Felipe Russo, Garagem Automática

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Bandini Books (here). Open spine softcover, 29×36 cm, 64 pages, with 22 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Erik Mootz (in English/Portuguese). In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Julien Imbert. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When prognosticators and trend watchers look out to our not-so-distant future, self driving transportation seems like something plausibly within reach. Once the domain of dreamlike science fiction, self-driving cars and trucks are already being tested, and new technological improvements will likely accelerate their path of adoption. And as more and more vehicles on the road are equipped with this kind of automation, the rest of the transportation infrastructure, from gas (or electric) stations to parking lots, will need to adapt accordingly, just as it did when the interstate highway system was built across America in the 1950s and car travel became more mainstream.

But fantastic visions of car-centered futures aren’t just an American mania, as Felipe Russo’s photobook Garagem Automática (“automatic garage” in English) attests. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, automated parking garages were built all over São Paulo’s downtown area, presumably to handle a flood of new car traffic. Half a century later, Russo’s photographs tell a slightly different story – of a sleek future that never quite came to pass, and a set of now aging structures that are at once aspirationally modern and functionally obsolete.

One thing that isn’t found in any of Russo’s photographs is people. The buildings in his pictures are entirely mechanized, with weighted pulley systems and other electrical equipment moving the elevators between the floors of the dark concrete structures. Since no passengers ever made the trip, the insides of the garages are unfinished and entirely utilitarian – open networks of concrete floors stacked on top of each other, served by central cores of mobility. There seem to be few lights, little decorative paint (aside from numbering systems), and plenty of now inexplicable machines, all of them showing signs of rough wear and blackening decay.

Russo’s widest views document the interior skeletons of the garages, where floors and support pillars create a regular pattern of stacked blocks. Chains and elevator wires hang in straight vertical lines in the center, surrounded by gridded geometries of concrete, the boxy open spaces falling away above and below. The combination of the dark shadows and the echoing emptiness creates an atmosphere of endlessness, as if the garages go on forever. While Russo’s images are made in color, they largely settle into thick monochromes, where the contrasts of dark and light lean toward linear abstraction.

When Russo moves in closer, he’s often drawn to the mechanical infrastructure of the garages. He isolates various control panels, switches, tubes, boxes, and wires, and breaks down the elevator components into studies of cables, steel brackets, and the heavy concrete plates used as counterweights. His photographs of these technical workings are filled with an air of mystery, as if we couldn’t possibly understand how these forgotten technologies once worked, nor could we hope to fix them when they inevitably break. It’s like the automated garages are now museums of dead technology, the functional infrastructure left to rot in the creeping darkness.

Russo also centers in on textures, making sparsely elegant photographs of the worn surfaces of the garages. He notices the gestural sweeps of tire marks, the drips of unknown corrosions down rough brick walls and atop concrete slabs, and the more subtle wear of the edges of empty niches and silvery hollows, turning them into photographs of absence, where these remnants allude to rhythms that are no longer present.

Garagem Automática is an oversized photobook, thin but expansive, allowing Russo’s images plenty of room to run. Black endpapers and interrupting spreads bring additional pauses of darkness to the visual flow, and the photographs alternate between full bleed on one side of the spread, single images that reach across the gutter, and slightly smaller close up studies that seem to float in expanses of white. The alternating dark and light values almost create a flickering effect, the page turns moving in and out of the enveloping darkness. It’s a design that matches the content well and smartly extends and enhances the overall mood of the photographs.

Parking garages are often depicted as soulless non-spaces, but Russo’s photographs have a dark faded grace that recalls the optimism of the past. At one time, these automated garages represented the power of the future, and even though that techno-romantic reality didn’t entirely come to fruition, there is something inherently positive about the attempt they make to reach for something more. Russo sees them in their current dilapidated state, their faults and failures on full view, but still finds moments of quiet poetry in their abandoned gloom.

Collector’s POV: Felipe Russo is represented by Utópica in São Paulo (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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