“Much has been said of the close ties between photography and death. The click of the camera executes because it immobilizes life’s coordinates, the evolution of time and space. Strangely enough, the photos in this show dedicated to death produce the opposite effect: by bringing death to death they enliven what is dead.”
This opening quote is by philosopher Nelly Schnaith talking about the series “Huellas que nos miran” from Humberto Rivas.
In this article about Argentine photographer Humberto Rivas I’d like to explore questions about the essence of photography:
What does a picture tell us about “reality”? And about the present and the past?
One of the mayor themes in the work of Humberto Rivas is time, or to be more precise: the traces left behind by the passing of time in objects that surround us; houses, furniture, walls, landscapes. Following this logic, those traces are silent witnesses of the past.
Humberto Rivas’ photos are characterized by great simplicity, and lack of human presence. They show apparently uninhabited spaces and deserted scenes. There is no staging. Although there are people missing in the pictures, all the objects refer to life and show that the places where inhabited. The objects and scenes come to life in the eye of the observer and speak to them with a silent voice.
Humberto Rivas himself once put it this way:
“One thing is what we see, and another is thing is how we relate and feel about it. One has to let oneself be carried away by his own instinct.”
Through the scenes chosen for his images, Humberto Rivas expresses what he considers important to be observed or recorded.
In his case, these are scenes that at first glance do not attract much attention.
But there is something mystique behind the visible, a mystique that transcends the iconicity of what’s being photographed.
Short portrait about Humberto Rivas
With his photos, as simple as they may seem, Humberto Rivas achieves to captivate the viewer and addresses them emotionally, often in a deeply subtle, original and impressive manner. His images possess a mysterious power that digs beneath the surface of things. Their discreet atmosphere ultimately move the viewer.
The great simplicity of the framing and the lack of staging are indications that Rivas is not trying to promote his own opinion, or in other words, that he wants to influence both the interpretation of the observer as little as possible. His choice is limited to the scene, which he then tries to reproduce as accurately as possible without altering things – and leave the rest to the observer.
In doing so, the Humberto Rivas raises the question about the reality of images and photography in general. What images reflect is not necessarily “real”, neither do they represent a single truth. The question however is: How reliable are the interpretations? After all, a photograph shows and points at things, but it does not explain. All it shows is subject to the interpretation of the observer. That interpretation is influenced by the subjectivity of each person (their education, cultural, etc.).
For Humberto Rivas the concept of time plays a very important role. In literature on the essence of photography, taking pictures is often compared with an act of killing. Pressing the shutter, the photographer “kills” the photographed, he freezes and keeps it beyond its physical existence. Only for a brief moment exists the coexistence between the pictures and the portrayed; just in the brief moment, a fraction of seconds, when the light reflected from the scene enters into the camera and hits the sensor. After that, there is a distance between the object and the photo, both temporally and spatially.
For more detail on the essence of photography you might want to consult the book “The Photographic Act” by Philippe Dubois. Or it’s what French philosopher Roland Barthes calls “noema”, the essence of photography. The picture gives evidence that the reference was there:
“I can never deny in the photo that the thing has been there.”
It is the relationship between the reality and the past. The photo bears witness to the existence of something and saved it to memory, “the return of the dead”.
Philosopher Nelly Schnait once said this about the photos of Humberto Rivas:
“By killing the dead, he gives life to the dead.”
The great void in many of Humberto Rivas’ photos, the lack of human presence, can be interpreted as the flight from his home country Argentina. When the military took power in 1976, Humberto Rivas was forced to “leave home”.
The black and white in almost all of Humberto Rivas’ pictures creates an atmosphere of austerity, as if time has stopped. On one hand the photos show something that was the past. And yet, they do not only speak of what’s gone, but also about something that stayed alive in the present. Traces of the past are present and are silent witnesses of what’s gone.
A good example for that is Humberto Rivas’ photo called Londres 1978.
What you see is an almost empty room with only three chairs. The walls are empty, there’s no wallpaper. How simple it may be, the picture and the objects in it evoke a lot in the observer.
Questions come up like: “What has happened to the people who once lived there?” “Why have they left their home and left behind the chairs?” These are just some of the possible questions that may arise from looking at the image.
The atmosphere only gives some hints as to the answers and real circumstances. The poor condition of the walls and mold on the ceiling suggest that a long time has passed since the place was inhabited by people.
There is a quality of Humberto Rivas’ images which leave the observer with an idea of a story, that unfolds beyond the edges of the print. In other words, the picture is not isolated, but rather part of a larger context.
More about Humberto Rivas
Official website: Archivo Humberto Rivas
Related articles: Biography