty and harmony of a modest life drawn from the sea, he touches on themes similar to those that were being explored by the neorealist filmmakers in Italy at roughly the same time, albeit with more inclusive awareness of the mixed race identity of the margariteños.

Aesthetically, Boulton drifts between a lyrical documentary perspective and a more compositionally controlled variant of photographic Modernism; depending on the subject matter or the moment at hand, he captures it with straightforward economy or frames and arranges it with a bit more deliberate innovation. The total mass of prints from the project has been curated here into 11 groups of 9 images each (only 7 groups are on view), plus 1 triptych of 3 images (all of pearls). Each group has a heterogeneous selection of imagery, an approach which has both its positives and negatives – mixing the images together creates a more interconnected portrait of life on the island, but it also makes it somewhat harder to see clearly how Boutlon was artistically approaching any one subject matter genre (portraits, buildings, the work of fishing, boats, nets, ancient relics etc.)

A quick scan of the wall-filling grid, as well as the nearby framed photographs and prints in the vitrines, reveals plenty of standout single images. Boulton consistently makes knockout compositions with the fishing nets and buoys, using them to arc through wide views of the fishermen at work in the water, to frame shoreline portraits (with undulating twists of net), and as subjects in and of themselves, getting close up to create tactile formal arrangements of nets, ropes, wooden tools, and other equipment. He similarly uses fishing boats, and particularly their triangular poles jutting off the front, to frame views of workers, passersby, the beach, and the surrounding villages. Fish are seen as all over arrangements of shiny masses, and in one setup, as a diagonal line of cut pieces.

When Boulton engages with the locals, he does so with respect and easy going trust, capturing men working or standing in the bright sun, women with baskets or ceramic pots on their heads or methodically shucking oysters in search of pearls, and groups of workers out on boats, pulling in nets, or relaxing on the shore. One memorable portrait pairs a man in a bulky dive suit and another holding the tiller of a small boat, the textures of their clothing seemingly etched like sculpture. Still other all over compositions look down at intricate tile work, piles of discarded oyster shells, examples of painted bowls and dishes, and the fading carvings on ancient stones, reveling in details that might normally be overlooked in everyday routines. Boulton also had a strong eye for the geometries of buildings, narrowing in on whitewashed lines, edges, stairways, and even the rippled edge of a corrugated tin roof, amplifying a few with a bit of Modernist clarity.

This is the kind of long term photographic project that fits neatly into photobook form, and the fact that Boulton understood that and went on to make a thoughtfully considered book in the early 1950s (when such a choice wouldn’t have been at all obvious, particularly in South America) is certainly worth noting. With their mix of engaged documentary mindset and subtle Modernist aesthetics, these photographs have aged well and deserve to be better known. Hopefully the rediscovery of this cache of prints will reintroduce the project to a wider audience, and further cement Boulton’s reputation as a linchpin figure in Venezuelan photographic history.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are being sold in mixed sets of 9, priced at $13000 each. Boulton’s works have little consistent secondary market history in recent years, so gallery retail is likely the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Alfredo Boulton, Henrique Faria Fine Art

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