Anyone who has spent some time wandering through baroque churches in Latin America will find a similar weight and intensity in Miguel Rio Branco's photographs and installations. Steeped in Catholic imagery with a fascination for the violence and bloodletting, his constructions are dark and visceral metaphors of life lived under oppressive forces.
An artist associated with the Magnum photo agency (Miguel's Magnum status for twenty years has been as a "correspondent"), he has created several fine books relating to his photos and installations. In 1998, Aperture dedicated a monograph to Rio Branco and it is a fine introduction to his work. Since most people know of that book I thought I'd take a look at a few of his other lesser known titles.
Rio Branco's second book was Dulce Sudor Amargo (Bitter-Sweet Sweat) published in 1985 by the Fondo de Cultural Economica in Mexico City.
It now fetches strong prices when found. Fairly typical of a 1980s design and layout but it contains many of Rio Branco's finest 35mm color work from the mid-1970s and early 80s. Notably is the inclusion of his work from Salvador de Bahia's decaying Marciel neighborhood in which Rio Branco photographed the barrio's street life and prostitutes.
Interestingly, Steven Soderbergh in his film Traffic duplicated one of Rio Branco's photos from this series on film. (The similarities are so strong I would be surprised if Soderbergh denied the influence). The photo describes a couple embracing and the point of focus is a scar on the man's shoulder while the prostitute's face appearing in the upper right corner remains unsharp.
The photographs in Dulce Sudor Amargo hint at the metaphor and image pairing that Rio Branco would later pursue - distancing himself from straighter documentarians.
The next book in my collection, Silent Book was published by Cosac & Naify in 1997. This was featured in Parr / Badger II and in my opinion it is his best to date.
A collection of square images that start Rio Branco's intense descent into the baroque. His color palette, always intense, intensifies until the hues bleed and taint the entire photo. A large percentage of the individual images are from a boxing facility in Rio de Janeiro. Within the blue and green walls and rings, the boxers blur into muscular apparitions. The images are sequenced and edited to draw direct comparison to religious imagery and in some cases, seems to imply life imitating the more grotesque themes of paintings from the likes of Caravaggio.
Silent Book is an artist book of the finest order.
The next is also from Cosac & Naify from 2001, Entre Os Olhos, O Deserto (Between the Eyes, The Desert) is an artist book version of an installation slideshow from Rio Branco.
This work is much less dark and ominous than Silent Book or the books to follow. I had seen the installation of this work in New York, a three projector triptych slideshow of images that fade into one another in Branco's style of free association.
Mimicking that installation, Entre Os Olhos, O Deserto is mostly a series of fold-out triptychs of disparate images that start to link through form or tenor. Image after image of close-ups of eyes, both human and animal, change Rio Branco's world into imagined spaces filled with a tension between beauty and danger.
Entre Os Olhos, O Deserto is beautiful and compelling but as an object it is difficult to operate. The tightness of the binding due to the small trim-size yet thick page count makes opening the fold-outs a chore. I find this effects my willingness to participate and engage with the work fully. It comes with a DVD.
The next book, Gritos Surdos, is from an installation in Portugal at the Centro Portugues de Fotografia in 2002.
Starting off with green neon skulls and smashed car windscreens, the images overlap and crossfade using many of Rio Branco's known images. Sex and sensuality have been a theme in his installations before but here he employs pixelated images from porn films that, following on the heels of the the other dark imagery, wind up looking like modern visions of hellish suffering.
This book, like Entre Os Olhos, O Deserto, comes with a DVD.
The last book to mention is from the French publisher Textuel, Plaisir la Douleur features not only Rio Branco's photographs and installations but his photomontages and paintings as well.
The endpapers flow rivers of blood and the first recognizable image is of a golden halo hanging on a wall. Disturbingly Rio Branco starts the body of the book with a close-up of a horses eye that is so dark, the actual eye is described as an empty, blind hole that weeps oil-black tears. It is an image of suffering and punishment but considering the grotesque visions that follow, it might be an enviable existence.
In his photomontages, Rio Branco constructs fanged monsters and, in a rare moment of being obvious, a modern day Eve and snake scenario. Although these are separate works with a listing in the rear of the book, when sequenced together they bring to mind several religious themes such as the torture and flaying of Christ. Rio Branco seems to take masochisitic "pleasure" (plaisir) by showing pain through the seductive use of his color palette much like the old masters.
All of Rio Branco's books mentioned with the exception of Dulce Sudor Amargo are printed with the images surrounded by black pages so all color seems even more vibrant. The books generally have interesting design but handle carefully -- one flaw is usually with the binding. Silent Book, Entre Os Olhos, O Deserto are susceptible to the signatures separating and loosening through moderate use.
Miguel Rio Branco can be relentless. He throws imagery at the viewer and recycles his photographs to suit new needs. The installations are often projections onto physical objects -- metal, mirrors and glass -- all of which bend and distort to create a real and imagined world where the viewer may not know where one ends and the other begins.