As someone who was raised in the Caribbean, I seldom think about the beach. Perhaps because I’m surrounded by concrete at every corner of New York City, I’d rather take in what’s in front of me than daydream about my past. But if I daydream, I’m confronted by the gap between this image that reminds me of home and narrow outside perceptions of what that place is — my own life experiences are at odds with the idealized images propagated by the tourism industry. The perfectly retouched photos of shorelines I often recognize, which I encounter digitally, aren’t what I long for, what I recall in the splashes of my memory. I can’t feel the heat from these photographs.
When I recently came across Sandra Cattaneo Adorno’s photo book Águas de Ouro, I could hear the waves and boomboxes, and even taste the salt on my lips. I felt the peace that runs through my veins when I slide my hands under the sand, but also that intense longing, the pain of loving something that’s so far away. Growing up in Rio de Janeiro during the 1950s and ’60s, Cattaneo Adorno spent her childhood at Ipanema, just as bossa nova music captured the global imagination with its idyllic images of Brazilian life. Although her British mother didn’t allow her to go in the sun as a kid, she would gaze endlessly upon the beach, dazzled by the light and bodies dancing across the waves of the sea. She left Brazil in 1965, but the memories lingered long after the music faded away.
Cattaneo Adorno reconnected with Ipanema decades later, taking up photography in her 60s. She takes great delight in the graceful silhouettes of people moving slowly across the sand, gently swaying like a samba song. It’s as if she sees in the beachgoers those who shaped the background of her daydreams, as she spent hours under her mother’s umbrella many years ago. The photographs convey the essence of these individuals in relation to the ocean — shadows of her past, unglued from the sand’s surface. She captures the sun as it bounces off the wet, restless shore. Her masterful use of different shutter speeds expresses the various states of water as matter, creating abstractions in which humans dissolve within liquid masses, as well as catching droplets in midair, dancing among bodies. If the human body is 70 percent water, it is natural that we should resonate with the ocean’s vast expanse, and the peaceful yet incomprehensible silence it offers.
In the book’s preface, the artist offers a quote from author Clarice Lispector: “I do my best to write a report, dry as extra-dry champagne. But sometimes — forgive me — it gets wet. A dry thing is sterling silver. Whereas gold is wet.” Cattaneo Adorno’s images don’t portray Ipanema beach as a pristine gelatin silver print of the shore; rather, they encompass the sun-kissed, golden playbacks of our memories.
Águas de Ouro by Sandra Cattaneo Adorno is published by Radius Books and is available online and in bookstores.
A selection of the artist’s photographs is on view in her first solo exhibition at the 6th edition of Personal Structures (various venues, Venice, Italy), concurrent with the 59th Venice Biennale, through November 27.