It is always curious when artists embark upon personal works that require many years to be completed. In the world of modern and contemporary photography there are many examples of spectacular commissions that result in monographic works that offer a more or less tensive response to the original brief. I remember discussing this project with André Cepeda over four years ago. A handful of his images were linked to spaces in the city of Oporto, where we both lived. They were normally exterior settings that nonetheless created a sense of intimacy: interior patios, plants in small open-air recesses, elements of exasperating banality to which the artist conferred intrinsic dignity.
I soon realised that he intended to systemise his wanderings through the city, as it passed before his eyes, without revealing its inner reality. He began a process of physical demarcation of the territory, meeting inhabitants who normally remain hidden from passers-by.
One of the typical phenomena of Oporto’s late 19th century and early 20th century urban development are the so-called islands: behind a nondescript street entrance, we encounter a long line of houses offering minimum conditions of habitability, thus creating a small self-enclosed urban nodule (very different from workers’ houses in comparable neighbourhoods in Lisbon, that were structured around central courtyards). This urban design mimics patterns found at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom (the famous back to back houses), but normally embodies a smaller and more miserabilist vision. These developments were built in response to Oporto’s growing industrialisation, but have now been rendered obsolete, left as relics of industrial archaeology. The working class has effectively disappeared and now corresponds to a significant subset of the elderly, unemployed or economically under-privileged.
It should be emphasised however that there is often a strong sense of community in such neighbourhoods and some of these areas now have considerably more pleasant conditions than those existing at the time of their construction, where basic sanitation and plumbing were achieved at best via improvised shared solutions.
André Cepeda began his work on the basis of this specific territorial and urbanistic demarcation.
As I explained above, I was always impressed by the manner in which the project was developed: its conceptual rigour and discipline obliged the artist to spend days on end in search of places that held significance for him, in search of details that he so expertly captures and which immediately endow a sense of pungent universality to the image in question.
A primordial question arises throughout this process, the second part of this eloquent diptych: his relationship with people, the manner in which he obstinately involves himself in the exercise of creating portraits. The artist dives into a universe that enables him to penetrate the ultimate meaning of this work. In the midst of a universe corroded by sadness, melancholy, abandonment and solitude, we encounter poses and gazes that hint at a vertiginous journey where intimacy still has the power to lick overly exposed wounds. In André Cepeda’s images, sexuality isn’t exposed as an element of capitalist exploration, although this dimension is frequently present in this context, in order to obviate a sense of hangover from drug dependency. The exhibition of bodies actually conveys a final shred of personal dignity, the sexual relationship itself is a suspended moment in the unbearable breathing of everyday existence.
This is an odd process: André Cepeda captures chaotic, claustrophobic interiors, marks of self-destruction, moments of reinterpretation of still lives and thereby shatters the conventionality of private spaces as we know them. These are the harshest moments of his project. The same occurs with the exteriors: cul-de-sacs, makeshift homes, grey skies, urban sprawls, densify the reception of a reality that many manage to avoid, but which countless more people are obliged to carry with them in their memories and daily existence.
Paradoxically, as I already mentioned, the artist succeeds in maintaining an approach that is neither too pessimistic nor commiserative. It would be much easier to show misery and degradation in its brute form. But this is the territory of sensationalist journalism, of emotional spectators and voyeurs. Each image in this project reproduces a shared moment. We sense it in the depth of the gazes. The distance between the photographer and subject is almost palpable, the murmurs, the few words exchanged at the time of greatest concentration, the silence, the certainty of silence, can be felt everywhere. Such communion can only be attained by those who share. And this sense of sharing is above all an act of trust.
portrayed hereinHow do I position myself before this reality? Whose reality is this? That of the author? That of the places and their inhabitants? No. Ultimately the force of this project consists in its atopical and timeless dimension. Because it plays an intelligent game with the History of Art itself – we could trace a formal genealogy and a more or less obvious iconography within some of these works - by universalising specific elements.
Nonfictionalised reality. But how can we avoid fictionalising this reality? Sucked inside, to the project’s internal coherence via the complexity presented herein, in the form of a book, the spectator becomes the great storyteller. In response to the transitory nature of the spectacular, to the mediocrity of digitalisation of the world - as found in much of contemporary photography - André Cepeda highlights the urgency of aesthetic, ethical and, in the final analysis, political sharing.
Miguel von Hafe Pérez