Manoel de Oliveira, Untitled, 1950, ink-jet print from a negative, 6 × 8 7⁄8".

Manoel de Oliveira, Untitled, 1950, ink-jet print from a negative, 6 × 8 7⁄8".

Manoel de Oliveira

Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian

For “Manoel de Oliveira Photographer,” curator António Preto gathered more than a hundred of the renowned Portuguese film director’s photographs, many of which had never before been shown. Produced between the late 1930s and the mid-1950s, these images offered a valuable critical reading of modernity in Portugal and illuminated the creative processes of one of its great artists.

In the works in the first part of the exhibition, Oliveira’s camera turned to the interior of the country—to the vastness of its landscape, the labor in its fields, and the individuality of farmworkers who cease to be anonymous as their faces are documented. We experience the emptiness, silences, and subtleties of the countryside. The artist perpetuates the image of rustic timelessness in order to show that Portuguese modernity balances between two poles, one still bound by tradition and the other fleeting and ephemeral. Later, this tension would be exemplarily visible in Oliveira’s films. As director, he made use of close-ups, intimate perspectives, and a theatrical atmosphere, taking architecture, nature, and his wife, Maria Carvalhais, as the objects of his lens.

The black-and-white photos transmit a melancholy atmosphere—which is understandable, given that their creator, who died in 2015 at the age of 106, lived through all the contradictions of progress in a country undergoing industrialization. His journeys through countryside and city allowed him to record not only the persistence of old customs but also the transformations through which the nation was passing. His Constructivist-style compositions, often incorporating building facades, were a means of both working with the play of light and shadow and capturing the amazement of the new. He was fascinated by the city and especially by its ever-increasing verticality. He also had an eye for the empty spaces of these buildings, demonstrating their translucency, and took advantage of chance to construct mirroring effects, for instance in an undated, untitled picture showing modern edifices reflected in a puddle of water.

In a photograph taken at an airfield in 1950, a man in a business suit, his back to the camera as he stands in front of a window, gazes into the distance at a plane parked on a runway. The scene suggests that some aspects of modernization served the needs of only a few. In Portugal, its benefits were distributed especially unevenly in a deeply unequal society living under a dictatorial colonialist regime. That modernization was unattainable or even catastrophic for many is represented symbolically in a 1944 photograph that shows a derailed model train.

While urbanization was one of Oliveira’s major themes, he studied it with the eye of a formalist. What interested him was the exploration of unusual perspectives, the play of light, and the unpredictable framings that were later incorporated into his films. His images of cars exemplify his peculiar way of observing modernity. They record details such as a rearview mirror or headlights, whose geometric forms nurtured the artist’s experimentation with images. In this sense, the photos are not an ode to change as a civilizing and benevolent force—in the final analysis it appears instead diffuse, truncated, broken, and compromised—but to its character of innovation, which is also, as it turns out, an exclusionary project.

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.