José Medeiros’s best-known photographic essay was made in 1951 at a Candomblé place of worship in the city of Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia. In incredibly dramatic images, the photographer documented the initiation rite of young filhas de santo, or priestesses, in which animal sacrifice was performed.
This material was first published under the title of “The Brides of Bloodthirsty Gods” in O Cruzeiro magazine, along with a text by Arlindo Silva. The report’s sensationalism fueled an unprecedented social backlash, leading to a wave of public outrage and demonstrations that only exacerbated Brazilian society’s poor understanding of religions and beliefs of African origin.
Six years later, Medeiros expanded the material and republished it as Candomblé. It was the first photography book about this Brazilian religious tradition. This time the photographer decided to use simple, matter-of-fact captions ―which he likely wrote himself― so as to let viewers deal with this powerful, unique imagery on their own terms and draw their own conclusions. This is, without question, an iconic series and one of the first visual documents of this belief system of African origin in Brazil, whose publication also incited an unusual wave of public protests.
A pioneer of Brazilian photojournalism, José Medeiros documented the everyday life of his country, recording scenes from the worlds of art, politics, and high society, as well as aspects of popular life. Medeiros was introduced to photography by his father, an amateur photographer. He contributed to the magazine Tabu e Rio and to the weekly O Cruzeiro, where he worked for fifteen years. He captured unusual aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture and was one of the first photographers to document the indigenous population of the Amazon region. He worked in motion pictures as an assistant cinematographer and in 1980 directed his own film: Parceiros da aventura. He died in 1980 while preparing an exhibition in Italy. His collection of more than 20,000 negatives was acquired by the Instituto Moreira Salles in 2005.
I made the Dark Skin series when I was still a student,
attending studio courses with live models, focusing on anatomy,
body movements, and lighting. The human body was my introduction
to painting, and yet it ended up leading me to photography.
British-born, Brazilian-naturalized artist Maureen Bisilliat made Dark Skin almost fifty years ago: it was her first photographic essay, as she had until then worked exclusively in painting. It was shown at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art in 1966: a time when photographs of nude black models were something quite novel. With this essay, Bisilliat’s work underwent an important transition, as she began a new exploration of the human body and definitively stopped painting. Her photographic essays, conceived and edited as compelling visual sequences, epitomize her vision of the real and the imaginary universe, constituting what she herself calls photographic equivalencies of the literary works that have lent direction to her practice.
In powerful visual sequences, Maureen Bisilliat has documented the culture of Brazil, the country of which she became a citizen in 1957. Her photographs are testimonies to the rituals of the Xingu indigenous people and the crab catchers, to the physical beauty of black Brazilians. Bisilliat started her career as a photojournalist at the magazines Quatro Rodas and Realidade (1964-1972), after abandoning painting as a medium of expression. Based on a photo essay of the same name, she published her first book, João Guimarães Rosa, in 1966, with texts by the novelist himself. Since then, she has created photographic equivalences with the literary works of other Brazilian authors. She is also the editor of the celebrated Xingu: Detalhes de uma Cultura (1978). In 2010 she was honored with the Order of Ipiranga in Brazil. The entire body of her work has been safeguarded in the archive of the Instituto Moreira Salles since 2003.