THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF VIRXILIO VIEITEZ FROM 1955-1965

PHOTOVISIÓN nº 29. 2000

MANUEL SENDÓN

Virxilio Vieitez is a rural photographer who shares many characteristics with other Galician photographers of this period (1955-65). However, some other aspects of his work make him absolutely unique.

One of the most striking of these features is the never random but carefully selected staging of which his photographs are a product. Not only is the place chosen but the composing elements and the position of his subjects are significant as well. Virxilio flees from the photographic studio, sometimes out of necessity and others because he finds it boring, so that different exteriors, such as the motorway or backgrounds with vegetation harmoniously combined with flowers or wild plants, take on the role of the traditional curtains. The interest in backgrounds begins with his initiation to photography in the early fifties on the Costa Brava, and has to be understood as a facet of travel documentary.

His images illustrate elements of everyday life, including even scenes of solemn rituals, such as the photograph of a girl dressed for her First Communion surrounded by a cabbage patch or another one of a young woman elegantly dressed who is holding a goat’s tether and carrying a purse that she probably uses only on special occasions. Vieitez introduces these everyday elements, among which we can also find a sewing basket, a purse, an accordion, a child’s toy, some sunglasses and a bouquet, in an unusual context and treats them with the great solemnity that, for him, characterises the photographic act itself. This is what makes Virxilio’s images truly magical in such a way that it is the posing and staging that give his subjects all their life.

His two luxuriant, potted begonias in the middle of the road are the ultimate staging surprise. But for the solemn, serious pose of the women, the result would be surrealistic. It is this posing that lends the photograph the different dimension that determines its value and interest.

Cinematographic references are also present in his work, reminding us of James Dean and of other heroes of the neo-realistic films in vogue at the time.

The haigas, the gigantic cars brought back by those who emigrated to America, also serve as a background, the variation being the different people who pose in front of the same car. The contrasts between the majestic car and the rural environment, with its mud-filled streets and its lack of the needed machinery, are truly eloquent and illustrate what emigration to America meant at that time in Galicia: a personal success at its best, although coupled with total social dismantling.

The staging in Virxilio’s photographs turns out to be unusual when compared with that of other photographers. However, despite its unprecedented unique style, it is by no means sophisticated or overelaborate, resulting controversial as far as the elements introduced and the confrontations between them are concerned. This staging illustrates the entirely personal way of working which characterises Virxilio’s style during this period.

In his portraits, he always positions his camera vertically, facing the subject, avoiding the least bit of distortion, whereas the individuals are symmetrically centred. When he positions them on two levels, he distributes them according to roles: children at the first level and elders sitting down, as a sign of respect.

The vertical positioning and rigidity of the subjects indicate respect and lack of familiarity, the inscrutability of the image revealing the solemnity that went along with the act of having a portrait taken. The photographs were based precisely on the photographer’s relationship with the subject and it relied on the photographer’s authority. This authority should not come as a surprise, due to the fact that there were no cameras in the homes, the only contact with photography coming through the photographer himself. This turned the shot itself into a transcendental act surrounded by an important ritual. Best clothes were worn to dress up for the special occasion and special care was given to personal appearance and the preening of oneself. Sometimes, due to economic shortage, clothes were passed around from one person to the other.

Virxilio does not play by chance. There is no decisive moment in his photographs; he is the one who creates the moment. He does not work by lying in wait. His control of the subject becomes obvious when analysing the contact sheets. There are practically no natural poses. There is total staticism. The subjects are absorbed by the camera and their attention is focused entirely on it. No relationship exists between the subjects except that established by arms and legs, symbolically representing the family unit, or courtship or friendship. The peculiarities described, together with the straightforward serious look, suggest a strong feeling or realism, which is strengthened by the sadness in the subjects’ faces, a feature that discloses Virxilio’s vision of society. However, by using a soft light and rejecting such resources as harsh illumination, he avoids intensifying the drama. The realistic style of his work is a product of his conception of photography as the testimony of reality. The role of the photographer should be that of a public scribe. This testimonial trait is reinforced by the fact that many of his images served to show those who had emigrated how their family members were doing back home in Galicia.

The full-face portraits deserve special mention. As identification cards became compulsory, Virxilio and his motorcycle travelled all over the region, carrying a piece of white canvas in order to isolate the subject from his environment. This procedure reminds us of the use Penn made of his blank backdrop in Africa. Everyone, from priests to peasants, and from the elderly to the young, posed in front of this cloth, in such a way that Vieitez’s work can be considered as a magnificent collective portrait of the region.

In common with full portraits, bust shots had directness, central positioning, rigidity, diffuse light, direct look, expressions of seriousness and sadness, etc. They were totally sparse, without any staging.

The lack of means becomes apparent not only in the tear that shows up on the cloth in many photographs but in the photographic equipment as well; a medium format Rollei and a 35mm camera without interchangeable lenses. This, together with Virxilio’s obsession to avoid at any cost the deformations caused by getting too close, led him to take his photographs from far away and to frame more field than necessary for the ID’s. Later on he had to cut the prints. For him, the type of deformations that can often be appreciated in contemporary journalistic work and that is due to a monotonous and effect-causing use of the wide-angle lens made no sense. He thought it meant a complete lack of respect.

Virxilio’s portraits, especially the bust shots make one believe that the author is not interested in his own individual expression. He seems to be absent –a feeling of impersonality that reinforces their realism. The extraordinary life they take on, however, provokes a confrontation with the subject and makes them a lot more personal than what he had initially intended.

The sole purpose of identification photographs is to describe the different facial features of the subjects. Such a photograph is an image in which, as M. Frizot says: ”everything is present without ever becoming truly visible.” Once they are presented out of context, however, these portraits transcend their purpose and become the carriers of “a revelation which is not satisfied with physical similarity”. This is, according to Frizot, what differentiates portraits from identification card photographs.

The purpose of the identification card photographs implied a series of mandatory rules that were so strict that they even established the distance between the head and the edge of the image. This meant that, on top of everything else, the photograph had to be re-framed later. This lead us to present the 26 photographs after re-framing them.1i Due to the power of the complete image, however, we decided to present some of them without cutting them. The tear in the cloth, which used to be cut out, reminds us, in Bathes’ words, of the use of “photography as the emanation of the referent”. In regards to the rest of the work, we have adopted the general criterion of keeping the whole negative, because, although we are aware of the fact that Vieitez also cut the negatives to adapt to paper size, upon studying the negatives we realised that the complete composition was by no means gratuitous. It is obvious that he organised the shot according to what he saw through the viewfinder. Re-framing afterwards meant cutting out elements (sky, ground, sides, etc.) which, however insignificant, choked the central figure or figures, thus lessening the majesty reached when the whole negative is respected. By printing the whole negative we avoided having to go into any considerations about possible cuts. At the same time these cuts also would have depended on the different proportions of the paper according to the sizes.

Due to his interest in controlling all the different variables that enter into to the act of taking a photograph, Virxilio finds documentary photography less interesting and more monotonous than portrait photography. This he often resolves by presenting static scenes that frequently can be considered portraits as well.

The illustrations related to death deserve special mention. They show how in a farming society, death is accepted with familiarity, a fact that sharply contrasts with the way in which it is perceived in present urban society. This concept also became evident in more playful contexts, such as in the images of young girls sitting on graves or posing in front of tomb-niches. This would be inconceivable in today’s urban society, and it would probably be misinterpreted.

The many moving images of wakes reflect all their rituals and staging, the most hair-raising ones being those of brothers and sisters holding wake over their dead siblings. The carefully staged cemetery photographs, even those where the coffin was opened to photograph the dead person in natural light, demonstrate the importance of photography in the ritual as well as the photographer’s authority. He took on this notarising role knowing that these photographs frequently ended up in America, as indications that it was time to start dividing up the inheritance.

Weddings are also an important part of Vieitez’s work. Besides photographing the religious ceremony, illustrating the wedding party was a must, the dancing scenes being the most dynamic ones in his work. However, as often as he could, he would make the couples and their guests pose for him.

In spite of its importance in that society, there are few scenes of farm work. However, they are different from the usual photographs on this subject. Once again they are characterised by immobility and careful control of the scene, the subjects looking directly at the camera. As in the portraits, vertical rigidity implies a dignity which is far from the commonplace picturesqueness this world is usually dealt with.

So-called typical local customs are not present in Virxilio’s photographs; there is no sentimental vision. Although Virxilio does not work on the farm, this is his world, he lives in it and knows it and, therefore, he is not photographing the other, as so often did other photographers. The facts that his pose and background in his ID own photographs are the same as those of his clients and that when he photographed his wife and children, he followed the same method as with everyone else are significant.

However, Virxilio never did identify himself with the society that surrounded him and he was annoyed when he was obliged to return to Galicia from Catalonia because of his mother’s illness. He always thought his future would have been different in Catalonia. Although this feeling of having been uprooted, and even of rejection, made him distant, he was neither patronising nor morbid. There was neither sentimentalism nor disdain. On the contrary, this love-hate relationship brought about images that are characterised by their dignity and respect: hence their greatness and uniqueness.

Although it is not his intention to denounce extreme living conditions, the dire hardships are displayed in details such as trousers which have been grown out of, jackets that are too tight, boots without laces and the solemn sadness in the faces. Even so, his subjects are presented in all their dignity

Many of the images could be extrapolated to other parts of Galicia, as the living conditions are similar everywhere. (In the 1950s, more than 200,000 Galicians emigrated, most of them to America.) Those of us who lived in other Galicians districts can feel ourselves reflected in some of the photographs, either because of the clothes and the toys or because of remembering those haigas. Ramón Eixo wrote in a letter in the El País: It’s probably not one of my photographs: that is an artist’s genius, the fact that he is capable of making us feel direct participants in his work”. In the book that accompanies the exhibit, somebody else says: “ In many of the faces I saw my mother, my brothers and sisters, and my father. Memories came back as vividly as life itself. My mother held my dead baby sister in her arms.

Except for a short time at the beginning, the 20,000 negatives of this period, in particular the 3,000 done with the Rollei, are extraordinary. He used the Rollei all the time from 1958 to 1960, these being his most prolific years. Half of the book’s photographs2, including some of the most significant ones over all, belong to this period. The good technical quality is noteworthy, especially if we take into account that the prints had to be delivered immediately and that the working conditions were very unfavourable: the negatives and prints had to be rinsed in the fountain or in the river as there was no running water in Soutelo until 1964. Virxilio was completely familiar with his working material, which permitted him to choose an exposure without a light meter, which in any case he did not own. However, the negatives are very well exposed. Thanks to an accurate foresight and sound confidence he was able to only take the most essential shots. Therefore, and upon analysing the contact sheets, we note that, for many photographs, he only took one shot, more than two only on rare occasions. The same can be said about his darkroom work, for which he made his own developer.

From 1979-90 Vieitez also uses colour, although the number of interesting photographs is lesser than that of those belonging to the 1955-65 period. The sobriety and the extraordinary photographic style disappear and his working method changes as well, for now he takes a great number of shots in 35mm for each job. However, he does execute a group of images, most of them in medium format, responding to the same conception as those of the fifties. The colour clearly reflects the changes taking place in rural Galician society during the seventies. The wedding photographs, a predominating theme of this period, are a good example of this change. The sullen black-and-white photographs of the past give way to images in which the bride poses surrounded by a series of previously non-existent signs of consumption. Different elements from a rural world are substituted by stuffed animals and recently acquired sideboards and mirrors, as well as by wedding gifts carefully placed around the bride. The camera goes into the houses in a matter-of-fact way, while previously photographs were usually taken outside in order to keep the privacy of the home intact. Even in the eighties, however, we find some photographs of wakes which are very similar to the previous ones, although the lighting incorporated in the coffin is an indicator of the social change mentioned above.

In Virxilio’s work there is no room for experimentation, either from a technical, a formal or even a conceptual point of view. His work, identified by a coherence which is the product of a remarkable sensitivity, reaches very different heights from that of other rural photographers. His personal aesthetics makes his work transcend its own anthropological, sociological and historical importance so as to acquire, in addition, great interest from an artistic point of view -even though he had no such claim. We should remember that the history of photography includes many photographers who at the time had no artistic pretensions and were not regarded as relevant although who in time they might have achieved indisputable renown.

Virxilio’s work reminds us of some most outstanding photographers, of whom he had no reference. First of all, there is the similarity with August Sander’s Men of the Twentieth Century in regards to portrait conception and resolution. Sander, just like the other photographers that Virxilio has similarities with, is not interested in capturing a specific moment, but in generating the moment himself by discarding that which is accidental and getting the subject to be an accomplice who looks straight into the camera, thus being capable of suggesting complete truth in his frontal, direct shots.

Sander’s photographs Country Girls, Girl on the Day of her First Communion, Country Boys and also his family portraits are only some examples. Sander’s work responds to the purely sociological project of capturing the different social groups that made up his German society of the time, whereas Virxilio’s portraits respond to specific commercial commissions and therefore only pretend to represent people individually.

Although very different in their staging, Virxilio’s portraits remind us of those of Paul Strand. John Berger’s words on Strand could be also be applied to Virxilio: “…inviting to narrate, presenting the subject in such a way that he is dying to say: I am just the way you are seeing me now.”

Virxilio’s conception of portrait reminds us of Walker Evans’s in the way in which the latter illustrates the American farmers’ great dignity, despite the poverty they endured during the Great Depression. Looking in some of Virxilio’s subject’s eyes one could easily see Allie and Floyd Mary Burroughs. These images are as simple in their realisation as they are rich in content and suggestion. When we look at the three men posing in front of the truck, we seem to be looking at a similar image by Evans.

Virxilio differs from Diana Arbus in that he does not choose his subjects but instead photographs upon assignment. Despite the difference in themes, they do have in common the way they treat their subjects, the result being equally mysterious on occasion and both suggesting the same degree of truthfulness. The couple in front of the Pardesoa Church reminds us of Arbus’ snapshots of the same period and of her words: “If one observes reality from close up, it becomes imaginary.”

The formal method and the confrontation that Virxilio’s portraits bring to mind Richard Avedon’s portraits, which present profoundly expressive, non-idealised subjects against the same white background and with the same simplicity. Idealisation, on the other hand is usually a feature of the genre.

Finally, both in its formal characteristics and in the significance of the staging, Virxilio’s documentary work on the circus reminds us of the work of Seydou Keita, the excellent African photographer who was practically unknown until the nineties and whose photographs certainly deserve some room in the history of photography.

The role that the motorcycle and radio take on in Keita’s photographs is similar to that which cars take on in Virxilio’s. However, the radio had a different meaning in Virxilio’s photographs. It corresponds to Signora Dorotea’s commission, as a proof of having fulfilled the order from her son in America to buy a radio with the money he had sent her. Once again, photography becomes testimony. Dorotea proudly shows off her radio, carefully placed on a chair, while her hand rests on the back of the chair as if the radio were a person, a substitute for the person who is absent. This is a photograph that at first surprises us because of its extraordinary suggestiveness and then goes on to challenge us. This was the first image I saw of Virxilio’s. It totally surprised me and it urged me on to look for other photographs by the author. My need was quickly satisfied and I was by no means disappointed upon seeing them. On the contrary, many of them impressed me much more strongly than any others ever had. I feel that Virxilio Vieitez’s work, unknown until so recently, not only goes way beyond its Galician and Spanish framework. I believe that, within the Spanish photography of this period, no other collection of portraits showing such coherence and expressive force has been known.

I would like to end with some words by Winogrand, a photographer with a very different aesthetic style, which seem to apply to Virxilio perfectly: “There is nothing so mysterious as a clearly defined fact”.

1 Virxilio Vieitez 1955-65, Exhibition. Manuel Sendón and Xosé L. Suárez Canal, 1998-2000.

2 Virxilio Vieitez. Álbum. Centro de Estudos Fotográficos, Vigo, 1998.

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