He was born as Pierre Verger in Paris, France, in 1902 and died as Pierre Fatumbi Verger in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. He was 93 years old. Of him, a photographer, ethnologist, anthropologist and researcher, it is said that he lived two lives. In the middle of two different universes, between the modern and the exotic, between reasoning and mysticism. Thus, at the age of thirty, after the death of his mother, he began his journey around the world, willing to capture life behind a camera that would broaden his accentuated gaze to other cultures. At the age of 51, he resurfaced with the name of Fatumbi (reborn), ordained Babalao (priest), father of secrets in the voodoo cult, in Dahomey, today Benin. Later, settled in Brazil, he dedicated himself, among many other things, to documenting the connections between Brazilian black culture and Africa, as an unexpected consequence of the African diaspora caused by the slavery to which the black population was subjected.
Verger, left behind thirty books and some 62,000 negatives made over a period of four decades, from 1930 to 1970; a photographic archive that survived his life as a nomad. Although, in 1991, four years before his death, the retrospective dedicated to him by the Museum of African and Oceanic Arts in Paris rediscovered his work in Europe and placed his name among the great photographers of the 20th century, in the United States, his figure is practically unknown, despite the invaluable documentation of this country carried out by the author during the thirties. Hence the resounding look that offers us Pierre Fatumbi Verger. United States of America. 1934 & 1937, a recently published monograph by Damiani, not only serves to consolidate prestige, but also as an affirmation of the author’s personality and the depth of his work. “Her portraits and images of him, in his representation of beauty, work, spirituality, play and cultural memory remain essential today,” writes Deborah Willis. “These are not just photographs: they offer a complex portrait of politics, race and identity.”
The cover of the book shows the photograph of a Negro. The boy walks and looks sideways. Attentive to what happens, in front and behind. It’s not Harlem, it’s in Manhattan. In front is the Park Avenue Viaduct. Beside him the blurred figures of some white pedestrians. “All day I photographed the mess: buildings, taxis, young girls, blacks, mayors, homeless people, senators, fancy dogs. In the afternoons I develop and make copies and the next day I photograph again”, wrote Verger. His first trip to New York took place in the winter of 1934. He would arrive accompanied by two journalists in what was one of his first assignments as a photojournalist for the French newspaper paris soir. From there he will follow the route to Japan and China but before that he toured the streets of Manhattan, the clubs of Harlem, Washington DC, Charleston in South Carolina, Florida and New Orleans. In California he visited the Mexican market, from San Francisco he left for Japan. The second visit to New York took place in 1937. He returned to Manhattan, walked through Harlem and visited Coney Island before sailing for Paris.
He was carrying the Rolleiflex. He had not yet reaffirmed his style as a photographer but his technical mastery, his precision, and at the same time his heterodoxy were already noticeable. A look full of empathy and soul in search of the raw expression of the subject. He spent a lot of time looking, alert to details, the walk of the people, his clothing, the expression of the bodies and the recesses of his privacy. “What caught my attention about his work was the quality, the sensitivity expressed and the subject matter represented,” says the promoter of the publication, Javier Escudero Rodríguez, during a videoconference from Brazil. After years of research, he has been responsible for editing the 150 images that make up the book, out of more than 1,110 negatives. “Verger not only knew how to look, he also knew how to smile and thank when he photographed,” he says. “Most of the images are unpublished and although they include some urban and rural landscapes, their exceptionality lies in the human landscape, in a broader and more diverse vision of the United States of those years made up of people of diverse origins: blacks, Asians and fishermen. Italians. It opens a new door to the representation of the non-white people of that time. People who curiously do not usually appear in the images of the Depression in America.
The work is situated as a clear precedent to the boom in social photography that led to the creation of the famous Farm Security Administration (Administration for Agrarian Security) launched by Roy E. Stryker. In order to document the way in which the policy of the New Deal American society was transformed, plunged into a terrible economic depression, the photographer and economist hired a series of photographers including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Margaret Bourke-White. “When selecting the photographs, Stryker used to dominate the image of white people. There was clearly an exclusion”, warns Escudero. However, in Verger’s work, there is no political consciousness, no intention to improve society. He never joined any political, nor photographic movement. Most of the images were taken in the context of daily life, without any pretense of denouncing. “In addition, they are clearly characterized by their purpose of presenting the photographed subject as a person worthy of admiration, perhaps even desire,” warns Alex Baradel, head of the photographic archive of the Pierre Verger Foundation in one of the texts included in the book. “These images were taken for their own intrinsic value. Their lack of any artistic, dogmatic or commercial intent makes them all the more powerful.”
“Verger reframed the visual narrative of black life at the time,” Willis observes. He toured Harlem in winter and summer, where we see couples dancing in halls, women conversing placidly outside church, and children walking their dogs. In Charleston he captures the image of a woman with an infinitely sad and terrified look leaning against a colonialist building. In New Orleans, a man carries a sack looking for a future where there is none, in clear reference to slavery. Verger’s photographs “have the ability to commemorate a complex history,” Willis notes, “while also creating a vision of an uplifting and compassionate community.”
‘Pierre Fatumbi Verger. United States of America. 1934 & 1937′. Javier Escudero Rodriguez. Damiani. 160 pages. 55 euro.
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