Shadows & Light

Christian Cravo - Bordering on the real

Ligia Canongia

Christian Cravo's work established itself in the Brazilian art scene in the 1990s, when it gained significant visibility and definitively entered the professional realm. Coincidentally, that was the time when photography abandoned the use of simulacra and the spectacular character that marked the previous decade, and restored the return to the real. Everyday images and interest in objects and scenes of everyday life began to emphasize what is called the "movement for the desublimation of art,"leading artists-photographers to focus on the city, the landscape, and man's relationship with his environment, as well as addressing social, political and ethnographic issues.

The ideological aspect, which then came into the foreground, is evident in the observation of urban life, the enunciation of problems of territoriality and criticism of social systems, although this engagement does not necessarily involve a neutral and detached view of reality. Humanistic values ??and subjective interventions infiltrate the supposedly inherent objectivity of documentary photography, making its impartial character slip into emotion-filled territories. And it is here that the iconography of Christian Cravo goes into overdrive.

In the photographs of the Brazilian backlands, which spread out in the series entitled Irredentos (Unredeemed) and Nos jardins do Éden (In the gardens of Eden); in pictures of the people of Haiti, which unfold in the set of photos titled Testemunhos do silêncio (Testimonies of silence), and the images of religious ecstasy in the city of Salvador da Bahia, Christian Cravo interposes the uniqueness of his gaze in the making of images, obliging the historical or sociological status of the document to give way to the symbolic.

Therefore, in contrast to the neutrality of the document, the impartial record that distances itself from the photographed subject, Christian Cravo's images in these series are passionate, dramatic and moving, paradoxically without losing the documentary content that has always accompanied them. His photographs lie on that razor edge, the ambivalence between objectivity and expression; between formal rigor and lyrical exaltation. Thus, there may be a fundamental ambiguity in the restoration of photography: going back to being a reference without suppressing the personal impression of the subject. Beneath the apparent surface of the actual material, which, in principle, went against any kind of idealism, there would always be an underground connection with the subjective and poetic codes. After all, recalling Walter Benjamin, the camera continues to speak directly to the human eye, for, "It is only through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis."

In Christian Cravo, the document is never a purely formal device, but rather a means of investigating the conditions for the representation of the real, establishing itself as an experience of space and time, and a way to register the animistic vitality of the referent. The focus, which often centered on the spirituality and faith of Brazilian and Haitian society, confirms its desire to transcend the objectivity of the photographic document, emerging as a response to the loneliness and disenchantment of the world. The fact that he left the Brazilian Northeast for Haiti reflects his interest in portraying people who share the same social traumas and similar religious views, in scenes and human types revealing the same emotion. As Caetano Veloso's lyrics for Gilberto Gil's song observe, "Haiti is Here."

The retrieval of everyday activities, the urban life and culture of the communities, has been remarkable in contemporary photography, demarcating the desire to situate bodies and objects as ideological inscriptions, but a desire not necessarily engaged with codes of accusation, political ideals or commitments to realism. On the contrary, the return and renewal of the documentary genre emerged in the 1990s as a strategy to requalify the real in the photographic context, to spell out the issues of modern societies and combat simulations and illusionism.

We cannot absolutely say that Christian Cravo's work is linked to a political iconography, although it focuses on certain social minorities. As the artist himself has said, his attention was focused primarily on the representation of transcendence and spirituality, diffuse and diaphanous aspects that collide with the pragmatism of purely documentary studies. It is also true that his photos are configured as aesthetic formulations, interested in transcending the mundane and mercantile character that photography has taken on in today's world, becoming a recurrent and comprehensive presence in the mass media channels, in the daily lives of cities, in commerce and all aspects of modern life. Recent theorists even tend to consider today's media culture, in which photography plays a key role, as a power comparable to a new absolutism, to which the public sphere is said to be entirely submissive.

For example, Paul Virilio states that the contemporary subject, given the general torpor caused by the mass media, has become part of a "vast conspiracy of silence,"4 losing his critical faculties and capacity for reflection, no longer allowing himself to be "touched" by things. According to that author, this loss of empathy with the real world and its phenomena have produced "the disaster of representations."

On the other hand, going back to Barthes' concept of the punctum could be the reverse side of that way of thinking, proposing the retrieval of that lost empathy through the language of photography. Roland Barthes suggests that we once again allow ourselves to be "touched" by images, by that which moves us, to which Cravo responds affirmatively and promptly with his wonderful points of view.

Therefore, the artist's role when working with photographic support is not simply to venture into an experimental and historically new medium but to form a language that can compete with that promotional, commercial and descriptive side, in short, to recover the poetic potential in photography. Consequently, the work of the artist-photographer is, in principle, an activity that goes against the instrumental regimes of the image, either as pure information or as a commodity.

However, this task is made especially difficult by the reproducible nature of the technique and its direct correlation to the real, which, since its inception, interweaves photography with the codes of mimesis, challenging the creation of purely symbolic fields. The debate over whether the artistic content of photography exists or not has become almost obsolete in postmodernity, as it is no longer regarded as a mere representation of the world. However, this debate remains alive and recurrent, and has ended up establishing itself as part of its own discourse and history. Therefore, every artist-photographer bears the brunt of this ambiguity, whether or not the photograph is a prisoner of the real; of being or not being open to the unknown, of meanings that go beyond what its surface exposes to the visible.

Confronting the poesy in photography, especially when it goes back to the documentary bent of its roots, is a major issue in Christian Cravo's most recent series, created in Africa: Luz e Sombra (Light and Shadow). In this new set of photographs, produced in 2015, the human figure is absent and, therefore, the ethnographic, dramatic and performative aspects of previous scenes are replaced by a drier and more sparing morphology that dispenses with humanistic postulates and focuses emphatically on the question of the construction of the image, with its intrinsic problems of light, time and space.

The question of spatiality in the work of Christian Cravo, especially in the African photographs, underscores and exalts a specific code of photography that is the gesture of the cut that subtracts a real slice from spatial continuity, a fragment of a whole that is only imagined. Unlike painting, which slowly composes the pictorial space, which adds material to the surface, the issue of photographic space is not putting in, but, instead, pulling out a portion of the world all at once. And Christian Cravo gives strong emphasis to the cut in this series, to taking shots of very restricted visual fields that often slice up only part of the bodies of animals or landscapes, framing that part as the entire image. In the action of cutting, always establishing a space that is necessarily partial, it remains for the viewers to seek the complementarities, continuity, completeness of that space in their own minds. Space that is out of bounds, also known as "off"; that excluded slice of the visible is essential to experiencing the field retained in the photograph itself. According to Philippe Dubois, "what the photograph shows is not as important as what it reveals," because there is an inevitable relationship between the external and internal, a constant relationship between the virtual presence of what is not there with what is in fact inscribed in the photographic frame. And Dubois adds:

"We know that this absence is present, but out-of-field; we know that it was there when the shot was taken, but off to one side. Thus, the logic of the indicator also works in regard to the field that is out-of-field. It is that which gives us that feeling of something beyond a perfectly existential image when viewing any photograph."

Christian Cravo's cuts in the African series are extreme. He was certainly interested in reducing visual scenes to sections of the referent that are so fragmentary that our vision sometimes fails to recognize that referent. Some of the landscapes photographed, for example, are flat areas in black-and-white, as if they were unformed planes that aspire to absolute abstraction. The cut is so incisive and reductive that we do not identify the content of the image as a landscape, so imagining the out-of-field space becomes hazy and difficult for the viewer. Basically, through the construction of this complex photographic spatiality that generates ambiguous relations between the field and out-of-field and avoiding any narrative, Christian Cravo seeks to challenge the limits of the documentary reality of photography so that technique can give way to the symbolic and fictional.

It is important to touch on the question of narrative in Cravo's work, because in this series especially, and unlike others, such as Haiti and the Brazilian backlands, he operates with a lean and sparing figural order, suppresses the scenic and narrative atmosphere of the previous characters, and takes on fields of almost minimalist reduction, unusual in his career. The absence of the human figure in these photographs and, consequently, the withdrawal of a certain theatrical iconography that surrounded them, accounts for the pursuit of another "truth" of the images that is no longer confused with the issue of content and meaning; that no longer supports the recognition of figural identity, sufficing as forms. Thus, the artist shifts the viewer's attention to the very constitution of the image, understood as purely aesthetic fact.

Personal issues led the artist to suppress the human figuration of recent photos: his father's passing and the countless deaths from an earthquake in Haiti, which also produced a photographic sequence in that country. Called Testemunhos do silêncio (Testimonies of Silence), this series reveals the devastation, the ruin and detritus of a destroyed society in which man is seen only from behind or in the background. Therefore, the photographs of the earthquake already announced the strategy of emotional downsizing in the African images, even when portraying a catastrophe. What we see in them are objects, rubble, the remains of things that are raised to the level of protagonist of the photo, and which are solely indications of the feeling of loss and disaster. The African photos also work exceptionally well as indications, as traces of bodies and landscapes that do not fully enunciate themselves, but despite his visible bias, they are presented to our eyes with the grandeur of monuments.

Now, the freezing of snapshots, which removes duration from the temporal order of nature, seems to silence any narrative possibility, any enunciation of syntax in time, while paradoxically increasing its spectral content. The rhetorical dryness of the African photographs, their artificiality and isolation in space-time, do nothing, in fact, if not set the identity of the referent adrift, unfinished and surrounded by strangeness.

Conceived as pure forms of "light and shade," the photos of Africa emerge as luminescent fantasies that seem to dematerialize nature, destabilize perception and captivate our imagination for a world that borders on the real. The use of black-and-white, as in most of the Christian Cravo's work, corroborates the disembodied status of the photograph, which is no more than a trace of its subject or reference object; it signals the "unreality" of the image, in contradiction to empirical chromaticism, thus disturbing the pragmatic order of things in the world.

Landscapes and bodies caught in unmeasured fiction, virtual survivors of an inaccessible real, Christian Cravo's photographs in the African series are indistinct pieces of a disfigured and absurd universe that are not recognizable in the objectivity of common sense, inhabiting spaces and times that only exist at the level of language and the eccentricity of the photographer’s eye.

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