Que passa através do amor
E não se atrapalha
Que cruza o rio
E não se molha
(Ludo real. Vinicius Cantuária - Chico Buarque)
O rio da minha aldeia não faz pensar em nada
Quem está ao pé dele está só ao pé dele
(O guardador de rebanhos. Fernando Pessoa)
For a photographer, having a river as a subject is like having no subject at all. It is a place with no crossroads. It is pure time, which passes, and in passing leaves mirages of the past on its banks. It is the river that passes and we are what remain. On these banks of time the Guadalquivirs that were portrayed by the pioneering Charles Clifford (England, 1819 – Spain, 1863) and the Viscount of Vigier (Savigny-sur-Orge, 1821 – Paris, 1894) remain frozen in silver crystals. These are the first known photographs of this river. To these we must add, to supplement our memory, the colouristic decorations of a photographer of our time, Pepe Florido. It would seem, however, that he has forgotten to venerate traditionalism. He shows us the most common aspects of the river, those that are in no way different from any other part of the world: anodyne spaces, mists, deserted fields, lost canals, the crushing imprint left by the passing of industry long since gone… He shows us the river transformed into a back street and lined with white walls, he shows us a small boat which has turned to stone while drying in the sun; he shows and hides from us the new bridges, those that would date the river as well as update it, and which in his photographs are barely insinuated through the mist. He shows and hides from us an intimacy that lacks appearance: his relationship with a space that is only of significance for him. To everybody else, it is only a river. In line with many contemporary artists, Florido explores a territory in a manner that is methodical and faithful to his discoveries, as well as patient and programmed. The subsequent work, however, is independent of any descriptive function, subtly approaching the forms of poetry, with its simple diction, concentrated and ambiguous, beautiful and also surprising.
Upon seeing this project, a relationship is immediately established between the river, any river, and photography. There are rivers that are important. Long and fast-flowing rivers, the rivers of symphonies and of epics. The rivers of myths, with their incorruptible boatmen, and their tormented souls trying to pay their passage to another life. On the other hand, the river of photography is simply a humble watery horizon from the human perspective of someone waiting on the bank. Only angels, with a bird’s-eye view, could observe the extension and destination of rivers on their way to the far-off sea. The river as companion which allows itself to be photographed demands wakefulness and observation, a constant immobile presence. It invites us to watch it pass and forces us to be still in order to appreciate the slight nuances of the successive changes. The spectator, the attentive photographer, must not obstruct the flow, and has to learn to differentiate himself from what he cannot seize: life passing. In a way, for anyone who is alive, life is being still and watching a river go by.
The river inspires moments in whoever contemplates it. It is a series of pointillist lights. Around it, men and women are stone statues and their presence in little groups creates intense voids in conversation. Thoughts are suspended when facing the river, materialising, as in Seurat’s Grande Jatte, into blocks of light, like a frieze of silence scalloping the bank. The Sunday afternoon recorded by Pepe Florido on the banks of his own private Andalusian river is more commonplace than that nineteenth-century Seine, less transcendent, given that it is an instant and a photograph. And taking into account how little effort the photographer would have had to make when turning in order to avoid it we ask ourselves, why does the afternoon shy away behind a tree?
This set of photographs is extremely varied, but within it we can easily recognise a series of basic concepts that link them without making them alike.
The first thing that attracted my attention is the persistent horizon. Unlike the correct school-trained landscapists who apply the rule of thirds, Florido situates the horizon line in the centre, or almost in the centre, which is even more disturbing. In addition to this, the drawing-pen with which he underlines the horizon remains parallel to the margins, as if the world was being squared once again in the hands of its architect. It is the horizon of the first few days, when the mountains had not yet been created. We understand by this that the river does not have a building function, it does not make an effort, it is only a fresh traveller to the sea. It stops at its mouth since there is no rush to get anywhere. There is no inclination, all is equilibrium.
Situating the line right in the centre is the challenge of those who are not afraid to fall off the rope, either up or down, and tend to travel the whole duration of the wait without looking back. All in good time. Florido respects empty space and reserves it for the appearance of the open sky and the ever-reflecting water, just as the Dutch did in their 17th century paintings. It is more than just a way of seeing: it is a way of thinking. We know that perspective pushes the author into the space of the painting, as his height will determine the horizon and point of view. The world is divided into two hemispheres which Pepe Florido is determined to point out: the separation between land and sky. What I find striking in these views of the river is that almost-always cloudy sky, filtering the afternoon light… As if he were a Dutch landscapist, Florido leaves the air free and waits for the sky to be filled with traces of the setting sun, fixing the details to the land, inscribing them into it and renouncing the Baroque ascension. This exquisite and austere character, this perspectivist equilibrium, is surprising in an Andalusian artist who with the commonplaces of tradition should be addicted to the midday sun, to formal arabesques and oblique and recherché projection. Florido shuns the trees of Sevillano Baroque and insists on working with the sky as a pliable substance with its clouds, its mists and the changing filters of the sunset. Fleeing the heat of the south he once again captures the irritating precision and contrast of the frozen river of Hendrick Avercamp’s paintings, and in the straggly wisps that come to the surface in Florido’s river we once again see the Dutch painter’s mad skaters in immobile action.
Another major element, closely tied to space, horizon and vanishing point, is the fixing of a centre. The centre is the place where everything is precipitated, the projection of a void, perhaps a well to which water flows and then loses itself. The centre of these photographs is like the drain of the world which Florido has discovered by chance in the Guadalquivir valley. He always seeks carefully the centre of the image and delicately tautens the axes of equilibrium so that the photo will appear calm and harmonious.
And even so, these photographs have a tendency towards escapism, to fleeing forward. Points are set, tracing lines in the space, which then displace the reading of the senses to a more visual and less significant apprehension of spaces. Geometry is born from the broken earth in flight, from the ruts of trucks, from the route of the canal and from the houses at the very vanishing point of the horizon, as if in a well-measured and calculated picture. Florido forces us to sketch constellations by joining the inexact points thrown up by passing situations. Writing the unfathomable grammar of chance, goalposts turn into a letter, and starting the alphabet from the beginning in a methodical exercise, they are given the shape of an A and the landscape inverted, closing the boats in with a bow.
The traces of ploughing disappear into the north in the shape of a fan. Perpendicular to the river, these straight lines in the photograph create the profile of pyramids. The mud in the dry earth cracks into chaos. Where has the water gone in many of the photographs? What is being denounced? What is the photographer complaining about when he leaves the gardens to one side and goes into the desert seeking penitence for our eyes? There is a very powerful photograph that gives us a key sadness so that we can understand the end of the domain of the river among us, the exhaustion of its clear and generous water: Plastics abandoned from the cruel exploitation of the land for money sigh tensely. Even if they are not from greenhouses, I can see them and for anyone who understands it this way, what is happening is a tragedy.
Another distinguishing feature of this series is the distance perceived in the photographs. While some photographers, following Capa, tell us that if a photograph is not good it is because the photographer was not close enough to the subject, others nowadays, such as photo reporter David Burnett, tell us the opposite. If the photograph is not good enough it is because I have not managed to distance myself sufficiently. Florido also makes this assertion in his shots, without saying so in words. The great physical distance between the photographer-subject and the subject-matter provides the photograph with an objective character which reminds us of the images taken by early photographers with their large plate cameras. Even before the invention of photography, the position of the observer, both physically and mentally, was understood to be an important aspect to be taken into account when measuring the realism and truthfulness of the image. Thus, Panofsky reminds us of the perspectivist theories of Durer, a pure objectivist, who stated the three elements that deserved separate consideration in the representation of reality. The first is the eye of the beholder, what we now understand as the subject. The second is the object seen, the subject-matter. And the third is the distance between the two, which is always a conscious decision on the part of the subject. Florido seems to be stating in his photographs that a great distance is necessary for an in-depth knowledge of what is being seen. In his photographs, global vision, separation, distance force him to be objective, pure in his representation, without being tainted by subjectivism. The obsessive focus of the entire field makes us forget his single eye as attentive subject; it even makes us forget the vanishing point (projection of the one seeing eye) as the centre of attention and forces us to seek in constant motion the thousand other eyes that will look at the landscape afterwards, introducing new perspectives. This way of looking, this clean subjectivity, constitutes a characteristic of contemporary photography. This “modern” aroma, which can be observed in authors of the stature of the American Joel Sternfeld (New York, 1944) in whose work distance, as well as the position of the horizon, creates an unsettling alienation from the spaces he is photographing, which are yet recognisable, everyday spaces, and part of the usual anodyne surroundings of America’s poorer quarters. We also find this in the early work of Andreas Gursky (Leipzig, Germany, 1955), with his amazing capacity to capture the totality of a space, however large it may be. Or in the work of Stephen Shore (New York, 1947), which also introduces the raised viewpoint in order to reach further in the description of the visual field. Or John Davies (Sedgefield, England, 1949) who, with his black and white photography, is capable of transporting us from the open spaces of the post-industrial wasteland to an intimate territory of feeling. And also a Spanish artist who serves as a reference point, Jordi Bernadó (Lleida, 1963), whose distant gaze is ironic and critical. All these avoid a close-up of any object, any character, as a way of forgetting a domestic context which could be a reminder of a connection, a relationship, between the photographer and his subject-matter. On the contrary, things take place as if seen in the distance, without the photographer being able to intervene or vary their appearance. In fact, even the possibility of relief and overlapping disappears, flattening the image, like a drawing on a wall, like an image seen in the mirror.
I do not know if it is through lack of discipline or ignorance of that vow of distance I was referring to that Pepe Florido comes dangerously close to the objects in some of his photographs. We might consider this to be what differentiates him as a photographer of the South from those of the North. The effect of this rapprochement is quite the opposite of what was expected: instead of highlighting the volume and prominence of this nearby object, it magically fuses it with the faraway landscape, making it coincide chromatically as well as fusing its shapes with the vanishing point of its surroundings. In this way, it manages to camouflage the objects and the beings that appear by surprise after looking at the image for a while. In this attempt at mimesis, once again, it seems that he wants to save us from the passing of time in the photo, always hiding from us the moment when it was taken, so that only the space prevails, the space without intersection that is the river. Florido makes these banks look like the bodies that are resting. He makes the earth ridges resemble a horse’s mane, the river the street, the boat the church, the desert Eden. In some way, this quest for mimesis fabricates a mirage in the mind of the observer. The photograph loses realism because it bears a closer resemblance to dreams. This reality comes from afar and it is obligatory to observe it with our hands on our forehead to shield our eyes from the glare of the sun. Everything resembles something else; everything has its own reality on the other side of the mirror. Everything is a twin, everything exists in its dream double and everything is present at the same time. This descriptive effort remains in the Guadalquivir and reaches no other place. For anyone who doesn’t know it, it means nothing.
But how is it possible to trick the eye when one is so precise, so meticulous with focus, with perspective, with catching the colour? These photographs are an obsessive saturation of detail: we are able to count each and every one of the blades of grass, each step in the mud and all the splashes in the water. All miseries and all joys like treasures buried in the sand. The calm of the siesta, the madness in a jump, even the portrait of the anonymous being we are unable to see because he does not look at us when crossing our path.
The aroma of eternity is another perceptible sign in this collection of photographs and I do not know what to attribute it to. I do not know whether it is due to the character that photography technique confers on the representation of space and objects, when used with mastery. But even so I doubt whether in this case it is this generic cause or whether there is some intention on the part of Florido, something that has its origin in his caractère d’auteur, in his special way of shooting. After much pondering and observing and comparing, I have reached a conclusion. I do not believe that Florido practises a style with the camera, not consciously at least. As we said before, this great distance from the object erases the presence of the subject, the author of the photographs. The absence of character is the most common characteristic in all the photographic series of this new documentary trend mentioned above, which we could associate this particular work. As a sign of authorship and concept subject-matter, the photographers of this new documentary trend let reality work before their eyes, imitating the approach - somewhat indifferent to art - of the early photographers. To them, the recording of reality does not involve capturing the instant as if it were a hunting trophy. The present time is of no importance, not even are they themselves important as observers. The instant does not exist as unrepeatable, does not exist as decisive. Photographs become eternal, without character, they could be from today or from many years ago, of these or those individuals. We do not perceive them as images from a specific time that we are unable to date, but as characteristic of a time that does not pass, characteristic of eternity. Photography constantly updates another present before our eyes.
Pepe Florido chooses the river as a metaphor of eternity. And this is not an innocent choice, as this is how the ancient philosophers understood it. Eternity is the present which is never the same and which changes minute by minute unceasingly. No-one bathes in the same river twice. All is change, all is in flux. And as a metaphor for photography he chooses the same always now, the constant present reality to define himself. Ever changing, the river tells us today is not tomorrow. The photograph proves that it is always today, that the past is no longer. That eternity which transpires masterfully from Meyerowitz’s landscapes, from the everyday scenes of Robert Frank, without trace of the instant. Florido’s photos also speak, in a humble manner, of eternity, because they are photographs, I imagine, not because they are something special. It is eternity within destiny, the ever-present reality, the forever here and now of the photograph.
And, of course, colour. With the radiation of colour, the present comes in through the eyes. Colour is the first motive that draws attention to these images, it is the trumpet announcing the coming of change, the subtle presence of the seasons and of the different hours of the day. A today of light attached to things, the faltering touch of a blind person. The first hesitant attempts at seeing green, seeing white, seeing beyond another white that is not the same, recovering the nuance of flat layers of paint, of sprouts of vegetation, seeing the colour crimson splashing against the grey of the mud, the twinkling filigree of lights, the afternoon cut-outs in the sharp beaks of birds fleeing from the flinging of stones. The colour of these photographs is the colour of the river, which plays and contaminates us …
I have left colour to the end because it is the first thing we see and is presumably so obvious! And also, as if contradicting all the previously mentioned concepts, colour introduces us into a mutable and subjective sphere. The exact opposite of perspective, distance, time… Nobody sees colour in exactly the same way. Florido has understood this mutability of colour and in order to fight against it he has fixed it consciously to the firm bed of objects and landscapes. Colour is present because it is the life of things, not because a decorator God has coloured them in with light. Colour gives meaning, not beauty. Even against the latest trends, the authors of which correct their photographs to give them the air of the faded inks of the Kodachrome of the 30s and 40s, Florido exploits to the utmost the colourist force of digital printing technique so that his photographs can shine with colours just the way they were, or perhaps just as he had seen them. Photographers who understand colour in this way are quick to banish black and white, as colour becomes necessary to express the world. In a way it is the legacy of compatriots of his, such as Carlos Pérez Siquier (Almería, 1930) who began by experimenting with this technique in the 60s and whose work has concept connection and - proving that his was serious and genuine research - a “visual similarity” with the work of another pioneer in the recovery of colour for photography: William Eggleston (Memphis, Tennessee, USA, 1939).
If we began this account contemplating the river as Pessoa suggests, without thinking about anything, we now end up with the impression of having crossed the river in the sense Vinicius Cantuária points to in his Ludo Real, having travelled and with our eyes full of experience. We have travelled through reality without damaging it. We have distanced ourselves sufficiently far from things to be able to talk about them. We have calculated the exact distance from which we can simply be witnesses. We have left the podium to set foot in the trembling liquid. We have painted a path on the waters. All to avoid end up saying nothing, meaning nothing. And again to enter into the mystery and be overawed, like those speechless fishermen imagining the riverbed where the trout overcome the current. Under the impression of having crossed the river, we have remained still, observing. But it has all been so real that, if we look in our shoes, we will find sand, grains of an eternal today.
LAURA TERRÉ ALONSO
Vilanova i la Geltrú, noviembre de 2005