By D. R. Gayton
Born in Rome in 1925 Waldemar Cordeiro was a Brazil based artist whose mature work began around the turn of the last century. As an artist he spend many years working with different media in order to present a body of work that is characteristic for its visual rigidity and use of strong geometric figures, lines, and bodies. One of Waldemar Cordeiro’s most compelling works is his piece entitled The woman who is not B.B (or A mulher que não é B.B.). Composed in 1971, only a couple of years before the artist’s death, The woman who is not B.B is a 24″ x 17 1/2″ offset lithograph of a digitalized photograph that was originally published by Time Magazine (Arteaga). Following an already long aesthetic tradition of converting ready-made objects into art, by digitally (and manually) manipulating a mass-produced photograph, Cordeiro, very much like Duchamp and Warhol, manages to transform a popular photojournalistic image into a powerful and challenging work of art.
Propelled by his interests in computers and their potential role in what writer Rachel Price terms postsubjective and postobjective art (61), in The Woman Who Is Not B.B. Cordeiro utilized computer “scanning” tools in order to transfer the picture from Time Magazine unto an ASCII imaging system. As Rachel Price points out in her essay on this image, the digitalizing process was a lengthy one that required a great deal of manual labor. Demonstrating the complexity of this image-making technique, Price points out how a single image consisting of a raster grid that has been divided into 9,600 points requires 120 punch cards, or 9.6 kilobytes of information, in order to render it a cohesive image (68). Manipulated through this labor-intensive procedure, the final ASCII image reveals in a highly pixelated image. On closer inspection, however, the image in Cordeiro’s lithograph breaks into thousands of variously shaded squares, revealing thereby the raster grid and in turn exposing the production process of the image at hand.
In doing so, Cordeiro is asking the viewer to look not only at the image of the girl that the lithograph is depicting but he is also asking the viewer to look at the very process of image-making. To understand the relationship between image and production of an image the viewer must, as the title suggests, begin not by asking what this image is and hence signifies, but rather by asking what it is not. As Rachel Price affirms in her study of this image, “Cordeiro’s artwork…is apophatic [-] that is, defined negatively” (62). That is, in order to understand the concept that is being developed in the Woman who is not BB, one must begin not by deconstructing the image for what it is in itself, but by asking what it is not in relationship to the photograph from which it was digitally translated.
In 1977, only four years after the death of Cordeiro, American writer and critic Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal book on photography, “Today everything exists to end in a photograph” (24). Inspired by Mallarmé’s pronouncements on human experience and fiction, what Sontag is expressing is her idea that, at least within the 20th century, the mimetic attributes of photography came to supplant the very reality photography was mimicking or duplicating. From its earliest date on record, photography grew from seeming to provide an image of the world to becoming not just proof of the of the world’s existence, but in fact a frozen slice of the world it self. Exploring the ideas which André Bazin first solidified on his 1958 essay, “The Ontology of the photographic image,” Sontag goes beyond shattering Bazin’s notions of the objective behind the photographic enterprise, and claims photographs are objects through which both the photographer and the spectators, although located at different levels of the dialogical spectrum, appropriate the world.
This idea of the power of photography to appropriate the world was however already present within Bazin’s essay. When he speaks of Egyptian burial rituals which utilized figurines to ensure the preservation of the deceased in the event the mummified body should be destroyed, the idea of a body metamorphosing from an organic being to an inorganic one already contains within itself the possibility of that new body being possessed, or as Sontag puts it, appropriated. “[S]alvar al ser por las apariencias” Bazin says, then further in the text names this quality one of it its “funciones magicas” (24). It is then this magical or transcendent power of appearances, of photography, to become one with the referent that allows both the photographer and the spectator to either appropriate it, or as in the case of lovers, posses it.
In The Woman who was not BB, the photograph from which its central compositional figure is derived is that of a photojournalistic portrait of a young Vietnamese girl holding a child. First printed, no doubt, alongside a journalist article about the Vietnam War, the image, as Cordeiro along with Jose Luis Aguirre and Estevam Roberto Serafim present it, focuses completely on the distressed look of the girl. Looking at this cropped image all that the viewer can focus on is on the distressed look of the girl’s face. Bellow her right jaw bone, at the lower mid plane, the forehead of a child is hinted at, but beyond this nothing further in the image can accurately identify who this woman is or what the circumstances behind her distress. By cropping the picture into a close up, however, this image emphasizes the predatory aspect of picture taking. Staring sideways and out of the frame the girl in the photograph seems to either be unaware that she is being photographed, or simply not concerned with the fact. Passive by its very nature as the imprint of a conductive lens, the aggression of the photograph rests on its almost mystical capacity to embody its subject. It is no wonder pictures are often used in voodoo doll rituals. To spy on the photographic image of this woman is, as Sontag would have put it, is to trespass, to assume, to distort, to exploit, in short to turn her into a spectacle, something to be gazed at.
Utilizing this photograph for the synthesization of The Woman who was not BB, Cordeiro manages to subvert this power of photography over its subject. In digitalizing and manually manipulating this photograph the resulting image, as Mitchell would have said, deconstructs “the very ideas of photographic objectivity and closure” (7). Recalling that the title of the piece refers back to Brigit Bardot, a woman whose job as an actress demands spectators, the viewer can begin to detect the idea that this piece expresses. By negating being B. B. or Brigit Bardot, The Woman who is not BB is not only effectively making a clear distinction between what a photograph is and what it is not, but it is also allowing the subject of the digitally reconfigured image to speak through its title which reads like a caption affirming, I am not Brigit Bardot, I am not an object of contemplation, of amusement for thousands, millions of people.
As Rachel Price writes, “Cordeiro, although critical of subjectivism, was nonetheless a humanist interested in new media’s potential for greater democracy and political change” (69). That is, although a formalist in essence, towards the end of his short life, Cordeiro utilized form and conceptual constructs to create a powerful—an uncannily ethical critique of not only the mass produced photograph, but also of the fetishization, objectification, and capitalization of the photographed subject. That is, as Sontag noted of photography’s ability to turn “living beings into things and things into glorious objects” (98), photography had by the second half of the 20th century “appropriated” the world. It is then this monopolization of the world and the discourse on nature of reality that Cordeiro masterfully challenges in The Woman who was not B.B.
Arteaga, Laura. “Waldemar Cordeiro, The Woman Who Is Not B.B.” Omeka RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2016
Mitchell, William J. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-photographic Era. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1992. Print.
Price, Rachel. ” Early Brazilian Digital Culture; or, The Woman Who Was Not B.B.” Grey Room 47 (2012): 60-79. MIT Press Journals. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.