“Amid memory and poetry”
by Juan Travnik
With his photo essay “Arquitectura del Progreso 1890-1930”, Fernando Ras has produced an extensive collection of images from a particularly dynamic period of Argentine history. Undertaking a task on one of his favorite subject matters, he decided to explore the architecture which best depicts the decades between 1880 and 1930, a time of great transformation and change in the country, which stirred great expectations of progress backed by prosperous economic development.
Argentina occupied a relevant position among the world’s economies and these expectations kindled the local spirit. Buenos Aires rapidly changed its appearance, leaving behind a colonial heritage to become a young and modern metropolis. The cosmopolitan and vibrant city was also a port that funneled trade from abroad and was the entrance gate for the great waves of immigrants that brought with them a strong sense of social mobility and new cultural trends. According to the 1914 census, sustained growth increased the population of the city to 1.6 million, amongst which were a large percentage of newly established foreigners in the country.
As a result of this state of affairs and the dominant cultural, political and economic stance of the times, the style of public buildings, imposing private residences and the more relevant constructions of the times had considerable European influence and a marked eclecticism.
One hundred years later, Fernando Ras’ vision and attention was drawn to these buildings. He took new shots of the sites, facades and interiors, which both professional and amateur photographers of the times had systematically recorded with a high degree of technical skill, as they were being built. At the time, there was a clear official desire to document through pictures the more relevant buildings and public works that were changing the nation’s scenery.
However, the purpose that has shaped the essay is now different. Above all, it seeks to recapture the aesthetic values of the architecture of the period, to raise the alarm regarding the preservation of this heritage, which has been almost totally neglected for years; and in a deeper sense, to suggest the grand future which the works proclaim, even today, through the magnificent grandeur of the buildings of the period.
Ras’ photographs, with their strong homogeneity and formal rigor, come very close to that spirit. They convey admirable visual beauty as well as the distinctive solidity of the architecture of the time. They are neither melancholic nor querulous, which might have been expected from work dealing with a heritage and the passing of time. Since his lens focuses close to the level of the eyes and frames imperceptibly by cutting reality without resorting to effects, he manages to concentrate all of the viewer’s attention on the places, the interiors and the buildings portrayed.
The essay’s aesthetic proposal is based on a polished technique that allows him to build a wide range of shades attaining the appropriate atmosphere in every shot, while balancing contrasts even in very diverse light settings. If architectural spaces are ultimately defined by the light they receive, the choice of using ambient light is highly successful. That choice allows each place to be recreated in its true atmosphere and light.
In this essay, there is no other artifice than that derived from reducing reality to a smaller size image, in two dimensions and with a great many variations in shades of grey, carefully sepia toned in this case, so that the images convey a coloring similar to that of the photographs of the period.
The copies’ size is quite small, the classic thirty by forty very “photographic” dimensions, foreign to fashion and current trends that almost exclusively promote larger size works. The smaller format used calls for an intimate and close contemplation. Photography’s original dimensions are evoked, smaller, so that the spectator is induced to look in a manner in which he can see the whole image at first glance, without the need to scan it gradually, as generally occurs when confronted with reality or larger works.
Different architectural features occupy center stage in the essay, such is the case of the big and imposing columns of the Colon Theatre’s foyer, or the lighter and more subtle columns of the Congress or Buenos Aires City Council buildings. The voluptuous staircase of the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange or the generous proportions with enormous light inflows of the San Martin Palace, were one can gaze at the grandiosity of the place, shown in the shot in contrast to the size of the tables and sofas in the foreground of the photograph. Yet, Fernando Ras’ intention is not merely to record the significant architectural features.
He instills, by means of the manner in which he takes the shots, a sense of serenity and silence expressed in all of the photographs of the collection. With a great sensitivity in the display of volume and strong contrasts between light-dark produced by ambient light, as well as a very careful approach to the subject matter, Ras seems to walk through the spaces he photographs slowly and stealthily. As if he wishes his presence not to disturb what is happening there. Even though the scenes are empty, devoid of people, solely inhabited by gone by time and might be viewed as mute witnesses of hundreds of stories, the photographs show the deep warmth of his vision.
Without showing the people that usually inhabit and walk through the spaces daily, he creates a strange feeling in the viewer: he places us as spectators before each frame with great natural ease, and in the vacuum and persisting absence, he manages to enhance and strengthen the human presence within the mental space we build around each image.