Brazilian photographer Claudio Edinger has been an active photographer for over 40 years. He has published 16 photo books and won awards from Leica, Hasselblad, Pictures of the Year and countless other organizations. He continues to produce personal work while also teaching the history of contemporary photography.
As someone who has worked with the medium for so long, Edinger has wide-ranging and carefully considered opinions on what makes the medium special. Below, we have excerpted our favorite passages from a much longer exchange that Edinger had with the prominent Brazilian philosopher Dr. Guilherme Ghisoni da Silva. We have interspersed Edinger’s thoughts with some of his photographs. We hope you are as inspired by his words and pictures as we were.
A portrait—made by a photographer who chooses the background, directs lights and frames the image—is an absolute expression of the artist that makes it. It is not a mirror. It is more like a filter through which the photographer sees his subject. The portrait photographer is like a maestro who organizes her orchestra in harmony, with the objective of representing a composition (the subject). Without the maestro, no piece can be played fully.
In a portrait every element counts: light, expression, background. One element enhances the other, just like in a symphony. Every portrait is a reflection of the maker’s intimacy (as well as the viewer’s). Only the photographer is able to find and display this intimacy, not the subject. The subject is important but, ultimately, when we look at a painting of King Felipe IV by Velazquez, we see Velazquez.
A classic example of this happened when photographer Philip-Lorca DiCorcia took a photograph of an Orthodox Jew in the streets of Manhattan. The man sues the photographer for selling his image. The judge rules in favor of the photographer saying: the image is sold not because it is you, but because of who the photographer is. It is his artistic expression more than it is your likeness.
The photographer navigates two worlds simultaneously: the internal and the external. The inner is infinitely more interesting and complex than the external world. You can only understand and interpret the external world according to your inner one. For example, when making a portrait, the photographer discovers a bit of themselves. A photographer can only capture outside what is also present inside. The maestro transcends the original composition when he conducts a symphony. This is not narcissism (love of your own image) but the search for the greatest of all mysteries: who we are.
During two years I photographed inside an insane asylum, looking for answers to my own eccentricity, my feeling of not belonging anywhere. I did not realize my motivations back then, only years later. This is therapy: bringing to light what we carry in our inner world, hidden from others and, especially, from ourselves.
In my work I seek a strictly personal narrative, trying to understand the mystery, the philosophical questions that I am pursuing. In my personal quest to discover my identity, the only answer has to be a universal one. When I discover a bit of my own intimacy, I am able to find clues of what we all are.
My projects are all part of a frenetic search for knowledge and the limits of photography. And what have I learnt? That the questions raised by my work are their own answers.
As a language, photography’s meaning is constantly changing, the way our language is in constant flux. It’s like those who believe that every act of memory is an act of reconstructing the past. In this light, the content of an image is never totally determined since, in each act of reading it, its meaning becomes reconstructed anew.
In my case, between producing and capturing, there is always the imponderable. That is the great high of photography. The unexpected is always present in any particular moment and that’s what I am attracted to when taking photos. The imponderable is the raw material from which all images come from.
The imponderable is the absolute essence of the universe. It creates a storm, it is the intelligence in every tree, determining the characteristics of every atom. It is the imponderable that makes birds fly, makes cities built here and not there. It is the energy present in the air—without it, we would die in seconds. The imponderable is the only reality. It is the invisible, incomprehensible, what exists beyond thoughts and ideas. To hunt for the imponderable is the greatest sport on earth and if you have not discovered that, you live in a drab underworld that you yourself have created.
It is impossible to understand the imponderable with reason alone. Reason fails when the invisible is in action. Many people are atheists because of that. How can you believe in something you cannot see? This is what I try to capture: the invisible. But since it is invisible, only very few are able to see it.
“There are no landscapes,” said Cezanne, “there is only light.” Light is the imponderable, each moment is distinct because of that. Photography is the intersection between what we produce with what we capture. All images, to a higher or lesser degree, are made like this. If you are in a certain place but don’t align with this presence, your technical knowledge, your culture, your psychological agility, you produce nothing.
—Claudio Edinger, in conversation with Dr. Guilherme Ghisoni da Silva
Editors’ note: More of Dr. Ghisoni’s writing (as well as his own personal, photographic work) can be found on his website.