Book published in the collection Álbum of Centro de Estudos Fotográficos, in 1998. ISBN:84-87882-09-9
XOSÉ LUIS SUÁREZ CANAL
Sometimes people think that the most interesting photographic works are to be found only in the archives of the most important studios of the cities, unjustly forgetting the photographers who work in the villages and whose works can be of the greatest interest. A good example of this is Virxilio Vieitez, who, without any doubt, occupies a prominent place in the history of Galician photography.
This book is the result of the study of Virxilio Vieitez’s work made in the period 1955-65, and in order to do this, all the negatives of the period 1955-62 and most of the ones of the period 1962-65 had to be copied by contact. After that, innumerable studio prints of the negatives considered more important were made, and among them those published here were chosen, always having in mind the fact that there were really interesting pictures left among those not chosen for this occasion. This study was possible thanks to the enthusiasm and the work of Keta Vieitez, who devoted many hours, some of them in not very suitable conditions, to the copying work. She was also the one who printed, with a high quality, the one hundred and fifity prints of this exhibition. The ten murals were printed by José Vázquez Caruncho. We would also like to thank Virxilio Vieitez and his wife Xulia Cendón for their collaboration.
Virxilio Vieitez was born in 1930 in Soutelo de Montes, a village living on farming and emigration on the border between Pontevedra and Ourense. The poor economic condition of his family on the one hand, and on the other the fact that, after a short period in the U.S. his father left for France and never returned, when Virxilio was three months old, made it impossible for him to attend school on a regular basis, since he had to take the cows to graze on pasture. In spite of these circumstances he was fond of reading the books he could have access to, and he remembers that “I studied arithmetic checking the results at the back of the book. The very little formation I had I got it on my own”. At the age of sixteen he went to work in the construction of Santiago airport, with the intention of becoming a mechanic, but the working conditions were bad, “I had to pay 10 pts. from the 12 pts I earned, for the boardinghouse”. When he was eighteen he decided to go to the Pyrinees in Aragón. There he worked in the cableways next to Panticosa and there he had his first contact with the world of photography. He bought a 6×9 format Kodak camera and started taking pictures of the landscape and making portraits of his work fellows, to whom he later sold those pictures, following the method he had learned from another fellow in Labacolla. Life in the Pyrinees was hard, “it was very cold, and there were cobras in the beams of the cabin, althoguh they were harmless”. This situation and the fact of being afraid of the black market business he had got involved in, made him ask for a transfer in the same company to San Feliú de Guixols. Once there he continued to take photographs and, thanks to his friendship with an employee of the local photographer Manetes, he learned to develop pictures in his studio in the evening, after work, ” it was orthochromatic material developed by putting it inside and outside the tank in the red light”.
In 1949 he came to his village on holidays, but instead of coming in a big car like many of the emigrants did, he came with a pretty red bicycle, which made his mother say “he’s the biggest rogue of the village, instead of money he brings a bicycle”. Later he moved to Palamós and started to work as an employee of the photographer Pallí because those life conditions seemed better to him, “with the other job I had to take three showers a day and even so I couldn’t get rid of the gas oil smell, whereas with photography I could work with a tie, far from the dirt”, something very important for him since he was very fond of going out. With Pallí he learned how to use a camera and the laboratory work, but as he wanted to learn more he registered in a photography correspondence course. Since Pallí was the public relations of the studio, the photographic work was made by his employees, and in this way Virxilio was the one who made both street and studio work, some graphic reports for La Vanguardia and even “pornographic pictures for France; we didn’t have problems with those pictures because we always gave some of them to the police and the Guardia Civil”.
The touristic boom of the Costa Brava was starting at the time and Virxilio rode his bicycle to all the nearby beaches “taking pictures of the tourists who wanted them as a souvenir of their holidays, always with the landscape on the background. We also made photographs in a nearby club, not exactly pornographic photos, just something close”. Part of the negatives made in Catalonia were later brought to Galicia by Virxilio, but they were burnt when he was looking for one of them and smoking at the same time.
In 1955, when he was about to settle as an independent photographer in Playa de Aro, he had to come back to Galicia to look after his ill mother. She died a few months later, and he had to do the military service in A Coruña, although he was already married to Xulia Cendón and they had a child. At that time he had already got his customers using the name of Fotografía Perello, his father’s nickname because it sounded similar to Perelló, and that reminded him of Catalonia.
When he finished his military service in 1957, he resumed his work as a photographer, substituting his old Regina for a Rollei, the camera he made his most interesting work with. In 1958 he bought a new 35 mm. camera, a Voigtlander, since “the medium format involved having to change the roll in the middle of the work”.
At that time there were no other photographers in the village, and those from other villages went there to work: Graña, Foto Paco, Félix Tilve from Pontevedra and Cela from Marín, apart from these, Aurelio from Carballiño worked in Avión and Beariz, until the sixties, when Virxilio got all the customers. It must be mentioned in a special way Ramos, from Codeseda, a very prestigious photographer to whom the people from Soutelo de Montes went to be photographed before Virxilio established himself there. He worked unceasingly all around the region and Avión, Pedre, Millerada, San Marcos, Sanguiñedo, A Barcia, Cambeses, Borralleiro, Seixido, Edreira, O Barro de Arena were some of the places he regularly visited. However, his activity was basically centered on his village and in Cerdedo, where he went every Sunday morning when people came out of church. At the same time he worked as a newspaper correspondent for El Pueblo Gallego and for the radio station Voz de Vigo, being his work for the latter more commercial than photographic.
Among his activities, a special place is occupied by the portraits for the identity card, which became compulsory at the beginning of the sixties. He went to all the nearby towns and villages on his motorbike (Lambretta), and this activity brought him a great economic benefit. Weddings were another constant occupation, to the point of making one daily, except Tuesdays, since nobody dared get married on that day. Later, in 1967, I bought a Seat 1500, the car for the brides, a Seat 600 was not a car good enough for them”. Sometimes he had to travel to distant villages, but as time went by, the number of weddings decreased and in the end they were celebrated only on Thursdays and Saturdays.
In the sixties he began to work with colour, alternating it with black and white, much to his sorrow, because the latter allowed him to frame the photo and work on it later. However the colour photography became the most used and, at the beginning of the seventies half of his work was made in colour. In the middle of the eighties he totally abandoned his photographic activity. At the beginning of the nineties, his daughter Keta established as a photographer in Soutelo de Montes. She had worked occasionally with her father and had learned the trade from him . She organized the first and only exhibition of her father’s work in the summer of 1997, an exhibition which showed almost one hundred of his photographs.
Virxilio’s technique, particularly regarding the 6×6 format negatives, is excellent. Regarding the 35 mm. format, the quality is, in general, quite good, except those negatives from a certain period, which have less definition and a bigger grain. This quality is worthier if we take into account the conditions in which the work had to be done. The washing of the copies and the negatives was made in the public fountain until 1964 when the village had the water supply installed. He also worked with the 10×12 format studio camera, making interior photographs with artificial illumination. He used to print in 7×10 cm. the photos for the wallets, and in 10×15 cm. those to be sent to America. For the photographic reports of weddings, christenings and communions the most frequent format was 13×18 and, sometimes, 15×20 or 18×24, although he also made bigger prints, 50×60, to be framed or hung.
Virxilio’s work consists mostly of pictures taken outside the studio, due in part to his travels from one village to another, to the freedom it allowed him, and because he considered it also less monotonous. So, many of his customers, who went to the studio to be photographed, were taken outside, changing the studio backgrounds for the natural vegetal background. All this had as a result unusual pictures, like those of the first holy communion where the little girl appears in the middle of cabbages, despite the solemnity of the occasion. Another example of this is the photograph of a young girl among cabbages and a background with the most luxurious house of the village, O Chalet, being this portrait one of the few which is not frontal. In other photogrpahs it must be mentioned the harmony between the vegetal background and another vegetal element, a flower bouquet, introduced in the foreground. It is also important his use of the roads as the settting for many of his photographs, stressing the presence of the subject in the centre of the image, giving this way a bigger visual impact caused by the feeling of void generated.
Virxilio was very careful both with the background and the different elements introduced, and with the position of the subject or the relation between them when there were more than one. “It was necessary to include an element so that the subject did not look like a post”. We must not consider strange the inclusion of domestic animals like the goat, the cat or the dog, but what is really surprising is the way he does it, mixing them with the people in their most elegant clothes. For example, that one taken in San Marcos where a girl all dressed up, in high-heel shoes, is holding at the same time a goat and her handbag. It is also remarkable the series of all the family with a dog standing in two legs as if it were just another member of the family, and then the separate picture of the mother and her son with a cat in his lap and a vegetal background which covers the whole photogram. The dog is an element which often contributes to give visual force to the pictures like, for example, the old man with the little girl, and the one of the boy on the road, looking at the camera with a certain suspicion, and the dog with a similar expression, as if it knew that he was also being photographed. Sometimes the role played by animals is played by other elements, women frequently appear holding something in their hands, a bouquet, a sewing case or a wallet.
The importance he gave to the setting, controlled with a great sensibility, never produced sophisticated, gratuituos or overelaborate images. Their force lies in their simplicity, in spite of being a bit unusual, like the one in which three women pose between two flowerpot stands in the middle of the road. In short, it can be said that we are seeing a way of working never seen before in the other archives previously studied.
Attention must be also paid to the number of images which Virxilio constructs introducing as background the huge Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Fords or Cadillacsbrought from America by the emigrants, and which became a very important element of some pictures. For Virxilio these luxurious “haigas” were a novelty and a very attractive luxury to be included in the photographs. It is funny to see, when studying the negatives, the same car in a series of pictures with the only change of the subject before the car. Sometimes there is even a group or a family before the car.
The coaches of La Numancia or La Montañesa, or even his motorcycle, which appears in a number of pictures, have the same importance as the cars mentioned. The change of car models shows us the changes in society. So, we can see the substitution of American cars for European ones, and the irruption of the Seat 1500 and 600.
Although the whole history of Galicia is marked by emigration, it was in the fifities and sixties when this emigration reached its highest point in the century, particularly intense in Terra de Montes, where people used to emigrate to Brazil, Panama, Venezuela and Mexico.
The pictures with the “haiga” reflect clearly the situation caused by emigration. Big American cars could be seen in roads that were just country paths, in villages where the farmers lacked the most elementary machines and the population lacked the most elementary services. It seems surrealist to see one of these “haigas” before a house where running water would come ten years later, where the expected 110 volts were just 80, making long winter nights a totally dull time. Nevertheless, Virxilio’s images were never meant to be critical. The photographer himself did not feel identified with his country, on the contrary, he would have liked not to have
come back, and he considered the economic underdevelopment suffered by Galicia and, particularly by the country villages, as something inevitable.
Many of the pictures were ordered to be sent to the family who lived in America, acquiring this way a notarial value. The one with the boy holding a duck and a Pan American plane had been ordered by his grandmother so that the boy’s parents could see that he was well looked after. Something similar happened with the one of a woman and a radio “which was loved as a member of the family. They had sent her the money to buy it and she wanted the photo to be a proof of the purchase”. The radio is taking the place of the person on the chair, and the fact of putting her hand behind it, shows us both the importance of the radio for the woman and the loneliness she seemed to live in.
When we speak about Virxilio’s photographs, it must be taken into account that they were made in “times with very different economic conditions, one had to have the money for the portrait, the clothes and the shoes”. One simple look at them tells us that they were dressed in their best clothes, being these at times just the reason for the photograph. Sometimes the clothes were sent from America and the picture was sent back as a way of gratitude. Quite eloquent are the photos of the boys wearing trousers too short for their legs or jackets that were too long, where one can see the need they suffered in those years. Virxilio remembers when he had to hide the feet of the person in the picture because, although the clothes were new, the shoes were not. A full detail study of the clothes, the hairstyles, the objects and the poses gives us a lot of visual information about that time.
Whereas in those full-length portraits, the setting is very careful, in those half-length, there is a total simplicity of the scene, and just a white piece of cloth, often with the same L-shaped tear, is the background. Sometimes a bedspread is used instead of the backcloth used by the studios of big cities. These photographs, most of which were taken for the identity card with a 35mm. camera, can be considered as a collective portrait of the people of the region. People belonging to all social groups can be seen: farmers, shopkeepers, priests, civil guards, women, men, old people, young people, children…
All his portraits have some common characteristics apart from the aforementioned constructed setting. The statism, the stiffness, the frontality, the central position of the subject, the direct look at the camera and certain common features in all expressions have the effect of an extraordinary charm, unity and coherence in all his work. Sometimes Virxilio’s photographs remind us of August Sander (Country Girls, Little Girl on the Day of Her First Communion, Country Boy), of Paul Strand’s portraits, and also of those ones made at the time or some time later by Richard Avedon or Diana Arbus. As an example, it could be remarked the resemblance between the half-length photograph of the couple and some photographs by Diana Arbus, or the portrait of a man in an unbalanced composition surrounded by a big white mass, which resembles others by Richard Avedon. Needless to say that Virxilio had not heard of these or other relevant photographers of the time.
Although the setting is extremely important in his photographs, it is not of a lesser importance the great capacity he has to capture the expression of the people photographed, making pictures which have an extraordinary life. By studying the faces of the people in his portraits we find sadness, (a different expression was not to be expected in those life conditions), suspicion, satisfaction sometimes, but in all of them we can find seriousness. This expression, together with the careful choice of clothes, shows us the respect felt at that time for the fact of being photographed. It was an absolutely exceptional and transcendent act, something completely different to these days, “now it is different because there is a camera in every house”.
Special attention must be paid to the children’s photographs. Some are dressed for their holy communion, some dressed on their Sunday best for the picture, resembling many times little men, always staring at the camera, with the same frontality and statism as the adults’ photographs.
His great mastery of portraits allowed him to make only one negative for each one, and just on a few occasions he made two, “I never wasted a plate”. He had a total control over the subjects and a great capacity to foresee the results, “the customers did not have to say anything, they were interested just in looking well and did not worry at all about the background of the picture. They asked where they had to stand. It was not like nowadays, the one in charge was the photographer, he was like a commissioner for oaths”. An example of the control he had over the setting is the portrait of the reapers holding their scythes. There is another negative of this photo where the pose and expression of the four men is identical to the other negative, they did not move a muscle of their faces in the time between the two pictures, but that time was enough to make the boy of the background disappear. The same can be said of the two photograms of the slaughter of the pig.
Some of his pictures remind us of the cinematographic references of the time, the blond young man on the Chevrolet bonnet makes us think of James Dean, the one with sun glasses on the bonnet and the other leaning against the tree with his jacket in his hand make us think of the neorealism leads, or the realistic Spanish movies of the time. These resemblances are more for the pose and setting than phisical.
Virxilio preferred portraits to photographic reports, “the photographs of weddings, christenings etc were just routine, the photographer was not the director. With portraits things were different”. Nevertheless many of the pictures included in a photographic report are solved as portraits or static scenes. For example the images about the farming work (the group of people holding the hoes, the family ploughing, or those of the reap) are a completely new way of approaching the farming work in Galicia. Those of the wakes and the weddings are other examples. In these works he makes not only the pictures in the church, or at the banquet, but also inside the house (saying goodbye to an ill relative), the one where we can see photos hanging from the wooden ceiling (the walls were made of stone), familiar celebrations like the extraordinary picture of the christening. The only dynamic images of his work were some made at the ballroom Ghangüi, where weddings and dances took place. The photograph of the waiter making coffee in 1955 shows us the type of coffee machine, the radio playing the role that a television set plays now or the calendar with publicity of Orbea bicycles, an important means of transport of the time, and not for sport reasons particularly. In his archive there are also images of all activities and events of the time. Carnival dances, the famous piper Avelino Cachafeiro, the cardinal Quiroga Palacios laying the foundation stone of the church and saying Mass in the open air, road accidents, the opening of a new hairdresser’s
with new machines for perming, the arrival of the circus (with magnificent portraits which remind us, for their background, of those by Seydou Keyta).
Special attention must be paid to the photographs about death, particularly to those of the wakes, which are really impressive. In these, all the ritual after death is shown, the corpse in the coffin surrounded by all the characteristic paraphernalia and iconography, with women dressed in mourning sometimes accompanied even by a child. Specially moving is the photogrpah of the dead boy from Sanguiñedo, surrounded by his mother and brothers. Worth mentioning are those of the funeral procession stopping on their way to the graveyard and opening the coffin so that the photographer could have more light in the open air. These images show both the authority and the importance of the photographer and, at the same time the different conception that the rural society had of death, and the role played by photography in all its ritual. The mourning is also reflected not only through the women in black, but also through other customs lost today, like for example the black armband on the raincoat sleeve.
The portrait of an ill woman in bed, a woman that looks beautiful, sweet and sad at the same time, is a peculiar picture that shows a peculiar treatment of pain, of tragedy, without the slightest morbidity which was characteristic in most of the photographs about this topic. Without any doubt this photo is not only respectful, but it makes us think of an image that will be kept in our minds, as it happens with good photographs.
The different way of approaching the topic of death can be clearly appreciated in the photo of the girls from Millerada, with niches in the background, or the girl sitting on a tomb, a setting considered natural at the time, but something that would be absolutely disgusting for a girl today.