Diario Página 12
I'll find some place
Obsessed for years with the painted photographs hanging on the living rooms walls of family homes in the province of Salta, Florencia Blanco took photos of them, bought and collected them, and ended up living with these pictures for a long time without really knowing what to do about them. Finally, these representations of those long-dead, some of whom never even lived in Argentina, coalesced into an exhibition, newly portrayed, appearing in places which are every bit as unexpected as the memory lanes they still haunt.
By Mercedes Halfon
Florencia Blanco was born in France and brought up in Salta; perhaps this is why her work so clearly springs from the crossroads between a dimension of reflections on photography and its origins, and the warmer airs of colors, customs and interiors, which embrace far more than theory. This last features prominently in her work Salteños where the scenes of life indoors and outdoors in this city of the North West follow each other in bursts of popular vitality, people at play or involved in the intimacies of family life. It was while she was working on this project that she stumbled across the roots of what was to grow into Fotos al óleo, Oil Photographs: In some of the houses she visited on her photographic odyssey, she saw these impressive antique photographs hanging on the walls, ethereally-tinted portraits floating on hazily blurred backgrounds, in ornate gilded frames behind delicate bombe glass.
Oil photographs had their moment of glory in Argentina, and indeed across South America, in the 1950s. In Argentina, studios were opened in cities such as Buenos Aires or Córdoba, from which travelling salesmen would set forth on their trips round small country villages, offering this unusual portrait form from door to door.
Blanco found herself with oil photographs of Danish grandparents who had never set foot in Argentina, or Basque great-grandparents whom none of the current inhabitants of the home had ever known. Often, the pictures were of dead parents or children, or of relatives who had remained on the other side of the ocean. The portrait was thus a way of keeping them present, albeit in photographic form, and which achieved a fine glaze of immortality in the delicate application of pictorial patina, as if that little luxury of a layer of oil paint brought them closer to the uniqueness of picture-dom. In the oil photographs, the symbolic dimension of the photograph, the invention which bridges the gap to ward off death by representing it in each image, seems to be further strengthened.
After completing her project Salteños, Florencia Blanco came across these photographs once again, this time bereft of their context, in the flea market in Dorrego. She found herself inescapably drawn to them: “I said to myself, what am I going to do with these images that I find so intriguing? As the pictures I took in the houses didn’t work, I thought, well, at least I can collect them. I found a man who looked them out for me, selling me five or six at a go for one peso, as he wanted to use the frames. I continued to collect them and when I had about seventy, I decided to go back to the houses where they used to hang.” Working with Patricia Viaña in production, Blanco visited these houses in Salta, and later Córdoba and Buenos Aires, seeking out the stories behind the faces and delving into the memories of their descendants. One day, after taking some pictures, as she left the house she looked at the garden and felt the urge to take some more pictures right there. Right away, she set up her camera, clicked away and, there, right in front of her eyes, was exactly what she had been looking for. This was the narrative line created for one of the Fotos al óleo series; the portrait of the original picture in an unexpected location, one far removed from the original context. It was as if by removing the work from behind decades of dust, consigned to oblivion by both the inhabitants of the house and their visitors, it had rediscovered meaning and content.
Thus, these portraits appear propped up next to a squash plant or on the pristine covers of an immaculately-made bed with a small religious image lying alongside, or stuck in front of a soybean field. The photos are certainly “within the family space” but in a different place. Blanco explains that “This work is mainly about memory. And if I were to ask you where memory is, you wouldn’t know what to say, which is why for me it’s more logical for the photo to be leaning against a squash plant than in a living room, which would be a very literal and realistic sort of place. We need to move into another plane, because this is where our remembrances lie. Memory is a mysterious space, so in fact, this question has more to do with a slightly surreal photograph.”
“Photographs have been used to capture loved ones from the very start,” concludes Florencia Blanco. “This is why this project is really about what a photograph is, which is to say, an image. And why portraits are so important to us.”
The oil photographs portrayed by Blanco end their journey in the Chacarita cemetery, peeking out from between the red blooms of a well-tended tree, or on the ground itself, jumbled up with other things like dead leaves, ashes, and among all these things, we find ourselves asking the same questions all over again.