Marcio Scavone was born in São Paulo in 1952. As a child, he began to shoot with his father’s Rolleiflex and at 20 he was already an advertising photographer. He studied photography in London in the 1970s. After going back to Brazil, he returned to Europe in the ’90s to live and photograph. Some of his published books include And Between Shadow and Light, Invisible Light, and Illustrated City.
In 2010 he released Journey to Freedom book and exhibition on the Japanese presence in São Paulo which was also published as an essay in National Geographic Magazine, winning the award for best text and photo material generated outside the US. Now based in São Paulo, he is dedicated to advertising and editorial photography, along with his personal work.
Q: So you have been a successful commercial and portrait photographer in Brazil, is that right?
A: Yes. I did my training in England in the 1970s, then I came back to Brazil and I started in the advertising studio. I like to say that as I grew older I grew smarter. I realized at some point around my 40s that there was so much more to photography than all these advertisements. That was when I found myself in England again and it was the genesis of my first book, which is loosely street photography but more like a photographer looking through his own eyes. This is what I wrote about in the book as I started fiddling with the idea.
Leica sent me the Monochrom a couple of years ago when they were launching it in Brazil. They asked me to do an essay and I went to Paris. It was winter and it made me think of all of the classic photographers who have done everything before in such a beautiful way. I had the privilege of knowing a few of them, like Elliott Erwitt and René Burri – these great masters. I was very lucky because in the ’70s I had lessons with Arnold Newman. This was formative to my portraiture work.
I read a lot, I like philosophy, and I like writing about photography. There’s a philosophical concept called rhizome that’s all about dealing with information or knowledge. Rhizome in botany is literally about roots talking to each other in the ground. I thought that would be a good start for explaining the way I was shooting. It’s as if your subconscious is over there, and I am over here, you would somehow know I am sending you some information under the ground about my references, where I’ve been, the music I’ve heard, the things I’ve seen. I’m glad my images speak to you because I was bold enough to say, “This is my New York.”
Q: You mentioned that you interacted with and took courses with some great masters. Did you have any formal education in photography?
A: Yes, I did my training over three years at Ealing College. In those days, West of London, those were the best schools for photography. That’s when we had the workshops. One of my tutors actually was an ex-assistant to Norman Parkinson.
Q: So you went back to Brazil and set up a studio and essentially you were creating commercial and portrait images. Commercial images can be fine art and I’ve seen some magnificent examples of advertising pictures that, if you took out the logo and tagline, you would have a top class work of art. These pictures in this portfolio are fine art images. Some photographers object to being called artists.
A: I’d like to say that when you blur the border between personal work and commercial work, you’re there. There’s no difference between Sundays and Mondays, you know.
Q: So you were working in portraiture, a genre that is mostly in-between commercial photography and art. The essence of portraiture transcends the physical form on the page and becomes something else: a form that communicates emotion. Tell me about your commercial photography and portraiture; your career.
A: My technical training is very strong, so when I started my career in my early 20s I was shooting mostly 4×5, 5×4, and 13×18 cm with Sinar and stuff. I was doing more still life in the ’80s than people because, in order to do portraiture, you have to grow up as a person as well; you have to get rid of your natural shyness about approaching people. It came in a very natural way for me and I migrated to portraiture. I shot a very famous printer in Brazil and she was on the cover of this art magazine and somebody from Vogue Magazine, like they did in those days, used to go to the newsstand to look out for new eyes, new people, new cameras. Very quickly, I did a whole Vogue Magazine with all the famous people of Brazil. From then on, I was a portrait photographer. I went on to the Hasselblad 50 year book.
Q: You were doing commercial and portrait photography, as well as some creative work with Hasselblad and then a Monochrom which is the closest thing to shooting B&W in digital photography because it’s super high resolution and it has magnificent tonal gradation. Just the technical quality of the B&W image is pretty spectacular. You must have been shooting a lot of color with the Hasselblad and all of a sudden, you have this black-and-white camera and you’re doing personal creative work.
A: Well, my portraiture is mainly B&W when it’s personal – when I’m not shooting for a magazine that really demands color. In my Hasselblad days, I always shot in both B&W and color. I’m a printer, so I’m very close to B&W interpretation. I think that the whole thing about B&W is that it does away with what color conveys to you or invades your world without asking permission. With B&W, in a way, you are more in control because you get rid of that cheap emotion of color and you’re back with your subject and your shapes and your composition. I’m very happy with the feel and quality of this film.
Q: You say color tends to be distracting and a cheap emotion, but I have to say I disagree with you. What do you find so compelling about B&W?
A: This is one of those impossible questions: is it emotions that led you to grab a color film from the shelf or a B&W film? I just cannot answer that. We know the grass is green, the sky is blue, and sometimes it’s purple. I grew up in the ’50s and it was all gray. My dad was a modernist photographer in Brazil, so at a very early age I was in the darkroom with him. I have a love story with B&W, yes, but I love color too. One of the reasons I shoot in B&W is to have control of the end product as well.
Q: The image I’m looking at is an image of the Manhattan Bridge. Underneath, you have a classical motif of a woman draped in folds. Below that is something that looks like part of the Manhattan skyline. I can see three distinct elements. It all hangs together in a statement that takes you beyond the bridge. It says something about the essence of New York City. The message is beyond words. The picture is classic. What were you thinking when you made this image? What was your concept?
A: Telling the story in an original way, I felt the weight of the great photographers before me shooting the cities. Especially these bridges. Maybe this statue, which I found in Manhattan, is me. It’s me compressed between the idea of the Manhattan Bridge. The upper side of the shot is a straight-forward photograph, with the red filter. I decided that this weight was on top of the human being there. Woody Allen’s Manhattan skyline had to be there because I felt the need to stress where I was.
Q: A lot of these pictures were made in New York. So I guess you like New York?
A: I started with these four cities that as a child I dreamed of visiting and wandering the streets. These huge mysterious cities like London, Paris, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. I will go on to Berlin, Tokyo, Rome, and my own São Paolo, which is very difficult for me to shoot because it’s the lady I sleep with every night. I started with these four very iconic cities.
Q: Some of these pictures have an ironic sense of humor. In this picture, it looks like some kind of old-fashioned car and instead of having wheels, there are pieces of a classical sculpture. In the background you have all of these traditional buildings with this feeling that it’s night. And I think that it’s a compelling image, but it also is kind of funny. Would you agree?
A: I agree with you entirely. This image is one of the first ones I did and when I finished it, I looked at it and said, “That’s it. That’s the way I’m going.” That image was used to launch the Monochrom in São Paolo, in Brazil. I was in Paris and there was this vintage car show. I thought it was interesting. It has humor, irony, and it’s very powerful. It takes you somewhere. It’s driving over the things that we’re taught are untouchable. I’m very happy with the language. I call it ineffable cities.
One of my guidelines for this work is that even if you know nothing about these four cities, they have to be loaded with some charge or power, which is the nature of photography.
Q: About the photo of the eye: there is something that is very suggestive, but on the other hand ultimately enigmatic about this picture. Here is a young, handsome man, maybe even about to become a man. And there’s this hand that almost looks like a claw holding up a negative. They’re getting a closer look of the eye. There is this mysterious character on the right that is seeming to shuffle off into the distance. It gives a sense that he did this thing and now we’re left to find the meaning of it. This picture is enigmatic.
A: I didn’t plan all of this, but when I set the photo, I used this eye that I shot in London as the center of this composition. The man on the right is an explorer. He’s walking through uncharted space. London always struck me, more than any other city, as a city of the sleuth. Her hand could be a question mark. It’s a beautiful woman; this a recurring theme in my photography because I do a lot on beauty. I like shooting beautiful women. This time, however, it’s down to her eye.
Q: There is this wonderful picture where there is this sunbather who is floating on a magic carpet above a favela.
A: Yes, that’s the favela. This is a social statement. In the Brazilian National Anthem, there is a line that says, “forever lying on a splendid cradle.” So with all that you’ve read about Rio and all of its beauty and problems, that’s one strong image that depicts the image of the upper middle class bathing in the sun, floating above the slum cities. I took a plane back to São Paolo and went back to the studio and dreamt of the shot, thinking, “now I need all these little houses, the repetitive favela landscape.” I knew exactly what I wanted.
Q: What you have created with these images is an organic psychological unity of disparate elements. In other words, you have taken disparate elements and merged them into an organic statement that has transcendent authenticity that goes beyond the individual elements. What is the thought process?
A: My point of departure is always one shot: the background. Maybe it’s from my portraiture formation because I build up from the back toward the front. I always know which one is going to hold everything. Then there’s one that delivers the punch. Lately, I’ve been using only two of three. There’s an old saying that the best negative always falls on the easel. It’s like something happens, an orgasm, “I found it!” If I find myself fiddling too long with one, I just abandon it.
A good photograph moves you before you understand it.
Q: Has discussing these images been different for you since this is your personal work?
A: As you get older, you lose your shame. I am very well-known for the portraiture work. I’m sure that this sort of work is not for everyone. It’s one stage above for me and the people who will share this. I am used to generating work when assigned or commissioned. Although it came from a Leica camera, it’s one of those terribly personal bodies of work. I believe it and it’s very encouraging to discuss it here with you. This is really exposing my soul.
Thank you for your time, Marcio!
– Jason Schneider, Leica Internet Team
Connect with Marcio on his website and Facebook.
This was a conversation between Marcio and Jason Schneider. For your convenience, it has been presented as a Q&A.