Miguel Rio Branco, Maldicidade

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Editora Cosac Naify (here). Hardcover, 400 pages, with 234 black and white and color reproductions, with most displayed across two pages. There are no texts or essays included. The images were taken between 1970 and 2010. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the first photographs in Miguel Rio Branco’s Maldicidade captures two kids standing in a dirty vacant lot, peering through a hole in a rotting tin fence. We can’t see what they are looking at, but they seem absorbed by whatever is on the other side. Some 400 pages later, this same image is reprised, a variant taken seconds later. In it, the girl has pulled back from the secretive peek through the wall and looks down with a gaze we might call dazed, or dejected, or overwhelmed, or disgusted. Clearly, what she has seen has made an impact, and there is a resigned sense of sadness in her demeanor. As bookends to his challenging portrait of urban life, the pictures frame Rio Branco’s story – he’s offered us a look at the underbelly of city life across the globe, and what he has to show us pulsates with sweaty, gritty life in a way that isn’t always entirely agreeable. We have to look away for a moment now and then to absorb it all.

Rio Branco’s approach is largely at odds with most of the city photography we are accustomed to; he’s not interested in documenting famous architectural landmarks or historic buildings, nor is he trying to show us the romance, glamour, or optimistic aspirations that often accompany tall skyscrapers and modern metropolises. He has instead consistently pointed his camera down at the downtrodden margins, where the stray dogs root around in search of a meal and the aging public buses bulge with too many passengers. And while subtle details give away the destinations of his globe trotting travels, the photographs are centered on the universal rather than the specific; it doesn’t much matter that we are in Brazil, or Cuba, or Japan, as the day to day struggles of the disadvantaged he is interested in are remarkably similar.

What’s consistently intriguing about Rio Branco’s photographs is that they offer us very little in the way of obvious narrative – they are more ephemeral impressions and representative moments rather than characters we get to know or places we piece together. The sequencing of the book provides loose groupings (gold teeth, blurred dances, decaying buildings, car hoods) and arch juxtapositions (flirty street prostitutes followed by bloody chopped up meat carcasses), but there is no string that ties it all together, except the grimy immediacy of urban living. Street sleepers and beggars sprawl on the sidewalk, vendors sell homemade sweets and padlocks, and syringes, broken bottles, garter belts, fallen wigs, and dead birds become impromptu still lifes. It is the city expressively felt, rather than the city analyzed and categorized.

Rio Branco has already been justifiably heralded for his nuanced control of color, and the photographs included here use it both as a compositional device and a mood setter with equal mastery. Bold red is likely his most versatile hue, moving from wet bricks and slaughterhouse carcasses to knee socks and watermelon slices. Yellow runs the gamut from brash to warm, plastic crates and peeling paint giving way to candlelight and street vendor fire. Blue sets the stage for prostitutes and policemen alike, while green might be a sleek car hood or the soft glow of twilight. Rio Branco’s color is dirtier and more raw than Eggleston’s, aggressively straddling the line between beauty and ugliness.

As a document of forty years of work, Maldicidade is both exhilarating and harsh, simultaneously a celebration and an indictment of the forgotten and overlooked parts of our collective urban existence. But even in their darkest and dingiest corners, Rio Branco’s pictures thrum with a sensuous lyricism, their pictorial lushness distracting us from their grim realities.

Collector’s POV: Miguel Rio Branco is represented by Christopher Grimes Gallery in Santa Monica (here), Galería Oliva Arauna in Madrid (here), and Galeria Millan in São Paulo (here) among others. Rio Branco’s prints have only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, without enough outcomes to chart a consistent price history. As such, gallery retail is likely still the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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