Art

The Sisters Who Photographed the Stars of Buenos Aires Nightlife

From 1958 to 2009, Estudio Luisita produced iconic portraits that immortalized many musicians, models, comedians, sex workers, and actors.

Foto Estudio Luisita, “Adriana Parets” (1972) (all images © Foto Estudio Luisita, courtesy of Fotogalería del Teatro San Martín)

BUENOS AIRES — Momentarily still on a broad staircase, covered in pink, blue, and cream stripes, the sisters and showgirls — or vedettes — Gogó and Ethel Rojo gaze out toward an invisible audience. The ruffles of the stage’s curtains seem to sway delicately in the image, and the colossal, glittering showpieces, attached as if peacock fans to their backs, bristle in anticipation of their next movement. With so much pink, shimmer, and extravagance, the image, “Hermanas Rojo, Maipo superstar” (1973), should be too sweet to handle for more than the briefest glance. And yet the rows of wooden orchestra seats and the slight skewing of the frame seem to add gravity to the spectacle, drawing attention to the process of its production. This trace of artificiality makes the production feel all the more sensational and extravagant.

From 1958 to 2009, Estudio Luisita — the photographic studio run by sisters Graciela (“Chela”) and Luisa (“Luisita”) Escarria — produced iconic images of the stars of Buenos Aires show business, and the Maipo theater’s brand of teatro de revista, or revue. Curated by Lara Marmor, Bruno Dubner, and Ariel Authier, the exhibition Luz de noche — which translates to “Night light” in English — on view at Teatro San Martín’s Fotogalería, reveals two sides of Estudio Luisita’s photographs: the nightlife on Avenida Corrientes and the Escarria sisters’ home studio on the avenue, between the arresting illusion of the revista shows and Luisita and Chela’s self-effacing and meticulous work in achieving it. In contrast to the Maipo theater’s vast billboards, the photographs presented here allow the audience to see the artifice up close.

Foto Estudio Luisita, “El Maipo en luna nueva” (1969)

Born in Colombia, the Escarria sisters — Luisita, Chela, and Rosa — moved to Buenos Aires with their mother in the late 1950s, fleeing the brutal civil war known as La Violencia. Their mother had operated a successful photographic studio in Colombia; in Buenos Aires, Luisa took up the mantle, establishing Estudio Luisita by cordoning off part of their living room. Here, Luisa would take portraits of musicians, models, comedians, sex workers, and actors — anyone interested in commissioning a portrait — and Chela would creatively edit the images to align them with the prevailing ideals of beauty and the register of their intended publication. Their portrait work was a counterpart to their work at the theater, where Luisa would capture the shows on the Maipo theater’s stage, and Chela would remove the evidence of the production elements. Ultimately, Estudio Luisita would produce over 22,500 photographs for a varied range of people who wanted to be seen — and to look good — in public.

The teatro de revista has a decorated history in Argentina. From the last decades of the 19th century through the television age, it has held Buenos Aires’ theater district within its grasp. Mixing comedy and musicals with strong doses of eroticism and political satire, the genre leaned heavily on the virtuosity of the show girls, or vedettes, like Ethel and Gogó Rojo, who sold out shows with their ability to simultaneously sing, dance, act, and charm the audience. The Maipo theater, whose performances Estudio Luisita immortalized in celluloid and print, was an early and longstanding promoter of the revista. Even in its earliest days, the Maipo relied on photographs, especially of its vedettes, to fill the seats night after night. The Escarria sisters’ portraits were often promotional materials for the theaters and their stars, creating a reciprocal relationship with the performance photography on view in Luz de noche. That they produced these sensational and often provocative images largely in the quiet quarters of their living room demonstrates the sisters’ skill and dexterity with their sitters and the settings they created for them.

Teatro San Martín’s Fotogalería is a long, sunken space almost hidden at the back corner of the theater complex’s expansive lobby. To the left is a series of portraits interspersed with a few performance publicity images. Three images — a 1986 portrait of Luisa Albinoni, teatro de revista vedette and film actress; a 1973 portrait of stage and screen actor Jorge Barreiro (1973); and a fun and deftly composed still from 1973’s Maipo superstargrace an isolated wall nearby.

Foto Estudio Luisita, “Katia Iaros” (1972)

Of these three images, Luisa Albinoni’s portrait and accompanying inscription reflects the spirit of the show. She smiles, gazing out of the corner of her eyes, her profiled framed by her fluffy platinum curls and the blue background. The inscription reads, “Para Luisita con todo mi cariño, quién logró captar mi intención con su cámara — Gracias,” (To Luisa, who succeeded in capturing my intentions with her camera, with all my love — Thank you).

A 1976 series of portraits of Thelma Tixou achieves a similar effect. Nine full-length black-and-white shots of Tixou are placed in a row and numbered. Each shot shows her in a different pin-up pose. Fine, minute lines of white-out and pencilled-in shading along the curves of her body pull in her waist and narrow her thighs. These are at odds with the words “Muestra sin retoque” (Unretouched proof) stamped in large letters beside her legs. These portraits make Chela’s retouching work, and the absence of it in the other photographs, discernible.

The alcove space figuratively restages Maipo superstar (1973), filling out the wall facing the central gallery space with three images from the show, two of which focus on the performance of the Rojo sisters. On the facing walls — a stage left and stage right, if you will — a neat line of clowns shrugs in front of sparkling, topless women who step through the red, yellow, and blue multicolor in “Fantástica, Teatro El Nacional” (1972). In a photograph of an unnamed revue from 1972, actress Adriana Parets poses, her arms outstretched, a giant blue and silver-plumed crown poised on top of her head, her body decked out in a gaudy silver thong, open-cup bra and pasties, alongside five equally scantily clad men, their cheeks to the audience. The excess of color, sex, and glitz in these images dramatize the revista’s exhibitionism. The last photograph, perhaps the most enigmatic of the group, is undated album cover, “Boleros que matan.” It shows a couple tenderly embracing, their faces hidden from view. At the center of the image are the woman’s hands ripping the back of the man’s shirt and leaving lipstick-red scratch marks on his exposed skin. This image decisively turns sexual violence away from the female body and its hypervisibility.

Foto Estudio Luisita, “Nélida Lobato” (1971)

Luz de noche presents just a fraction of the Estudio Luisita archive, and marks another step in the institutional consecration of the studio and of a genre of photography intended for popular consumption. Sol Miraglia and Hugo Manso’s documentary Foto Estudio Luisita (2018) and continued archival work with Estudio Luisita was instrumental in garnering new attention to and swaying authoritative opinions on the value of the Escarria sisters’ work. The exhibition highlights Luisita and Chela’s efforts to create a perfect spectacle, locating this perfection not in the artifice but in its painstaking construction.

Luz de noche continues at Teatro San Martín (Avenida Corrientes 1530, Buenos Aires, Argentina) through June 2.

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