LISBOA “cidade triste e alegre” by Victor Palla and Costa Martins

Following its first publication in 1959, Lisboa “cidade triste e alegre” immediately became a photobook with an aura. At least in Portuguese intellectual life, it was treasured as a talisman. The book represented the birth of truly modernist Portuguese photography. Yet, it had mostly been unavailable (or unaffordable). By the turn of the century there was hardly anyone around who had actually seen it.

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins

And then it was republished in 2009 and 2015 by Pierre von Kleist Editions (Lisbon).

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins (Pierre von Kleist edition)

The publication is the result of a collaboration between two befriended photographers (Victor Palla and Costa Martins). It focusses on everyday street life in the proletarian and traditional old quarters of the Portuguese capital during the 1950’ies. Thanks to the silver crystals in the Kodak TRI-X films, the images in the book are abundantly oozing that familiar, unpolished grace of many classics of the pre-digital age. They are grainy, they lack all mild midtones and they lend the whole a highly cinematic feeling. But also the ingenious choices of cropping and sequencing are contributing to the cinematographic style of the book. The sequencing seems to follow a movielike tempo that is organized around a number of excerpts of Portuguese poetry. One could also say that these captions function as subtitles to the visual narrative.

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins (Pierre von Kleist edition)

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins (Pierre von Kleist edition)

It is a feast for the eye when it is taken away by the tempo of this elegant and vibrant work. The 200 images of Palla and Martins take the eye through narrow alleys, above the roofs of old houses, along the quays with fisherboats, in electric tramways, through parcs and  theatres. It is a never-ending rollercoaster of urbane impressions.

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins (Pierre von Kleist edition)

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins (Pierre von Kleist edition)

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins (Pierre von Kleist edition)

The Leitmotiv in this experience undoubtedly is the open-minded interest the authors took in the daily lives of their co-citizens. We are seeing the mysterious world of children playing in the streets, we are witnessing moments of complicity between lovers, or we are witnessing moments when other lovers seem to question their complicity. We also see those little moments where the older generations pass their experiences to the younger. Many times the authors are recording ‘just’ an anecdotical event in the oridinary life of ordinary people (a mother examining the gap left by a loose tooth of her daughter). It seems that they especially photographed people who were not neurotically chasing something which prevented them from living.

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins

In the apparent simplicity of the daily life scenes in Lisboa “citade triste e allegre”, we are led to believe that the souls of the Lisbonians were not even scratched by the authoritarian, seclusive, conservative and patriarachal values of the Salazar regime. Is that the reason why the book is sometimes criticized for being too friendly, too anecdotical, too picturesque (“photographs of smiling shopkeepers are more picturesque than is helpful. Was life always so convivial during the Salazar regime?“)?

The authors seem to have been aware themselves of certain pitfalls of their style. They are writing in the index which was (and is) accompanying their work that throughout the book they have tried to avoid the picturesque, “which lies in waiting for the unwary photographer, like the temptation of the devil, around very street corner in Lisbon.

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins (Pierre von Kleist edition)

And there are many more commentaries in the same index where they feel the need to defend their modus operandi. For example they also explain why they decided “to break the once holy commandment that strictly forbade the model from looking at the lens.” For Palla and Martins, the truth is that it is better if the model looks at the lens sincerely rather than on the sly. They were after spontaneity in a deliberate interaction with their models.

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins

When their own apologies of their style may be a little bit shortcoming vis à vis critiques coming from our cynical times, Gerry Badger is there to defend the authors in a much more performant way. “To photograph Alfama in the 1950’s was something of a transgressive act, showing squalor, poverty, and potential sedition, ..a section on fishwives down by the fishmarket should be seen, in Martins’ and Palla’s hands, as a subtle exercise in declaring solidarity with te working class and not one of colonising and appropriating the poor in an act of nostalgie de la boue……The book’s effect was far from picturesque. It was indeed subversive, opposing both the vacuous pictorialism of ‘official’ Portuguese photography, and confirming the direction of a progressive modernism for the Portuguese intelligentsia.

According to José Pedro Cortez of Pierre von Kleist Editions,  Palla and Martins have made their book very intuitively and in a modern style but he also stresses that the authors were totally aware of The Americans and New York, New York.

With regard to the modernist style, Badger points out that this was an issue of political importance in Portugal. “The Salazar government was as conservative in matters of art as in eveything else. Modern art, perceived as coherently incoherent, liberal, licentious, irreligious, and anarchic, was automatically viewed with suspicion“. The focus on  a scruffy Lisbon, on ordinary people with their ordinary, earthly aspirations, being seductive and idle had nothing to do with the morals of a catholic, colonialist and corporative government! Martins and Palla were instinctively anti-bourgeois. It was a book for and of the people not for and of the regime.

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins (Pierre von Kleist edition)

From Badger‘s inspiring introduction we also learn that, because of its political significance, the book was originally published in seven subscribed instalments and distributed only among a semi-private audience. Hence the limited availability in the following decades.

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© Victor Palla & Costa Martins

Interestingly, José Pedro Cortez also claim that Palla and Martins have never seen photography as something sacred. Actually, they weren’t even professional photographers at all. They were trained as architects and after completing Lisboa “cidade triste e alegre”, they have simply moved to something else (painting, graphic design, interior design, literature, literary translations and of course architecture).

But, in his last years, Palla (who died in 2007) had been keen on having the famous book reprinted. “Actually he said that quality wouldn’t even be a problem – it could be done with photocopies!” What a shame that he never has had the chance to see the wonderful re-edition that Pierre von Kleist Editions realized in 2009.

PS: André Principe and José Pedro Cortes of Pierre von Kleist Editions explain in a video that photobooks “should be closer to literature than to the art world, because books should be available and affordable …. with literature you never think that you cannot get a Kafka book because it is sold out, that’s nonsense. Photobooks should also be like that.”