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Time Out São Paulo, 12.2010
"Visions of Toytown" by Kate Stanworth
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Claudio Edinger is one of São Paulo's most celebrated art photographers, with works included in most of the city's major permanent collections. He talks to Kate Stanworth about past, present and future.
Ranking among Brazil's greatest photographers, Claudio Edinger's momentous career – which has seen him photographing the sweeping avenues, iconic architecture and diverse inhabitants of many of the world's grand metropolises - has been driven by a quest for belonging.
'I have always felt like an outsider,' he says. 'I was born in Rio and raised in São Paulo. My father is German, my mother Latvian. I am a Jew who practices yoga and meditation. I look for projects that help me understand myself better.'
Judging by the number of São Paulo museums and galleries that now hold his works in their permanent collections – they read like a checklist of the city's finest institutions, including the MAM, Itau Cultural and the MASP, the latter of which owns images from his powerful study of psychiatric patients – there is little confusion about his identity in the city he calls home. Edinger burst onto the scene here in 1975 with one of his very first projects, a photo-essay on the Martinelli building, once the tallest tower block in Latin America, which had since become a vertical slum. Edinger's poignant photos of the poverty-stricken residents and their rooms won him a spot at the MASP.
The year after the exhibition, he moved to New York, which became his base for 20 years, and the place where he 'matured'. He produced insightful, award winning photo essays documenting communities such as the occupants of Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel and the Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn. 'From the beginning, these were communities that had a lot to do with me, as a Jew, an artist or as an outsider,' he says. He also became known for his stunning cityscapes, in which anonymous figures wander in the grip of the urban centres of New York and Paris. But the country of his birth was never far from his concerns.
He returned to Brazil regularly on his photography projects, and it was in Rio, looking for images from his memory, where he began to use a new selective focus technique on his 4x5 large-format camera, which would become a key element in his work. Distorting scale and distance, it produced a dreamlike quality in which buildings appear like small scale models and figures become strangely fused into the texture of the city. For Edinger, this worked on many different levels. 'Focus ties our view and out-of-focus liberates our imagination. It emphasises the duality, the ambiguity of life – we both love and hate the big city.'
In recent years, he has been inspired to turn his selective focus back on São Paulo, and the mesmerising results will be displayed in a show at New York's 1500 Gallery, starting this month, and running through until March. Through selective focus, he has perhaps found the ideal way to describe a city too huge to grasp in one go.
The project was inspired by a thought Edinger had while attending mass in one of São Paulo's most opulent churches. Staring up at the ceiling, he saw a copy of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and he found himself both lamenting that Brazil has to 'copy foreigners' and celebrating the fact that 'the simple man can see something of what Michelangelo has done'. Unable to reconcile these opinions, he thought: 'That's São Paulo – a hotbed of contradictions', and he set about photographing the sprawling city.
On the eve of the New York exhibition, Edinger reflects that his work is part of a distinctly Brazilian quest for identity and belonging, although he admits that this is a difficult thing to understand. 'Brazilian identity is essential to my work, although I am not sure what it means,' he says. 'We have an interesting mix of people and cultures here.'
He describes Brazil as 'the world's adolescent, who's coming of age just about now'; and just as the country is reaching a significant stage in its self-awareness, so, he believes, is its photography. But his search for the Brazilian identity remains a work in progress. 'It's a complex issue,' he says, 'and I have been trying, by photographing Carnival, the hinterland of Bahia, the Amazon and Brazil's largest city and brain, São Paulo, to understand it.'