São Paulo

Alair Gomes, Untitled, 1966–78, gelatin silver print, 12 × 8 7/8". From the series “Symphony of Erotic Icons,” 1966–78.

Alair Gomes, Untitled, 1966–78, gelatin silver print, 12 × 8 7/8". From the series “Symphony of Erotic Icons,” 1966–78.

Alair Gomes

Alair Gomes, Untitled, 1966–78, gelatin silver print, 12 × 8 7/8". From the series “Symphony of Erotic Icons,” 1966–78.

The young male body is the fundamental theme of Alair Gomes’s photographic work. This emphasis is all the more striking given the repressive political and cultural context of Brazil in the 1960s and ’70s. So Eder Chiodotto has rendered a great service to admirers of the photographer, who was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1921 and died there in 1992, in curating “Young Male: Photographs by Alair Gomes,” the largest show of Gomes’s work ever presented by a commercial gallery.

Gomes studied engineering and the physical sciences, but from an early age he developed a fixation on the theme of the male body, approached from both an aesthetic and a philosophical perspective inseparable from his own experience. This reflection and speculation, which first manifested itself in diaries, written in English and eventually amounting to some twenty thousand pages, began in the 1960s to find its most refined form of expression in photography.

The exhibition included representative works exemplifying the various stances and methodologies through which the artist approached his theme. In the series “Viagens (Europa/Arte)” (Journeys [Europe/Art]), 1969, of which seventeen examples were shown, the artist captures ideal forms reminiscent of classical art. These photos were presented in parallel with thirty-seven images (of a total of 1,767) from the series “Symphony of Erotic Icons,” 1966–78. The set on exhibit here amounted to a kind of encyclopedia organized according to rhythmic principles, subsuming different degrees of approach to the male nude (from the full body to large-scale delineations of the sexual organs, passing through intermediate distances and different areas of the body). In this series, what dominates is a concern for aesthetic systematization originating in the values of classical art.

Untitled, ca. 1970, a set of forty-one photos of a single individual shot in the intimacy of the artist’s apartment, is a kind of diary entry that documents the actual experience of encountering a specific body. Despite a strong sense of intimacy, there are no instances of staging, physical interactions, or any narrative or anecdotal elements. In a result merely of observation—of recording the presence and the image of a man’s body.

In one of the artist’s best-known series, “A Window in Rio,” 1977–80, comprising images taken from the balcony of his apartment in Ipanema, Gomes focuses his camera on the men strolling on the seaside pedestrian walkway (calçadão) or engaging in acts of physical recreation on the beach. Strictly speaking, he is not engaging in voyeurism but rather in the simple observation of nearly nude bodies in a public setting. The most distinguishing characteristic of Gomes’s work is the intensity of his gaze, which plunges into the banal summertime activities of thousands of bodies that anyone might pass by even today on Rio’s beaches. Through framing and an almost musical sequencing of images, the artist reveals in these bodies the raw material for a form of representation that harkens back to classical notions of beauty and an idealistic aspiration to create eternal value. With Gomes, we can speak of a philosophical attitude and a practice of imagemaking founded in the belief that transcendent value, the truth of the body’s beauty, can be captured in the simple presence of a stranger on a beach.

Alexandre Melo

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.