During Letícia Ramos’s first solo exhibition in the US this past summer, smoke from tens of thousands of fires in the Amazon rain forest darkened the city of São Paulo, where the artist lives. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, criticized the Brazilian government’s seeming apathy regarding the devastation; in turn, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, railed against Macron’s outrage, calling his remarks the product of a colonialist mind-set. The ecological disaster and the evocation of European exploitation provided a fitting (if unfortunate) backdrop to “Resiliency and Reverberation,” Ramos’s show at Mendes Wood DM. Much of the work came out of the artist’s research into the economic and political repercussions of the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, during the time when Brazil was a Portuguese colony. In three monumental photograms—Risco II (Risk II) and Risco IV (Risk IV), both 2018, and Novo Risco IX (New Risk IX), 2019, the best piece in the show—slim columns of white erupted from a black horizon, like giant sparklers seen from a distant point. Ramos made the images, each roughly six feet tall, by placing sandpaper, weighed down by pieces of wood, atop photosensitive paper and then shaking the whole thing mechanically. What remained after the developing process were the ghostly traces of the emulsion that had been ground away.
The series “Rupturas” (Ruptures), 2016–, is a grouping of stroboscopic photographs that capture planks of dense brazilwood—a material that was harvested and exported for rebuilding Portugal after the quake—at the exact moment the artist broke them. Indeed, Rupturas III and IV, both 2018, look like X-rays of fractured bones. And Ramos shot these images on microfilm, which has exceptionally fine grain. They can be blown up with very little “noise” and thus yield luminous prints of unusual clarity. The artist also used microfilm for Black Panorama II, 2018, a print more than eight feet long, taken from a scratched negative. It called to mind long-exposure photographs of the night sky, neatly guiding the viewer from the small space of the camera to the expanse of the heavens. But it also reminded me of the filters via which one can add scratches, dust, and graininess to digital pictures in order to make them appear analog. Both Black Panorama II and the “Rupturas” recall the evolution of photographic procedures as much as they look toward nature or the body.
The artist’s use of microfilm led her to research Hercules Florence, who was the inspiration for her 2017 film Noite azul (Blue Night). Florence was a Brazilian pioneer of photography who didn’t make it into the history books, despite his claims to the French Académie des Sciences that he had used light to create pictures before Louis Daguerre; Florence even named the process photo-graphie, or “light writing,” because he had planned to use his invention as a publishing tool. (According to the scholar Natalia Brizuela, his earliest images were closer to photocopies than to cartes de visite.) Florence’s desire to use photography to disseminate texts fits intriguingly within the traditional use of microfilm as a method of data collection.
Yet despite the obvious precursors in cameraless photography (Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, not to mention a spate of contemporary photographers interested in the form), I found myself thinking again and again of Fred Lonidier’s Health and Safety Game, 1976/78. Aesthetically, Ramos’s spare and elegant works seem light-years apart from Lonidier’s photo-text panels, with their heartrending depictions of on-the-job injuries of blue-collar workers and the bureaucratic tangles the employees must wade through in order to get necessary care. But conceptually the two artists are linked, both attempting to punctuate an art-world context with portrayals of just how much a body (be it of flesh or wood) can take. Ramos shows us the moments in which friction and pressure can no longer be withstood or smoothed over, and by extension the ways in which such pressures—physical, political—affect the very forms with which we communicate.