In Conversation with Walter Firmo

“What Matters Is The Poetry”

Known for his famous portraits of Brazilian music icons, photographer Walter Firmo’s works have been exhibited in museums around the world. At 82, he talks about how he is dealing with being away from the streets, describes racism in Brazil, and looks back on his career in photography.

C&AL: You began your professional career in 1957 as a press photographer for the newspaper Última Hora. Were there other black staff in the newsroom? Could you talk a little about racism at that time?

WF: I was the only black man, but I couldn’t really say if I suffered racism at that time, because I was very naive back then. I always liked to create, to get off the beaten track, and I worked really hard at my job. My photos stood out and maybe that’s why I didn’t get harassed in that regard. I only realized what an extremely racist country Brazil was when I went to spend a few months at the New York branch of Manchete, in the late 1960s. One day, the editor-in-chief showed me a message he had received by telex. In the text, a colleague in Brazil was complaining about them having chosen me to be at that branch. According to him, I was a terrible professional, as well as illiterate and black. That’s when it started to sink in.

Parallel to all this, I was in New York in the midst of the American civil rights movement and the emergence of the black is beautiful movement. All of that really moved me. It was a moment of deep questioning. I started to wonder why, generally speaking, blacks in Brazil were only ever photographed inside police patrol wagons getting arrested or when they were already behind bars. I grew my hair out and returned to Brazil just before the start of the 1970s with the decision to photograph and highlight our blackness. And not to photograph only artists, but factory workers, and workers in general, people on the streets and at popular festivals.

C&AL: Your photos helped bring fame to Afro-Brazilian musicians such as Clementina de Jesus and Cartola. One of your most celebrated works is your series of portraits of musician, arranger, and composer Pixinguinha, one of the godfathers of choro music, for a feature published in 1967. What is the story behind that shoot?

WF: I was on duty in the Manchete magazine newsroom when I was scheduled to accompany the great Muniz Sodré—back then a rookie reporter and now professor emeritus at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. We were to interview Pixinguinha for a big feature on samba. Incidentally, I wound up taking all the photos for that article and on that occasion I had the honor of also doing shoots with Clementina de Jesus, Cartola, Carlos Cachaça, and other old pros.

Well, when we got to Pixinguinha’s house, in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, while Muniz was doing the interview, I started wandering around the yard, racking my brains about how to do the portrait. It was a humble place, a concrete patio without much appeal, but there was a beautiful mango tree in the back. When the interview was over, I approached carefully and asked Pixinguinha, who, by the way, was in his pajamas, if I could put his rocking chair under the tree.

He was an old man and a dignitary of Brazilian music, but he was also a very nice man. He agreed immediately. In the backyard, I did a 360 degree turn and took 36 photos of him at various angles. I should add that, back then, despite their importance to Brazilian culture, these artists weren’t looked upon with the proper respect they deserved. I’d even say that they were treated with contempt, like they were part of some lesser culture, perhaps because they were mostly poor and black.

C&AL: In your opinion, what is essential for taking a good portrait?

WF: Above all, you’ve got to have empathy for the subject and a healthy dose of sensitivity. I often say that every photographer has three guises: the “thief”, the “engineer” and the “invisible”. The thief doesn’t care about focus or aesthetics. Anything goes because the important thing is stealing a shot any way you can. The engineer directs his scenes with a ruler and compass to enlarge the frame. The invisible is when the photographer, lost in the crowd, captures the world with “three eyes”, without anyone noticing.

Now, photography is a stroke of luck. It’s being at the right moment, the decisive moment, as extolled by [French photographer Henri] Cartier Bresson, my greatest influence alongside the late [American photographer based in Brazil] David Drew Zingg. From him I learned the importance of color in photography, which has become the trademark of my work, even though I’ve done shoots in black and white.

C&AL: Your work has its origins in photojournalism, but today it is in museums and art galleries. How did that happen?

WF: I think it’s because I’ve always tried to bring a poetic eye to my work. In photojournalism, even when I was instructed to photograph a pothole in the street, I’d try to find an unusual angle [laughs]. My goal has always been to create chronicles of everyday life, to make the news beautiful, and not limit myself to just recording facts. In addition, I always done my own work, where, over the years, I investigated folklore and popular festivals. Now, all this about being a photographer, an artist, those are just labels. What matters is the poetry.

Ana Paula Orlandi is a journalist specializing in culture and behavior. She holds a master’s degree from the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo.

Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry