Manoel de Oliveira’s Photography Then and Now

Manoel de Oliveira - Photographer, Fundação De Serralves, 2020

To accompany the exhibition Manoel de Oliveira: Photographer, the Casa do Cinema Manoel de Oliveira / Fundação de Serralves will publish a book dedicated to the photographs that belong to the director’s archive. Taken between the late 1930s and the mid-1950s, these images, that have been stored for several decades and most of which have never been published, not only reveal an unknown side of Oliveira — his activity as a photographer — but also launch new hypotheses for understanding the evolution of his cinematographic oeuvre.

Includes especially commissioned texts by António Preto, Bernardo Pinto de Almeida, David Campany, Emília Tavares and Maria do Carmo Serén.

Dimensions – 21,5 X 26,5 Cm

ISBN 9789727393800

Publisher –  Fundação De Serralves

Language – Portuguese / English

Cover – Soft


An addition.  Manoel de Oliveira’s photography, then and now.

David Campany

Manoel de Oliveira’s artistic life came into focus at a key moment for both photography and cinema. In the 1920s and 30s both were becoming recognized as modern art forms that played their part in the emergence of various avant-garde and vanguard cultural movements. When the first written histories of photography were published in Europe and North America in this same period, cinema, or cinematography, was included as a vital component. The phrase “motion pictures”, which emerged in the 1920s but now feels quite dated, hints at cinematography being an extension of photography. For example, Beaumont Newhall’s landmark book Photography 1839-1937 (1937), published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, included a chapter titled ‘Moving Pictures’. Newhall made a number of important observations about the interrelation of still and moving images. For example, he noted that “some of the most striking news photographs are enlargements from news film.” He had in mind the extraction of single frames from filmed footage, presented as if they were unique news photographs. We tend to think of this as a contemporary phenomenon but it was already widespread in the 1930s. He also noted that “photographs of portions of objects (close-ups) were most uncommon before the moving picture.”[1] The extraordinary effect of faces and small objects projected several metres high on a screen had a profound effect on still photographers.

After the Second World War, the published histories of photography and cinema began to diverge. In later editions of Newhall’s book, the chapter on moving pictures was dropped. Generally, photography began to given a history that was ‘purer’, or on occasion more explicitly connected to the more conservatively venerable lineage of painting.

There were a number of reasons for this separation of photography from cinema. Firstly, in the early 1930s the arrival of synchronised sound, particularly in the form of speech, meant that cinema, which was already a major part of popular culture, was no longer exclusively pictorial. The “talkies”, as early sound movies were called, were a hybrid of audio recording and moving imagery that complicated the relation to photography and picture making. Secondly, the modernist impulse in the arts of the twentieth century was towards distinctions between media, rather than an acceptance of similarities, overlaps, or shared artistic concerns. Thirdly, in their pursuit of recognition as high arts in the second half of the twentieth century, photography and cinema cultivated their distinct discourses and provenances.

However, by the end of the twentieth century, digital imaging and technologies of presentation had converged to the point where it was neither technically nor theoretically, nor artistically possible to make any firm distinctions between photography and cinema, and between still and moving images. The digital era has produced all manner of hybrids and inter-media that constitute the norm of our visual culture. It has all become simply ‘imaging’.

It is worth noting this long and complicated trajectory because Manoel de Oliveira was one of the very few people whose active life with images spanned from cinema’s silent era to the digital era.  Plus, of course, he made still photographs as well as films. He was exhibiting them in Porto’s annual Salão Internacional de Arte Fotográfica (International Salon of Photographic Art) as early as 1939 and continued to so do until 1945, but the majority of his photographs were made between 1942 and 1955, during a long period in which he was unable to make films.

All his films up to 1942 had been shot by the same cinematographer, António Mendes, who was also a passionate amateur photographer. Did Oliveira find still photography attractive and fascinating in its own right? Was it a poor but necessary substitute for filmmaking? Was it a kind of preparation or notation for filmmaking? Was it a form of visual practice, of ‘keeping one’s eye in’ until filmmaking could resume?

All photographs have a way of covering their maker’s intentions, and the archival evidence that might help clarify Oliveira’s motives is fragmentary. Moreover, what is compelling and perplexing about making photographs is that it need not have much of a defined and conscious intention at all. The motivations can be very loose. The medium permits this so readily. One can pick up a camera to compose and focus a composition without fully composing and focusing one’s thoughts as to exactly why one is doing it. Which is to say, photography is open to under-defined motivations. At a practical level it is easy (and was so even by the 1930s), and ease – spontaneity, speed, the camera’s openness to impulse and intuition – is an enormous part of its appeal, for makers and viewers. This cannot be said quite so readily of filmmaking, which is a more collaborative and costly art form that tends to demand a clearer statement of intention. However, a close look at Oliveira’s photographs suggests he may have had number of related motivations that can be at least thought about productively.

To begin with, there are some more of less obvious cases. For example, his photographs of grape harvests seem to relate to his film project Giants of the Douro (1934-35).  His circus images were made the year he wrote the script for The Acrobat (1944), although we cannot tell for certain if the photographs were made for their own sake in the first instance, and then prompted the writing of a script, or if Oliveira had a film in mind while making the images.  Photographs of a youthful dead woman quite possibly inspired the script for The Strange Case of Angelica, written between 1952-54 (but finally directed only in 2010).

What is at stake here is the extent to which Oliveira might have been thinking cinematically while photographing, or whether his still photographs were pursued for their own ends but then came to stimulate his filmic imagination.  In isolation, a photograph is a world unto itself and an extract from an unknowable continuum. It might imply a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, or even a narrative, but it evokes these things less than it insists on its own suspension. A photograph is outside of unfolding time, and story, and explanation. In this sense the still photograph is profoundly different from what can be achieved with the moving image, despite the obvious kinship. This may be why so many filmmakers, past and present, are also photographers. The openness of photography is fascinating and pleasurable in its own right, but it can also lead to cinematic ideas.

Oliveira’s body of photographs also contains images with relations to the arts of his time more generally. His compositions of workers and of architectural details – staircases, windows, interiors and streets – feel like the kind shots to be found in any number of interwar European films. Equally, they also resonate with the graphic formality of the influential Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, both of which produced photographs and films.

Photography is a medium of details and specifics, but a key quality that made it modern in the 1920s and 30s was the part it played in the emergence of an aesthetic that downplayed the sense of place and local culture in favour of transnational ideals, themes, and motifs. Indeed, the photography that we now loosely called ‘modernist’ tended to embody that sense of placelessness. It was not that locality was completely absent but, as with the International Style in architecture, the details of place became inflections or visual accents within a geographically loose cultural framework. Modern architects, designers, painters and photographers in many countries were making more or less similar work, sharing the same goals. The impulse was less to do with the cultivation of individual artistic sensibility than the participation in an expansive modern spirit. This spirit was there in the modern world itself – in its mass-produced goods, its built forms, and its new technologies – but it could also be seen in the progressive illustrated magazines that began to emerge in the inter-war years, in art publications and exhibitions.

The most celebrated and widely publicized exhibition of the inter-war period was Film und Foto (1929). It drew together nearly a thousand images (the exact number is unknown but 940 are listed in the catalogue), nearly all by living photographers from Europe, America, and Japan. There were political photomontages and book jackets by John Heartfield; New Vision photographs by Germaine Krull, Aenne Biermann, Florence Henri, and Albert Renger-Patzsch; the crisp formalism of the Americans Charles Sheeler, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston and his son Brett; cameraless abstract images by Man Ray; photo-text graphics by Piet Zwart, El Lissitzky, and Karel Teige; fashion shots; plus anonymous industrial, scientific, sports, and news photographs. It was accompanied by a film festival that presented the latest experimental cinema with works by, among many others, René Clair and Sergei Eisenstein. Some image makers, including László Moholy-Nagy, showed their photographs and films. Indeed, one of the aims of Film un Foto was to highlight how central the photographic sensibility was to the development of the avant-garde. Against mainstream cinema, avant-garde film tended toward an anti-narrative poetics: the expressive combination of fragments, resisting the presentation of seamless stories. Still photography forever struggles with narrative, but this predisposes it toward an alliance with avant-garde film, and with observational documentary film.

One of the less noted consequences of the transnational spirit in modernism was the way that it allowed artists to adopt and adapt, to incorporate and mimic, rather than relying of some mythical notion of fixed individuality or defined creative subjectivity. At is best, an education in modernist artistic principles, whether through training or something more self-taught through absorbing modernist cultural ideas and images, expanded the notion of what was possible. This was especially the case in photography and filmmaking which carried far less art historical burden than painting, sculpture and literature. for example. Very often the artists that took those modernist lessons to heart found themselves making work of great range, sometimes with no obvious signature style. While there were modern artists who became specialists, there were modern artists who became if not generalists, then at least expansive in their outlook and range of activities. As always, specialists are easier to understand and label, and so they tend to be recognised in their own time and become fixtures in the first draft of cultural history. The expansive artists, whose work may not seem to add up according to the familiar criteria of specialism, are often more difficult to assess. They might be out of step with their time, and might struggle for recognition. This is a particularly instructive way of thinking about Oliveira’s time spent with photography. He was not making films, but at least photography provided a cheap and unobstructed way of exploring a large number of visual ideas, staking out a broad territory of subjects, themes and visual possibilities.

Most modernist image makers working between the 1920s and 1950s also made emphatically local work, specific to the country or even city where they lived. They participated in the international spirit while making work that responded to and celebrated their own sense of place and history. We see this in the imagery made by such well known photographers as August Sander, Germaine Krull and Laure Albin Guillot, and in the films of Dziga Vertov and Walter Ruttmann, for example.[i] Manoel de Oliveira was no exception. Large parts of his oeuvre express a deep sense of place as well as an equally strong need not to be trapped by it, to escape into a less geographic realm of ideas and aesthetic possibilities.  Clearly there is a great if complex affection for Porto and for Portugal, for community and the continuities of history, but there is also a yearning for a larger visual canvas, and a wider sense of belonging, less obliged to nationality but still informed by it. Looking through Oliveira’s small but illuminating body of photographs, one can glimpse in microcosm many of the themes that are present across the full extent of his career.

Beyond those Salon presentations during wartime, only a handful of Manoel de Oliveira’s photographs have been seen by the public, until now. Somehow this feels perfectly in keeping with an artistic career that seemed to make a mockery of time and the creative life in the way most of us understand such things. Yes, his ‘career’, if that is what we can call it, was extraordinarily long. It was also filled with all manner of gaps, mysteries, absences, hauntings, memories, ruins, returns, sudden visions, and vivid recollections. At an age when most artistic lives are over, Oliveira’s past work was rediscovered and his artistic activity was rejuvenated. Suddenly he became a celebrated contemporary filmmaker and an important figure from the distant past. He made new films while the public saw and re-evaluated his old ones. There was even one film, Visit (1982) that Oliveira insisted could be seen only after his death.

It is a truism that photography and filmmaking are tied to their moment by the light that passes through the lens to be recorded as image. In this sense at least, they are of their time. Did Manoel de Oliveira think about posterity and the life of his work in the future? Over the years he dropped enough hints to suggest that he was at least curious as to what the future may have to say about art and culture, be it his own or that of others. In the end though, there is only the present, this moment right now. We remember, or misremember, or forget, or are reminded about the past; and we imagine or anticipate or dread the future. But we do it all from the present. There is no time travel.

Our histories of photography, and of filmmaking for that matter, have more holes than substance. We are constantly discovering works, bodies of work, archives and artists we did not know, while reassessing those that we do know. The past is under continuous revision. Suddenly, we have Manoel de Oliveira’s photographic images, some from more than eighty years ago. They are a gift. Something to research, contextualize, mythologise, ponder, speculate over and enjoy, for what they were and what they are. Do they add to the story of photography? Certainly. Do they add to the story of cinema? They do. Do they add to the posthumous persona of Manoel de Oliveira? Undoubtedly. But ‘add’ is a deliciously ambiguous term here, which I suspect Oliveira might have enjoyed.  ‘Add’ might mean explaining, or clarifying, or illuminating. It might mean also mean complicating.

[1]Beaumont Newhall, Photography: A Short Critical History 1839-1937, Museum of Modern Art, New York,

1937, p. 89.

[i] Walter Ruttmann’s film Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927) made a deep impression upon Oliveira.

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