Serious Costume Play: Photos and lecture by Phyllis Galembo

Photographer Phyllis Galembo is the headliner at a slideshow/lecture at San Francisco Art Institute on Halloween, and it’s a perfect alternative to trick-or-treating. She’s spent many years documenting wild costumes used in rituals in Brazil, Cuba, Africa and Haiti. The event is part of a remarkable photography lecture series organized by PhotoAlliance.
Galembo’s longtime friend, David Byrne, wrote this about her work a couple years ago:
I think it puts a lot of contemporary “fictional” photo work to shame. Hell, it puts a lot of stuff in other mediums outside photography to shame too.
I was familiar with her photos from Brazil, Cuba and Africa — many of which are formal portraits of practitioners of Candomblé, Santeria and the African roots of these religions. Her newer Haitian stuff of course touches on Voudoun, but there are lot of Jacmel carnival participant portraits too — these are astounding. And there are new African images that connect the dots between a lot of the New World cultures.
Most of all, the work is, in my opinion, not romantic — some of the stuff is hard, emotional, serious as death and as a result the beauty has depth. I’ve seen Phyllis work (in Brazil) and she affects a slightly ditzy casual demeanor — that disguises the fact that she knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. It helps her get these kids to stand against this wall while carnival rages all around them.

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Or this man, comfortable in his housedress, holding a mirror and a paintbrush!
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Or this participant in that Atam Masquerade in Nigeria?
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There’s probably a debt to Irving Penn’s famous series of portraits of “exotic” peoples here — his pix of Peruvian Indians and Mudmen — taken in a portable formal “studio”. But somehow those seemed like an extension of the live Indian or the Venus Hottentot in the sideshow or in the Natural History Museums compared to this.
Besides, these subjects are in costume. They have intentionally transformed themselves into something exotic, charged, even frightening. Here is combined a long deep legacy of dress-up for masquerade, for carnival, for possession by the Gods combined with personal creativity and ingenuity. These are not people in their ordinary dress — they are intentionally fantastic, shocking, wild.

For details on the lecture tonight (and other great lectures in their series) check the PhotoAlliance web site.

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