The dialectical images of Juliana Stein

Words RAFAEL CARVALHO

In a country which territory extends 4,395 kilometers from north to south and 4,319 kilometers from east to west and houses more than 190 million inhabitants, it’s no easy job to synthesize the multiple cultural productions into one short list of artists _reducing the list to one single artist leads us to an impossible task. Photographer Juliana Stein, however, leaves no doubts she deserves the words on this page. Established outside the Rio-Sao Paulo economic and cultural hub, she lives in the South of Brazil - in Curitiba, capital of Paranáand near to her hometown Passo Fundo _and may be considered one of the best exponents of what is called Brazilian contemporary photography.Juliana was born in the early 70’s, a period in which visual arts have just gone through the end of modernism to step into an effervescentperiod defined by the lack of a stylistic unity. As author Arthur C. Danto puts it, a period of information disorder, a condition of perfect aesthetic entropy and also an experimental time when everything was permitted. Together with other rising movements that are now aggregated under the contemporary art umbrella, arty photography began to awake more visibility and enthusiasts in several countries, including Brazil. Juliana, however, hasn’t fallen easily into photography. Holding a degree in Psychology by a Brazilian university, she only began shooting in the 90s after a period studying art in Italy.Throughout its history, art engaged in speaking of the relation between humanity and the divine and then the relation between humanity and the object _as many contemporary artists, Juliana invests in problematizing the interhuman relations, bringing up projects that deal closer to life and the sensitivity of current life.She divides her images into seriesand part of the effect she gets comes exactly from the juxtaposition and play of meaning that one picture establishes with another. Her early works were produced in unusual places such as nursing homes, maternities, prisons and psychiatric hospitals, while her best-known series, Sim e Não, was shot in the streets _a work that, in her own words, emerged slowly. Translated as “Yes and No”, it was exhibited during the last São Paulo Art Biennial, in 2010.Sim e Não features portraits of strangers and no fix-up for the camera was allowed. Although Juliana started shooting with 35mm equipment, by the time of this series she had already migrated to medium-format and the technically “slower” apparatus demanded people to pose a little longer for the camera. Does that lasting while make things more real? For Juliana it certainly doesn’t matter, as her point lies exactly in the conversation between reality and fiction, static and moving, man and woman, yes and no. Instead of answers, questions.During the III International Photography Biennial of Curitiba, 2000, Juliana’s work has particularly intrigued the French critic Philipe Dubois. According to him, there are two important trends in Brazilian photography: one linked to a social and political approach and the other, more plastic, in which the social stays secondary. But Dubois believes that Juliana’s work stays exactly in the space between, which means, in the balance of these two trends. Her imagery is, in fact, free of tropicalisms or naïve historical points of view that have long marked Brazilian art.But it would be also very naive to think that her work doesn’t bring a political attitude. As Juliana herself puts it, “what is real is always political”. Sim e Não speaks of complex identity issues and inquiries of the modern subject, as theorized by many authors from the recent field of cultural studies, such as Stuart Hall. Check out our conversation with the artist:

First of all, could you share with us a little history of yourself and how you discovered photography?
I was born in Passo Fundo in 1970. I lived until my early teens in the woods outside the city, surrounded by very old and tall trees. My father was one of the first priests to leave the Catholic Church to marry my mother. I started working with photography when I returned from a period when I lived in Italy and studied art history, drawing and watercolor techniques. I wanted to do work that made some sense to me. I’ve been to many places in the world and endured in a certain way each of these passages, but it was in Curitiba, where I currently live, that I found I found the most unbearable place of all: a nursing home for the elder where there were also some young and middle aged residents. I spent many days of my life there and from this living together arose my first work, called Éden.

But why photography?
I'd say it was not a direct choice. Photography fascinated me but I didn’t think I would work with it, nor with art. For a long time after I’ve made my first photography work I wondered if this was what I wanted or could do. But I don’t believe in a decision. You may decide you want to do photography and end up doing nothing relevant. Anyway, photography provides an important issue _it is the nebulous truth of something that was there. But what? What’s in the picture? What can be seen? What cannot? Photography plays with the statutes of the real and the fictional, and this brings into question a certain kind of thinking that attracts me. Photographs provide evidence, but evidence of what? For me, that’s the territory of photography, a means for you to discover the world and discover yourself through it.

JULIANA STEIN is currently working on three different projects, of which two take place in Rio de Janeiro. Her pieces can be found in the collections of The Image Museum of Braga (Portugal), The Museum of 21 Century (Austria), The Contemporary Art Museum of Curitiba (Brazil) andCuritiba Cultural Foundation (Brazil).

What do you want from an image and how do you get to it?
I seek a dialogue in an image. I enjoy looking at an image and finding myself in it, through it. I get to the images I produce in a variety of ways as well. I work very hard. Sometimes I’m doing something when I think I’m doing something else. I try to be always attentive to the signs. Things are never straightforward, there is always a path to be walked.

Is there any photographer that inspires or influences your work?
Regarding photography I like the works of August Sander, Diane Arbus, Dan Grahan, Boris Mikhailov, Mitch Epstein, Ricarda Rogan, and so on.

Could you tell a little bit more about the motivations and intentions present at the time you photographed the transvestites for the Sim e Não series?
Actually I don’t see the figures of this project as transvestites. It wasn’t exactly what I was pursuing there. I photographed people: men dressed as women, women dressed as women. I do not know if these people were transvestites or not. This was not the focus. I photographed people who seem not to have an attitude of retreat before the ambivalence of life, male and female, strong and weak, failed and successful. I like it when the picture allows the existence of a certain tension that characterizes the life and the living. This tension brings into play the things that we do not control; we do not know for sure which way they're going. What appears in the end is often a surprise that will gradually unfold.

How was it like to exhibit in the São Paulo Art Biennial?
It was amazing for many reasons. The first one is, of course, the invitation to be there, which I found amazing. Then, being there during the week before the opening allowed me to witness the installation of the works, the setting up, to meet artists that I’ve already admired and others that I started admiring from that moment on. That’s an amazing opportunity and I consider it a divine gift. Furthermore, seeing people's reactions to your work is also a very good experience. The work exists to the extent that people see it.