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Jul 15, 2013

RGB


'You're too young to have cataracts', the doctor says. 'Well', I reply, 'maybe that's because I started to see at a very young age.' He laughs – go figure why – and writes his phone number on a piece of yellowish paper: 'Call me when you're ready.' Did I say 'yellowish?' Sorry, it's the habit. Monet, you know, the French artist who painted all those wonderful variations of a japanese bridge in his Giverny garden, had cataracts. After surgery, he returned to his beloved motif only to discover that, while it still had all the usual reds, greens and blues, they were in the wrong places (bear with me, si non è vero è ben trovato.)

Until cirgury I won't be able to coordinate my eyes, but you only need one eye to use a viewfinder, right? So I'm doing the best I can to capture all those weird, screaming colors that we both know aren't really there.

May 25, 2013

Lisbon Stories (17)


I knew João was leaving the country, by Springtime maybe, we talked about it. Maybe Switzerland, he said, or Luxembourg. It was kind of our secret. He used to work in the cinema industry in Portugal as a man in charge of generators, but was left out of work when the austerity begun. He met a lot of famous people. Cameron Diaz and other names I forgot but know are important in the industry. Once, someone at the bar thought it was strange that I did black-and-white. Why not color, he asked. João got angry and shook his head in disdain. How ignorant, he said. He is a tough but noble man.

Today I knew that João, at 54, left the country for South Africa.

May 12, 2013

Lisbon Stories (16)



Friday morning at Café Africano, in the riverside neighborhood of Dafundo, Lisbon coast: the usual gathering of unemployed men, oddjobbers, and retired elders. I carry with me a small thermal transfer printer (think of the system as a souped-up Polaroid,) set it at a table and ask the guys who would be the first to have his picture taken. Most of them know me and feel at ease with my work, so I have no trouble getting volunteers. Mr. Sequeira, a retired gentleman who never drinks anything, is the first. I ask Fernando to hold the speedlight for me. Fernando lives under a railway bridge by the riverside and is trying to save €5 to pay for a haircut, but his coins always find their way to Euclides’ counter to be exchanged for wine cups. He soon becomes an expert at flash photography. When his turn comes, I ask Mr. Marinho to hold the speedlight and Fernando gives him some professional hints. ’You have to see me through the little hole in that white card,’ he says, and Mr. Marinho nods. 
Damn, I had never thought of that.

Mar 13, 2013

Lisbon Stories (15)


After months gathering stories and taking photographs at the working-class neighborhood of Dafundo – this small area of the Lisbon Coast being doomed, its once well-attended beach now conveniently classified as ‘sandy area’ and reserved for a marina – I proposed to Euclides, who runs the 'Café Africano' with his father, to hang on the tavern’s walls pictures of the place and the people who frequent it. We’ll have a vernissage – a posh thing, as you can imagine – and wine will be served to whoever crosses the door.

This ‘permanent exhibit’ wouldn’t be complete without a picture of Mr. Sequeira: he is part of the furniture at Café Africano. Always ready for a domino game, he talks very little, maybe not to ruin his shy, everlasting smile. Now that I think of it, I don’t remember having heard his voice before today. Mr. Sequeira loves football, so I took a picture of him caressing a table football dummy painted with the colors of his team of choice. He was clearly amused.

I took three or four shots and told Mr. Sequeira they looked pretty good on the lcd screen. I said I would leave a print for him with Euclides. He gave a start and looked straight at me with tiny, inscrutable eyes. Then he asked, the voice trembling a bit,

‘Do I have to pay anything…?’

Mar 10, 2013

Lisbon Stories (14)


A couple of days ago, Dona Francisca celebrated her 93rd birthday (she shyly says 82, but Euclides, who runs the ‘Café Africano’, says she’s been 82 for many years now.) A Cape-Verdian from the island of S. Vicente, Dona Francisca is a delight to talk to, even though she’s almost completely deaf and keeps asking Como é?, ‘How’s that?’. She reads the newspaper’s headlines out loud, she laughs at them, she sings, Estás no meu coração, ‘You’re in my heart.’ We sit at the same table and I ask her to take a couple of photographs. ‘Why not?,' she says, 'While the wind is blowing outside, I can’t go for my walk.’

Mar 6, 2013

Rushing Things



‘Dad,’ Daniel said, ‘it’s moving!’ He had been up and down investigating the mechanics of the thing and had pushed the pier bridge a meter or so. ‘No brake shoes,’ I remember thinking, ‘how odd.’ But hey, I’m not an engineer, so what did I know. The people at the pier were taking photographs, unaware of my son’s scientific inquiries. ‘Dad, it’s MOVING,’ he insisted, laughing nervously. I told him ‘Son, I’m taking photographs. Please wait until I’m finished.’ Kids are always rushing things. Eventually, one of the men on the river noticed the movement of the pier and started running up, crying like a madman. The others followed him and were able to put the brake shoes behind the wheels. This is wild guess, for at the time I had finished taking photographs I was half a kilometer away.


Addendum: I had lunch with Daniel today and asked him to forgive me for having been such a clown as an educator. After all, I’m a humorist: I earn my living mostly by drawing and writing very silly things disguised as deep truths about Man and the Universe (or was it the other way around?)
I added that it is highly unlikely that I change in the future. Not after 50, I won’t. He said he was glad we have always been such good ‘accomplices.’ He wasn’t using the wrong word. But I can assure the ethical reader that no human being, irrational animal, or plant was ever hurt in the course of my fatherhood.

Feb 10, 2013

Lisbon Stories (13)



(Dafundo quarter, Lisbon Coast) Many, if not most, of the ‘habitués’ of Euclides’s Café Africano are retired fishermen, unemployed workers, and homeless people. Unlike what would happen in any café of a more fortunate neighborhood, they aren’t required to consume. The sharing of space and time happens naturally.
The first to arrive sits at a table – most have preferred seats – and waits. It doesn’t take long before he is challenged. As the duel begins, other locals gather to witness the skill of the players and comment on the game. Quarrels are so rare an event that they become legend and are told in a murmur. The place has its doors always wide open, but not even the cold keeps the players at home: today, I’ve seen one of them appear with a pajama showing under his pants and sweater.
If for some reason there is no challenger, Euclides himself is happy to sit at the game table and be miserably beaten by the seasoned folk.

Feb 8, 2013

Lisbon Stories (12)



A few days ago I talked for a while with Costa, an old fisherman from the working-class neighborhood of Dafundo, on the Lisbon Coast. He had some stories to tell – mostly dealing with the life of the fishermen in the old days and the hard times that never really went away. Separated from the beach by the railway line and the coastal road connecting Lisbon to the exquisite village of Cascais, the few remaining fishermen prefer to take their chance and risk being run over by a car or the frequent trains than walking all the way to the closest pedestrian crossing.

I knew there had been accidents in the area, but had no idea if they were frequent. I asked Costa about it. He told me the story of Rui, ‘a son of the neighborhood.’ Rui is a machinist at CP, the company that explores and maintains the Portuguese railways, and works at the very same Lisbon-Cascais line his Dafundo friends cross all the time. ‘The first time he ran over someone,’ Costa said, ‘he couldn’t eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. The second time, he managed to eat dinner. The third time, he ate dinner and lunch.’ Costa became silent. There really was no need to go on.

Today, a train coming from Cascais had problems on one of its carriage’s wheels while passing in front of Dafundo. I’ve been told later by Euclides, whose father rans a tavern on the roadside, that the train passed by releasing sparks and smoke. The operator managed to reduce the train’s speed, but couldn’t avoid the derail of one of the carriages. The accident must have caused damage to a switch, for another train, though warned and following the first one at low speed, had half of its carriages sent to another line.

As I took some shots of the rescue team trying to remove the derailed carriage, I couldn’t help but thinking that at least today Rui would have all his meals.

Lisbon Stories (11)


The backstreets of the trendy 24 de Julho Avenue, in Lisbon, pay some of the price for the ‘movida’ that keeps the bright side alive all night – dawn included. I prefer to walk in there on Sundays by daybreak, when you can witness the slow death of the weekend nightlife, sometimes with the colors of agony, and the only dwellers are the homeless and a few early-rising locals. Once, I stopped in front of the pile of junk you can see in the photograph; I inspected it for a while; I took some pictures of it. Except for the mattress, it was business junk – most of it labeled with the TAP Air Portugal logo and mailing addresses.

A man appeared on the corner carrying a Bershka plastic bag. He gave a start when he saw me – apart from a flock of sorry-looking pigeons, we were the only non-crawling creatures in there – but he recovered when I uttered a cheerful ‘Good morning’. He answered back and went his way down the street. I started walking up towards the elegant, inaccessible villas that little by little took the place of the old working-class houses and shops. A mouth-watering smell denounced the existence of a bakery somewhere in the vicinity. I stopped to try to figure where it was coming from. Then the Bershka bag man made a reappearance. This time he didn’t see me. He probably backtracked to check if there was something in there worth salvaging. Or maybe he was just moved by curiosity – what could have I found in a pile of junk that made it worthwhile photographing?

Feb 1, 2013

What's in a name?



(Belmonte, Northeastern Portugal.) The expression ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek and means something like ‘relative to the dog’. Oscar Wilde carved the word’s modern denotation in stone when he made one of his characters define a cynic as ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. In Classical Greece, however, Cynicism was a school of philosophical thought. Its better known proponent was Diogenes of Sinope, who famously lived inside a tub or a huge pot on the streets of Athens. He held in contempt all social conventions and did everything – from eating to defecating to masturbating – in public. Talk about practicing Philosophy. The general idea, which Diogenes took to an extreme, was to eschew all possessions and live ‘according to Nature.’ The philosopher himself used a bowl to drink water until the day he saw a little boy drinking from his hands. In shame, he immediately threw away the bowl.
You can easily guess what would happen to someone behaving this way in any modern city. Luckily for Diogenes, he lived in Classical Athens – like a dog, but you can't have everything.

Jan 30, 2013

Lisbon Stories (10)



(Dafundo, Lisbon Coast) João tells me that sometimes things get stolen in here - mostly iron for the scrapheap, but also flatware, cups, and dishes kept under the fishermen's boats covers for festive gatherings. He raises the tip of one of the covers to reveal the boat’s contents and parades some extraordinary fishing lures, holding them between his thumb and a forefinger once cut short by a mishap with a fishing hook. He then walks towards the truck wheel rim the locals use to grill food and points at it with the cigarette locked between the fingers. 'They once tried to steal this,' he says not without pride, 'but were unable to carry it.'

It's hard to believe that this strange place used to be one of the trendiest beaches of Lisbon, but you know what they say: photographs - at least those taken 100 years ago - don't lie.

Jan 22, 2013

Would You?


A tourist looks down at the stadium of the ancient site of Olympia, Greece. She’s seeing more than any Greek woman of the Archaic and Classical periods could ever dream of: the usual penalty for a woman caught at the site of the games was to be thrown off a cliff. We can imagine the ladies sneaking in with false beards and phony voices – like the stone-throwers of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ – but chances are they didn’t go that far. Would you?

Jan 19, 2013

Lisbon Stories (9)



João, 53, works in the cinema and advertising industry as a technician in charge of generators. He is the man who ensures that the lights are on at all times. Have you ever witnessed a complete studio shutdown? There’s a whooom sound, and bang!– the Universe collapses into a particle again. That’s what João does: he prevents localized reversals of the Big Bang. Or used to prevent, because the crisis and the austerity left him out of work.

When the tide allows, João goes clam-digging at the river banks. I’ve arranged with him to go along one day – ‘All you need,’ he says, ‘is a pair of wellingtons.’ Like many of his neighbors of Dafundo, João passes some of his time on the strip of land where the railway line connecting Lisbon and Cascais was built. He feeds the pigeons, cultivates vegetables, watch the joggers and cyclists go by and, generally speaking, has a good time playing cards and drinking red wine.

Tables and chairs manage to survive between boats, piles of empty bottles and junk of all kinds. Zé, another local, had shown me before the chair you see in the picture. I point it to João. He immediately claims the authorship of the piece: he made it from two ‘objets trouvés’. I take a shot of him with his artwork. Oblivious to the significance of the moment, cyclists and joggers insist on passing by.

Jan 17, 2013

Lisbon Stories (8)


'Hmmm. I like the look of whatever it is that this guy is eating. Can't make heads or tails from the menu, but this dive is full of locals, so it's probably good. Some of them even wear suits! They probably came here for a cheap meal. Hmm. I really like the look of whatever it is that guy is eating. I can't make up my mind. Oh my, he's shooting at me!'

Jan 15, 2013

But Heraclitus said...


The owner of this elegant piece of automobile equipment has, well, upgraded it. In front of his house, at a narrow curve on the slopes of the Serra de Sintra, Portugal, is now parked a brand new blue tricycle. So, is everything really in a state of flux? ‘You very silly person’, Parmenides would answer, ‘of course not.’ 'No?' ‘No. The new tricycle is; the old one is not.’

He does have a point. Still, I’d rather publish this eleven year-old photograph than a picture of the trycicle that now is, for I find the one that is not more in accordance with the poetic exuberance of Sintra.

Jan 14, 2013

The Metaphysics of Surfing



I once had the opportunity to watch a surfer as he fought his way to the pages of a spiritual book. I know it was a spiritual book because beautiful sunbeams radiated from its cover. The book was not a weighty tome, nor was it hard to read: spiritual books are never hard to read – if they really are spiritual, that is. (I’m sorry; my English is failing me here.) The fighting was all about the surfer’s cross-legged, upright seating position. You can’t keep focus on a narrative, even if it is a spiritual one, when you just broke another intermediate cuneiform bone. Not all of us have the Stoic abilities of an Epictetus, who, just to make a philosophical point, happily watched as his antagonist broke his leg.

I remember thinking that this surfer probably wasn’t a very good surfer, but what did I know?

I had quite the opposite sensation with that kid on the left of the picture. I watched, camera in hand, as he trained and gave a display of grace and agility on the sand. When the other kid made his appearance on the beach, it became obvious that the first one was some kind of a spiritual guru. ‘And rightly so,’ I said to myself. I now understand what surfers mean when they say they feel grateful for their first good wave. It’s not that different with photographers, is it?

Jan 12, 2013

Chestnut Trees

Queluz Palace gardens, Portugal

Are you old enough (and saw enough Woody Allen movies) to have read Sartre’s existentialist novel, ‘Nausea’? Sitting on a park bench, Antoine Roquentin, the main character, stares at the dark roots of a chestnut tree and is confronted with Existence itself. Now, those trees in the distance are not chestnut trees; they are white poplar trees. Roquentin suddenly becomes aware of the essence of things beyond their names and physical appearance; he distinguishes between Being and Nothingness, which is always a good thing when you’re driving in heavy traffic. I don’t think the gracious pastoral figure in the picture ever felt such a degree of detachment as to doubt her own existence. No wonder. After all, those trees in the distance are not chestnut trees.

Jan 11, 2013

Etiquette


In medieval times, profane words were kept in places other than a dying man’s bed, where Divinity and the Devilish Brigade were supposed to be having a nasty dispute. Symbols and gestures were paramount. Few could read, let alone write, and the ones who could were often more into heavenly, when not horticultural, issues. But I digress. Please take a look at the picture. The King is giving his right hand to his wife. Probably at the cost of perpetual shoulder pain and general discomfort, the Queen stretches her arm to give her right hand to her husband. Death is no excuse for not observing the etiquette.

(The tombs of king Duarte, the Philosopher, and his wife, Leonor, exposed to the inclemency of the weather at the Imperfect Chapels, Batalha Monastery, Portugal.)

Jan 9, 2013

Happy Birthday



One of the little tragedies in my life was to have lost all photographs I took of you, Catarina, from your birth to when you were about 4 or 5 (video recordings have been lost, too, but for some reason I don’t weep much for those.) Their disappearance remains a conundrum. I still feed a tiny particle of hope that they will show up one day, but I’m not sure if I should, for hope isn’t necessarily a good thing. Remember Pandora and her pot of evils. Hope was the only thing left in the pot when she managed to close it. You see, this was a pot of evils – so Hope must have been considered an evil, too.

The farmer and part-time poet Hesiod, who lived in or around the 8th century BCE in Greece, wasn’t exactly an admirer of women’s qualities. He mustn’t have been very popular among the ladies to say that Pandora, the first woman, was herself an evil that the cunning gods had bestowed on men as a punishment for their ‘hubris’.  That’s a misogynistic approach if I ever saw one. And yet, Pandora means ‘the all-endowed’, for she was gifted by the gods every single talent imaginable.

Ever since you were born I knew Hesiod was a silly man. At 22 you are all-endowed, but never an evil. He got that part wrong from the Muses. I’ll keep looking for the photographs, but I don’t really need them. Your birth and first years are imprinted in my memory and will be there long after other, lesser things fall into oblivion.

Happy birthday!
Your loving father.

Jan 8, 2013

Sunday


Sunday mass has finished at Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal. I watch the locals, mostly old people, as they leave the small whitewashed church. At the beach below, women in topless play dangerous games with Helios, the sun. Old men watch them from the security of the walls above. A nun stays behind and talks to someone. I can almost hear a voice saying, 'Ite, missa est' - 'Go, for it is over'.

Jan 6, 2013

Nil Admirandum



Edward Weston probably began the trend when he photographed the sensuous toilet of his house in Mexico: the year was 1925. In the late 60s, Bill Owens made another toilet illustrious. Complete with a flush, it had been converted into a flower holder and occupied a central position in the garden of a suburban house. A woman was watering the flowers and, according to Owen’s caption on the photograph, she said: ‘Before the dissolution of our marriage my husband and I owned a bar. One day a toilet broke and we brought it home.’
The owners of this house in Midwestern Portugal would probably be heartbroken if I told them their idea was not that original.

Jan 5, 2013

42



(Castilla-la-Mancha, Don Quijote's homeland, Spain.) People who spend a long time at sea or live in the plains are more prone to melancholy than those living in, say, mountains or forests. No wonder, for they have a glimpse of Infinity.

Infinity is not a line. It is not a direction. It is a question. If you manage to reach the end of Infinity – a paradoxical notion, but once you've seen a monkfish you are prepared to accept anything – you'll have the key to the Meaning of Life. Even if, like in Douglas Adams' novel, the answer to "the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything" ends up being a rather disappointing two-digit number. ‘A joke’, Adams explained. Geeks wouldn’t be defeated, though, and for years have been trying their best to show us infidels how meaningful ‘42’ is. ‘The Meaning of Life,’ they say, ‘cannot be a joke.’

Jan 4, 2013

Lisbon Stories (7)


The man points at my somewhat conspicuous lens. ‘Is that a wide angle?’, he asks with a cheerful smile. I smile back and answer, ‘Yes, it’s a wide angle.’ He gives me the thumbs-up. Sitting next to him, his wife – I think she is his wife – looks puzzled by the expression. ‘Grande angular.’ They are tourists from Brazil. I've always liked the sound of Brazilian Portuguese. My mother, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and has a deep-rooted fondness for the country, says it is Portuguese with sugar. The old Bica elevator starts moving. There’s some thrill in the cabin. The slow descent and the narrowness of the sidewalk turn the passersby into pictures at an exhibition.

Jan 3, 2013

Modesty


At the entrance of a monastery at Meteora, Greece, two British women (the older lady’s t-shirt is a give-away), presumably mother and daughter, avidly look up their copy of Baedeker, the Lonely Planet of the 19th century. Well, not both of them; the young woman wears a lovely melancholy on her face that a less insightful observer could mistake for boredom. She looks distant, doesn’t she? Maybe she’s thinking about some Dragoon that hasn’t been writing to her as often as he should (remember, we’re in the late 19th century, the age of Romanticism.) The anachronic atmosphere is reinforced by the fact that both women are wearing skirts, a rare outfit among tourists, and that the skirts are exactly alike. In fact, they're cloths furnished by the nuns to cover the ladies pants or even, Heaven forbids, their naked legs and shorts. Not fashion, you see, but pious modesty.

Jan 2, 2013

Lisbon Stories (6)


Spot the Moon (Parque das Nações, East Lisbon) - Early morning walks allow you to see things is a crisp, unpolluted way. People are either asleep or too worried about getting to work on time to notice you or stay in the frame. The office building's lights are on, but through the ever larger windows you can only see the fleeting shadows of the cleaning personnel. Cleaning is not real work, is it? It disturbs, it is noisy, it is distractive, so it must be done before dawn, like Santa Claus's work, by people that live in places we've never seen and speak many languages we'll never understand. A fair number of the city workers live underground, in some secret place we can't or won't see, and breathe, trough pipes like these, the air we have in excess.