Modernist Photography, Data Science, and Global Photo Club Culture

“Modernist Photography, Data Science, and Global Photo Club Culture: An Introduction to José Oiticica Filho’s “Setting the Record Straighter”” (provisional title) is an introduction to accompany a reprint of Oiticica Filho’s 1951 article whose first translation from Portuguese (by Luisa Valle) I commissioned for a special edition of journal ARTMargins vol. 8, no. 2 (2019), edited by Chelsea Haines and Gemma Sharpe.

Download and read author’s pre-press version of my introduction. Or take a look at two brief excerpts below.

Check back for updates, and look for the final version of the introduction, alongside with José Oiticica Filho’s 1951 article, on ARTMargins website.

Excerpt #1:

A key figure in Brazilian postwar photography, José Oiticica Filho (1906–1964) established a link between Brazilian modernist photography and the international photo-club culture of the 1950s. Although his legacy today remains overshadowed by that of his son, artist Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980), scholarship in Brazil acknowledges him as an important experimental photographer.[1] Little, however, is known about his work as a statistician. During the 1950s, he compiled extensive data tables pertaining to the activities of hundreds of photographers throughout the world. Oiticica Filho laid the foundation for his innovative statistical work in an article he wrote, titled “Setting the Record Straighter,” part of which is reprinted here. The original article was published in three consecutive issues of the magazine Boletim Foto Cine in 1951, a publication of the São Paulo photo club Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB).[2]

[1] Recent publications include: Andreas Valentin, “Light and Form: Brazilian and German Photography in the 1950s,” Konsthistorisk Tidskrift/Journal of Art History 85, no. 2 (2016): 159–180; Andreas Valentin, “Nas asas da mariposa: a ciência e a fotografia de José Oiticica Filho,” ARS 13, no. 25 (2015): 31–49; Carolina Etcheverry, “Geraldo De Barros e José Oiticica Filho: Experimentação em Fotografia (1950–1964),” Anais Do Museu Paulista 18, no. 1 (2010): 207–228; Beatriz Scigliano Carneiro, “Uma inconsutil invenção: a arteciência em José Oiticica Filho,” ponto-e-vírgula 6 (2009): 107–146. The unavailability of source materials complicates further research, as many Oiticica Filho’s prints and negatives are believed to have perished in fire at his brother César Oiticica’s house in Rio de Janeiro in 2009. See Francisco Alambert, “The Oiticica Fire,” Art Journal 68, no. 4 (2009): 113–114.

[2] José Oiticica Filho, “Reforçando os pontos dos ii,” Boletim Foto Cine 5, no. 58 (February 1951): 21–25; no. 59 (March 1951): 28–30, and no. 60 (April 1951): 26–28. Scans of Boletim Foto Cine issues are available online at the FCCB website: http://www.fotoclub.art.br/acervo/

Excerpt #2:

In the article partially translated here for the first time, Oiticica Filho illuminates the inner workings of photo-club culture, the motivation for photographers to participate, and their major concerns about the salon system. At the core of Oiticica Filho’s “Setting the Record Straighter” is a debate on the participation in salon exhibitions informed by the ongoing rivalry between São Paulo-based “Paulista” photographers and Rio de Janeiro-based “Fluminense” photographers, and especially between members of the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB)—of which Oiticica Filho was a part—and the Sociedade Fluminense de Fotografia (SFF) based in the municipality of Niterói in the state of Rio de Janeiro.[1] Since the salons in which these groups participated depended on a jury selection that was highly subjective and often obscure, Oiticica Filho meticulously accumulated available data to lend a certain clarity, and even scientific logic, to a field where participation, and even the number of prints accepted at different salons, had become crucial indicators of success. A member of FCCB but also a resident of Rio, Oiticica Filho emerged as a mediator between the two groups—an impartial scientist who sought a solution in data, not in clashes between egos.

Oiticica Filho’s theoretical work is based on statistical data collection and analysis—scientific methods that are closer to sociology than art criticism or any other branch of the humanities. His research anticipates the sociology of art, a field that was to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s with a focus on “the structure in which art is discovered, discussed, defined, purchased and displayed.”[2] Central to the sociology of art is the influential research of French cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu during the 1960s. Like Oiticica Filho, Bourdieu had once been an active photographer: between 1957 and 1960, Bourdieu produced numerous photographs in Algeria, where he worked as a lecturer at the University of Algiers.[3] As was the case with Oiticica Filho, statistics was among the main sources of Bourdieu’s sociological study of contemporary photographic practices in France that he conducted between 1961 and 1964 together with colleagues Luc Boltanski, Robert Castel, Jean-Claude Chamboredon, and Dominique Schnapper, and discussed in the book Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (Un art moyen; essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie).[4] The authors of Photography: A Middle-Brow Art identify four major social functions of photography and, correspondingly, four types of photographers: occasional family photographers; amateurs; professionals; and photographic artists. Thanks to his choice to study photography rather than more prestigious forms of art, sociologists today recognize Bourdieu’s project as a groundbreaking “cultural attack.” Its revolutionary nature comes to light only when we realize, as sociologist of art Nathalie Heinich writes, “just how low photography was at this time in the artistic hierarchy.”[5]

[1] The rivalry to which photographers attached such significance illustrates the competitive spirit that thrived among them. The principles of competitive photography in the photo-club culture of the 1950s are outlined in: Alise Tifentale, “Rules of the Photographers’ Universe,” Photoresearcher, no. 27 (2017): 68–77.

[2] Richard W. Christopherson, “Making Art with Machines: Photography’s Institutional Inadequacies.” Urban Life and Culture 3, no. 1 (1974: 3–34), 13.

[3] See Pierre Bourdieu, Picturing Algeria (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012). The first edition was Images d’Algérie (Arles: Actes Sud Littérature with Camera Austria, 2003).

[4] Pierre Bourdieu with Luc Boltanski, Robert Castel, Jean-Claude Chamboredon, and Dominique Schnapper, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Trans. by Shaun Whiteside (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990). First published in French as Un art moyen; essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1965).

[5] Nathalie Heinich, “Bourdieu’s Culture,” in Bourdieu in Question: New Directions in French Sociology of Art, ed. Jeffrey A. Halley and Daglind E. Sonolet (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2018: 181–91), 188.