When I made my first trip to Brazil in 1992 I arrived in Belo Horizonte, a city as big as Berlin that most people have never heard of outside Brazil. In a public square in the center of this city I found a series of black-and-white portrait negatives. The photographers who made these portraits worked in the square using extremely simple equipment: a wooden box that served both as a camera and a darkroom. In front of a simple backdrop, photographs were taken with that box and developed inside it. The clients got their portraits after few minutes. The negatives were discarded. I collected these negatives and printed them. The title of that series is Belo Horizonte, Praça Rio Branco. On the occasion of my second trip to Brazil in 1993 I made a similar work based on discarded negatives of photographers working in the city’s park, Belo Horizonte, Parque Municipal.
Originally these portraits were taken for various administrative purposes, identity cards, driving licenses, and so on. They were affordable for everybody. People who were well off would get their portraits taken in studios, and people who could not afford studio portraits went to the square. The photographers did not give directions to the people depicted. They took plain, frontal, straightforward portraits. They were called “lambe-lambe” photographers, presumably because of their habit of licking the negatives before making contact prints.
When I returned to Belo Horizonte in 2002 the photographers had moved to another square. And they had abandoned their primitive technique. They worked in colour now using 35 mm cameras. After the photographs were taken they ran to the nearest lab to get the short strip of film developed and printed. The clients picked up their portraits about half an hour after they were taken. Negatives were still discarded. During my stay in the city I got up very early every morning before the street cleaners started to work, walked to the square and collected all the negatives I found. The result is Belo Horizonte, Praça Rui Barbosa.
Eight years later I revisit Belo Horizonte again. The photographers are still there. The same wooden boxes are there, but they are not used as cameras any longer and there’s no darkroom inside. The boxes that look like cameras now host battery-operated inkjet printers that turn digital files into photographs. It’s a fast and clean process, and there are no more discarded negatives.
My new book Lambe Lambe including all three portrait projects realized in Belo Horizonte was published by Editorial RM in October 2014. The book is available in my shop.