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When the photographer Sandra Cattaneo Adorno was growing up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s and ’60s, she spent her days gazing at the city’s most famous beach from her window. Her British mother was fearful of Brazil’s unfamiliar climate and bright sun, and had prohibited her daughter from playing on Ipanema’s scenic shores. Cattaneo Adorno left the country in 1965, at the age of 11, but returned to Rio as an adult in 2016. She spent the next three years photographing the previously forbidden beach, focusing her lens on its radiant visitors as they splashed, swam, and played. Captured in rich black and golden hues, Águas de Ouro (Radius Books), or “Waters of Gold” in Portuguese, is Cattaneo Adorno’s effervescent tribute to the iconic Ipanema beach and the joy that it inspires.

From Sandra Cattaneo Adorno: Aguás de Ouro

The book’s cinematic shots are a sensual feast of glistening light and dreamy atmosphere. Some pictures are taken from above and away from the beach — perhaps alluding to the view Cattaneo Adorno was limited to as a child — but most are shot up close, with the photographer herself in the water, catching the sand and spray. Photographed against a permeating, vivid light, Cattaneo Adorno’s animated subjects are silhouetted, their features obscured by shadow. Without their distinguishing details, the beachgoers blend more fully with the landscape, and their moving bodies lend a visual rhythm to these gracefully composed photos. 

However, the identity of these figures matters deeply to Cattaneo Adorno. “Ipanema is very different now from when I was a child,” she said in a recent email to Hyperallergic. Although the beach used to be the exclusive playground of the rich, city-wide public transportation has made it accessible to people from all walks of life. “Many of the people I have photographed are from underprivileged areas in the city and going to Ipanema represents for them the realization of a dream,” the photographer wrote by email. “I believe that these moments of joy and beauty that the people of Rio experience on the beach are particularly precious in a city where life can be really difficult.” Cattaneo Adorno’s latest book offers us a glimpse of those moments of joy.

From Sandra Cattaneo Adorno: Aguás de Ouro
From Sandra Cattaneo Adorno: Aguás de Ouro
From Sandra Cattaneo Adorno: Aguás de Ouro
From Sandra Cattaneo Adorno: Aguás de Ouro
From Sandra Cattaneo Adorno: Aguás de Ouro

Águas de Ouro by Sandra Cattaneo Adorno is published by Radius Books and is available on Bookshop.

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Lauren Moya Ford

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.

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