This summer the International Center of Photography is offering its public two shows of Latin American photography. On the first floor of the museum, curator Christopher Phillips presents the first major solo show of Brazilian photographer Caio Reisewitz in the US; the exhibition stands on its own, but it also complements Urbes Mutantes, a thorough survey of the last 70 years of street photography in various Latin American cities. A key theme of Urbes Mutantes is the dynamic and informal way in which many of these urban centers have evolved, and in this sense, Reisewitz’s exhibition enriches the narrative by calling our attention to the relationship between nature and urban development — an idea that, although implicit, is not the focus of Urbes Mutantes. Reisewitz has perfected the art of large-format photographs of exquisite natural landscapes and sui generis architecture, but the exhibition reveals him to be aiming at something still more ambitious.
Born in 1967 in São Paulo, Reisewitz studied and lived in Germany for more than a decade before returning in 1997 to his home city, where he lives today. The Brazilian press has sometimes labeled him as a photographer chiefly concerned with environmental questions — an advocate of nature who captures its splendor and endangerments in painterly photographs. This may be true, but in interviews Reisewitz has also acknowledged the influence of German photographers such as Andreas Gursky. In his work, Gursky often manipulates images of public or private spaces to challenge their credibility as real locations; Reisewitz uses a similar strategy, but to portray an intermittent discourse, and sometimes a struggle, between nature and our idea of it.
The exhibition is divided in two parts: works from the early 2000s showing buildings and landscapes captured with perfectionism and aesthetic magnetism, and in the last rooms, more recent photocollages. The visitor is welcomed into the show by three large photographs of interiors, which are part of a series named Places of Power. Although they depict different styles of architecture from different places and periods, all three represent places of power, as well as another veiled (but related) similarity: spaces of veneration.
In “Ministry of External Relations (Itamaraty Palace)” (2005), politics and Minimalism are bound together in a placid empty lounge enhanced by a spiral staircase and a mezzanine, their sinuous forms a trademark of their author, Brazilian Modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. The clash of this image with one of its neighbors — “Ataíde” (2008), a photograph of an 18th-century Baroque ceiling painting in the nave of a church in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil — reminded me that, not so differently from religious temples, Modernist sites have often elicited artistic awe and veneration. Moreover, the dark, opulent furniture and ornaments of “Royal Portuguese Reading Room” (2004), which was built in Rio de Janeiro during the 1880s, represent another kind of worship, that of knowledge.
The juxtapositions become stronger when nature enters the stage in the next rooms. “Butantã” (2003) is a more than 9-foot-long photograph in which an apparently dense forest surrounds a mass of buildings that looks as if it’s been squeezed into the center of the image. The next works invite you to follow what seems like an expedition into the wild rainforest, with large-format photographs such as “Maranguara” (2011), featuring shadowy tree roots and tropical foliage falling before your eyes. But a suspicion may awaken in you: are these really untamed places?
Looking closely at the images, you find something to confirm your doubts: tiny parts of Brazilian favelas, little human figures, or even pieces of altered vegetation, with subtle differences in tone or shape, have all been inserted into the larger original photographs. Sometimes Reisewitz does this manually, other times digitally; either way, his manipulations and sleights of hand are at first so imperceptible, you may find yourself returning to his early, unaltered works, just to double check if you missed any. It turns out, too, that Butantã is actually a district in São Paulo, and that many of Reisewitz’s pictures were not taken in the Amazon rainforest (as you perhaps had guessed) but in the Mata Atlântica — or what is left of it — not far away from the heart of São Paulo.
Reisewitz’s photographic interferences in what otherwise seem to be untouched scenes of nature point to the reality in Brazil. There, the battle between urban sprawl and the natural environment has often favored development’s side, whether because of Modernism and the “progress” of the past, whether through the influence of the real estate market, or whether informally in the building of favelas. But Reisewitz deliberately suspends this truth: instead of only documenting the clash, he transfers a certain responsibility to his viewers by offering something beyond bare facts. Beauty and documentation are part of his work, but he also offers us imagination. His photographs are nearly truths, not entirely lies — reality and artificiality mingle freely within them.
These hide-and-seek games are playful, but they’re also a form of advocacy, both aesthetical and conceptual. While Reisewitz’s gaze is sometimes paralyzed — as in the aftermath of a land-clearing operation, a forest burning in the stunning but desolated “Paraiba I” and “Paraiba II” (2014), two apparently unaltered large formats — in his photocollages he actively revisits his own pictures, imagining new narratives. Through his manipulations, Reisewitz becomes a kind of prophetic urban planner, foreseeing the future of forests and cities while also reminding us of their present — and past — paradoxical relationships. In a world with more images than ever before, Reisewitz’s collages keep us shifting between belief and doubt, urban growth and desolation, nature’s preservation and its tangible destruction.
Caio Reisewitz continues at the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 7.