JM Ramírez-Suassi, Fordlândia 9

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2020 by NOW Photobooks (here). Hardcover, 9.4×11.62 inches, 130 pages, with 72 color and 9 black & white reproductions. Aside from a one sentence listing of the dates and locations where the photographs were made, there are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 350 copies. Design by Vicky Heredero. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The backstory to JM Ramírez-Suassi’s photobook Fordlândia 9 offers a tantalizing mix of dreams, delusions, and failures. In the late 1920s, Henry Ford’s car business was booming, but constraints on the supply of affordable rubber (for tires and other parts) loomed as a potential check on growth. Given Ford’s astonishing success with automation and mechanization, it isn’t entirely surprising that he thought he could apply some of those learnings to rubber farming, and so he negotiated a deal with the Brazilian government with gave him access to roughly 10000 square kilometers of land in the Amazon, in what is now the state of Pará. Ford’s dream was to carve an American style city out of untamed jungle, simultaneously solving his business demand for cheap rubber and proving his broader utopian ideas about how a well-ordered society might function.

But in the span of less than a decade, that dream fell apart. Between the blight that killed the plantation rubber trees set in overly tight rows to the revolt of the workers who didn’t like Ford’s cafeteria-style diet or his strict social rules, the problems and disasters piled up, to the point that they simply overwhelmed Ford’s idealism. The city was essentially abandoned and left to rot (and ultimately sold back to the Brazilian government at a loss), and only in the last decade or so have larger numbers of inhabitants returned to reclaim the overgrown ghost town that was once Fordlândia.

Given the richness of this tale, we might expect Ramírez-Suassi’s photobook to be a detailed photographic study of the ruins of the venture, infused with a cautionary lesson about cultural arrogance and overstepping imperialism. And while threads of these and other themes can be found in Fordlândia 9, as a series of photographs, it is far less literal than that; aside from one image of the famous water tower that Ford brought from America (seen through a factory window) and a few more pictures of decaying buildings, Ramírez-Suassi spends little time in the past. Instead, he deliberately takes a more atmospheric and open-ended approach, offering an amorphous portrait of the present that combines old resonances and more complex moods.

As an object, Fordlândia 9 has the outward appearance of a 19th century photo album, with brown leather binding along the spine and corners and grey paper wrapping the covers. But the inside is thoroughly contemporary, with large reproductions that fill white bordered pages. Since nearly all of the photographs are oriented vertically, the page flips generally alternate between paired images and single pictures with a white page partner, and the flow of the photobook is divided into 9 sections of 9 images each, separated by thin transparent white sheets. The book contains no captions, specific locations, names, page numbers, or essays, so the meaning of these sections, and the larger definition of the project, is left up to the reader to discern.

It’s clear that as a town Fordlândia continues to go through cycles of transience and decay, even as more people return to living there. A few of the ruins point all the back to the original ill-fated settlement, but most are more recent. A wooden plank boardwalk falls away into pink stone, vines and bushes creep over abandoned cars (and one hosts an entire dirt garden in its engine), a window screen is covered with a dappling of black mold, a legless plastic chair has been left tied to a wall, and layers of graffiti, scrawled phone numbers, and carved names attest to overlapping rounds of inhabitants. Other photographs seem to document more immediate departures, from a child’s improvised wooden scooter, a pink sandal, and a used plastic glove variously left in the street, to TVs left on inside, uneaten fried food left in a styrofoam container, and a cookpot left in a firepit. Ramírez-Suassi documents and interweaves these waves of emptying out and leaving, the rhythm of local life seeming to absorb each successive abandonment.

Many of Ramírez-Suassi’s photographs take these kinds of subjects and then give them a twist toward the ominous or the surreal. Dark clouds loom overhead, a flash of light in muddy road puddle becomes an all-seeing eye, red lights decorate the edge of a building, and the dark shadow of a dog bends into a distorted curve. Some of these pictures feel more staged or at least orchestrated (marbles lines up in a jungle leaf, a woman wearing a skull headpiece, a hand holding a doubled set of horns) but others linger in a zone between the mundane and the strange, like a cardboard box cut through to be worn as a sun shade, a pair of bunnies on a pool table, a fallen stone wing in the grass, and a room filled with paired taxidermy as though ready for the march to Noah’s ark. It’s clear that Ramírez-Suassi has an eye for the overlooked, and he’s selected images in such a way to build up a recurrent sense of unease.

This same mood permeates the Spanish photographer’s portraits from the area. Whether these people are residents, workers, travelers, or migrants we can’t know, but Ramírez-Suassi’s approach infuses them all with subtle notes of uncertainty. He achieves this with faces that are turned away, veiled, or otherwise interrupted, preventing us from making a clearer connection. What looks to be a roadside preacher is blocked by his Bible, and another Bible reader is seen from directly above. Other images focus our attention on a skullcap haircut, a man headed down a tunnel, boys interrupted by fishtanks and car windows, a man getting a shave, and a Jesus-lookalike seen in silhouette. When we are shown faces, time seems to have taken its toll, pushing the inhabitants toward the margins, particularly in the case of an older indigenous man with a feathered headdress who sits in shadow, and other scruffy men with unruly beards and weathered skin who watch the world go by. And then Ramírez-Suassi pulls us back toward the surreal with the arrival of an Elvis impersonator, a suited man gagged with duct tape, and a pair of unexpected twins in a rotting car.

When all of this is interwoven into a single visual flow, the effect is satisfyingly indefinite, as if Ramírez-Suassi deliberately wants to prevent us from coming to overly easy conclusions about the story of Fordlândia. The photobook ends with a fleeting reference to Matthew 15:13 – “But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.” – and a pair of images of graveyard crosses piled up. It leaves us with a gloomy sense that Ford’s ambitious plan was perhaps doomed from the start. But Fordlândia 9 shines because it offers no pat answers – it feels like a place haunted by its past, and as a result, still uncertain of its present.

Collector’s POV: JM Ramírez-Suassi does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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