Review by Wayne Swanson •
Let us now praise Maria Thereza Alves. Over the past four decades, this Brazilian-born artist, social activist, and documentarian has established an international reputation as a champion for social justice. In 1983, however, she was just a 21-year-old junior studying photography at Cooper Union in New York City who decided to visit the rural villages of Brazil where her family came from.
The result of that trip is Recipes for Survival, a just-now-published work of photography and prose that has been compared to the classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. The comparison is apt, although in this case Alves plays the roles of both photographer and writer. The book opens with 72 images spread over 137 pages that would make Evans proud. They are followed by 106 pages containing prose that is as insightful as Agee’s, if a lot more restrained.
Just as Evans and Agee drew attention to the lives of Depression-era sharecroppers in the southern U.S., Alves documents the subsistence existence of peasants in southern Brazil. As her title suggests, there are some actual recipes in this book. But this is definitely not a cookbook. Rather, the real recipes documented here are the economic, social, and political conditions that cooked up a permanent underclass.
The black and white images — portraits of the people, their daily lives, and their surroundings — have a similar feel to those of Walker Evans. But Alves’ photos are less formal. They are more candid and dynamic, showing that there is life amid the shabbiness.
Alves brought to this project a special kinship with the people she was documenting. As she notes on her website, “My family happen to be descendants of indigenous peoples and former African slaves and Europeans of unknown origins. In Brazil, histories force us, as the subject, to become and remain the ‘other.’”
Alves built on that kinship by involving the people in her research. She asked them who or what they would like to have photographed or written about, and how they wanted to be photographed. The intimacy of her images reflects the rapport she developed, as does the text that follows.
In direct, matter-of-fact prose, Alves describes the people, their struggles, their humanity, and their frailty. She captures the grinding poverty, the ways their lives are at the mercy of the weather, money lenders, banks, and the government, and the inevitable highs and lows of domestic relationships. She supports her portraits of the people with details including recipes for a subsistence diet like Bolinhos de Arro (Rice Cakes) and Pinhao con Carne (Pine Nuts with Meat), lists of grocery prices and native plants and animals, and her own poetry. All together, it adds up to a detailed sociological study.
Yet for such a strong documentary project, its minimalist presentation is a bit frustrating. There’s an introduction, the images, the text, and that’s it. The introduction is by someone named Michael Taussig. Who’s he? A Google search will tell you that he’s an eminent anthropologist at Columbia University, but that attribution is nowhere to be found in the book. Like the Evans/Agee book, the photos and text are divorced from each other. While we can guess at which photos relate to which text passages, there’s no way to connect the dots, not even a list of plates.
If you go to Alves’ website, you can find some details about the story behind the book. But nowhere is there an explanation for why it’s taken 35 years to release such an impressive body of work. Why not at least include an afterword to address some of these issues, and perhaps bring us up to date on the current conditions in the area?
That quibble aside, what is between the covers is remarkable. As Taussig notes in his eloquent introduction, “How a slip of a girl, aged twenty-one, could write such a text, let alone make such intense photographic portraits, is unfathomable.”
There are plenty of reasons to praise this famous woman and the people she celebrates in this book.
Recipes for Survival — Maria Thereza Alves
Artist: Maria Thereza Alves, born in Brazil, resides in Naples and Berlin
Publisher: University of Texas Press (Austin TX) copyright 2019
Introduction: Michael Taussig; Text Maria Thereza Alves
Hardcover book, sewn binding, 75 duotone photographs, 256 pages, 9 x 10 inches, printed in China
Photobook designer: Matt Avery/Monograph