There is so much that deserves to be highlighted about Mario Cravo Neto that it’s difficult to even start. I am deeply grateful for having had the privilege of knowing this eminent Brazilian photographer, an idiosyncratic artist and highly independent person, a free spirit, and above all a dear friend…
Immersed in his country, his belief, his art
Mario Cravo Neto lived and worked in his hometown Salvador de Bahia for most of his life; it is the origin of his art. The Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, a syncretic belief system rooted in the Yoruba culture of West Africa, had an informative influence on him from early on, also in the person of Pierre Verger (1902 to 1996), the French photographer and anthropologist. Verger had traveled the world widely before settling down in Salvador de Bahia in 1946 and becoming a Yoruba priest (Babalawo) with the name of Fatumbi.
The Candomblé is an essential and visible part of Mario Cravo Neto’s artistic production, which consists of many many thousands of photographs. In comparison with the works by his contemporaries, the Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955 to 1989) and his Brazilian colleague Miguel Rio Branco, which are based on a similar iconography, Cravo Neto’s black and white images are more intense in their sublime spirituality and closer to Robert Mapplethorpe’s work in their sensitivity—although Mario Cravo Neto’s are more sensual than erotic in nature.
Both present and transcendental
Mario Cravo Neto’s images convey an incredible tranquility and absolute timelessness. They have become a symbol of the culture and religious heritage that he takes a share in. However, they remain iconographically overt; they entirely elude casual and anecdotal elements, and thus never become a mere description of rituals. Cravo Neto brings viewers very close to his subjects that are portrayed in staged photography in his studio. Bodies, faces and objects emerge from darkness; precise and sophisticated lighting and frontal poses confer an incredible and immediate presence to the subjects. Cravo Neto renders the haptic and tactile qualities of the surfaces and structures of skin, hair, scales, or feathers so that one can almost feel them. They rise from their two-dimensionality into a spatial, sculptural dimension.
By virtue of the poetic power inherent in his black and white photographs, they become symbols of life and death, of strength and physicality, of magic epiphany, and also of innocence and vulnerability. These powerful visual metaphors are spiritually animated still lifes. Mario Cravo himself liked to refer to his photography as a search for the “objet trouvé” and its inner poetic power. His works have a sublime and universal validity that transcends reality into calm and intense images, charged with inner greatness. These subtly calculated, greatly aesthetic and sensual compositions exude a sense of eternity that contrasts our dynamic, colorful, and pulsating world.
Mario Cravo was a brilliant observer of the world who missed nothing. He disliked traveling when I made his acquaintance in the beginning of this century. It was as if he had already seen and experienced enough. He seemed happiest when he was able to work and think on his own in his small tree house studio. He worked unremittingly; he knew no divide between «work» and «life»; it all merged into one. His animist/pantheist world view was something he neither denied nor particularly advertised.
He was an aesthete through and through who could only function according to his very own rhythm. The sublime, the transcendental, pain, distress and beauty, love and sensualism—Cravo Neto expressed all of that so admirably and accurately in his poetic works that there was no need to talk to him about it. The flow was simply there, so that we could sometimes sit silently and talk without speaking. When he died, I lost a friend who simply knew about everything, who was suffused by deep wisdom and insight, who stood above life and yet in the midst of it.