German Lorca: building the decisive moment

German Lorca. Ícaro (Night view of Anhangabaú Park), 1954


Comments on the work of the photographer from São Paulo

It was in 1985 that I had my first contact with the work of German Lorca. On that occasion, I was surprised by a consistent, diversified and practically unknown photographic production, which began in the 1940s, which seemed to me to materialize a pioneering position in the search for a modern language at Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante. Over the last few years, his work has gained wide publicity and I have had several other opportunities to rediscover it. I was thus able to reiterate my initial assessment and, at the same time, have the satisfaction of seeing the potential of his photographs in instigating me to new reflections.[I]

In this short essay, I intend to focus my attention on a specific aspect of the urban documentation that German Lorca developed in the mid-1950s, destined for the capital of São Paulo, without going into considerations about his contribution to the photo club or his advertising activity. Evidently, his production is much broader and more complex than this section is able to show, and this exhibition demonstrates it. Fixing myself precisely on two images produced in that decade, from this point of view, is just a strategy to approach with a sharp focus one of the issues that has most attracted my attention in your work today.[ii]


German Lorca is a photographer, in the purest modern sense of the term. The images he produced throughout the 1950s take us not only to another time, but mainly to another way of looking at the world, which characterized the modernist vision. Modernism abdicated the bucolic and pictorial themes of academic photography, launching itself with avidity over the modern city. The affirmation of the artistic character began to take place in the exploration of the specific attributes of the photographic technique, centered on the significant possibilities of the framing offered by the camera and the games of light and shadow that only photography is capable of offering. The modern experience, however, was not limited to a simple formalistic exercise, on the contrary, it was seen as a profound renewal of the conceptual bases of photography and was based, among other issues, on the reformulation of the concept of documentation.

The documentation of the city of São Paulo that German Lorca carried out throughout the 1950s shows that modern life in transformation contributed to a new positioning of the photographer in relation to the world. Documenting would stop being an attempt to capture the real and become an activity of interpretation. This is what we see in one of Lorca's photographs taken at night in the center of São Paulo in 1954. In it, the photographer superimposes a winged sculpture, in the foreground, on the illuminated skyscraper in the background, located among old buildings disappearing in the Anhangabaú Valley.

The title of the photo – Icarus – reminds us that the myth refers to his character's dream of taking flight based on precarious foundations, which imposes a tragic destiny on him. In Lorca's photography, the anachronistic figure of inert matter, which he associates with the mythological character, points vehemently upwards, warning us of the risks of the dream of progress at any cost.[iii]


German Lorca. Hollow, 1954.

Another vision of progress is given by German Lorca in the photo Jan, produced on the occasion of the IV Centenary of the city of São Paulo, a few days before the inauguration of Ibirapuera Park.[iv] At first, there is a very well-structured composition that is evident in several elements, whether in the horizontal marking given by the base of the building that divides the photo into two antagonistic segments, or in the grooves marked on the ground that guide our gaze towards the building located at the background, or even in the precise location of human figures.

The contrast between the coarse texture of the earth and the fine finish of the built surface embodies a strong antagonism between culture and nature. The bold shape of the building, in turn, inadvertently takes us back to the imaginary of spaceships in literature and fiction films, reminding us of a recurring situation in which humans are attracted by the unknown. Perched on the devastated land, the 'nave' occupies the entire horizon line and seems to materialize a future full of potential.

We can place not only these, but several of German Lorca's images from the 1950s, in relation to the so-called French humanist photography, in which Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and André Kertész are located, to name just a few of the best known names.[v] It was a new conception of time and space, based on the concept of decisive moment, formulated by Bresson. The existence of a privileged moment was assumed, capable of synthesizing all the meaning of a given event through the simultaneous articulation of expressive and formal elements in the composition of the images.

The photographer would be, in this context, a professional specialized in identifying these instants and materializing them in summary images of the events he witnessed. The decisive moment would soon become an ideal, pursued from then on by several generations of photographers around the world. Thus, a mystique was created around the almost transcendental skill of photographers adept at this principle in producing images based on the spontaneity of the scenes, without ever resorting to cuts or any type of intervention in the copy or negative.

The course of history shows us that the passage of time is often able to bring out the best kept secrets. This has been happening with French humanist photography, whose supposed spontaneity has been challenged in recent decades due to the opening of the archives of some deceased photographers.[vi] or certain unexpected situations. This is the case of the well-known photo by Robert Doisneau, Le baser de L'Hotel de Ville, which, by immortalizing the fleeting moment of a young couple's passionate kiss, has become emblematic of the vaunted romanticism of the city of Paris[vii].

Disseminated as a snapshot, taken at random, it circulated on thousands of posters and portal cards around the world. In the late 1980s, however, a lawsuit involving the right to use the image of those portrayed led Doisneau to reveal that he had hired a couple to stage the kiss. It became known, then, that that was one of the images he produced, under order, for an essay in the American magazine Life.[viii] If this revelation freed Robert Doisneau from the legal action filed against him, it ruined his reputation as the genius author of some of the most surprising and charming street scenes in the city of Paris in the 1950s, placing all of his work under suspicion of staging.

Today, however, it is up to us to question the extent to which staging affects the historical importance of a photo as a Le baser de L'Hotel de Ville. To do so, I will not take into account the arguments of the supporters of the decisive moment, taking advantage of the critical distance we have today in relation to their purist assumptions. Like so many others made in the period, this image is situated in the context of the reconstruction of French society in the post-war period, when there was an attempt to resume social life in its most everyday aspects.

It was not by chance that humanist photography made the city its most frequent setting and directed its interest towards children, couples in love, collective meetings, popular festivals and similar themes. It was necessary to reinvent conviviality in the public space, which until recently had been taken over by violence and barbarism. It is in this context that, in my view, we must understand the enormous acceptance of Robert Doisneau's photography. As for the fact that it was staged, Hans-Michael Koetzle rightly claims that such a revelation turned out to be a positive fact over the years, insofar as it freed the photo from the shackles of documentation. It is he who concludes: “Photography has become a symbol – and symbols have a truth of their own”[ix]. This is because it was not a randomly produced staging, but a symbolic construction in tune with the sensibility of the time when it was conceived in response to the expectations of a given society.

At this point I return to the work of German Lorca. Keeping the due historical distinctions, Jan carries out an operation similar to that of Doisneau's photo in relation to the São Paulo environment of the 1950s. As we know, the favorable conditions of the Brazilian economy in the post-war period made possible the acceleration of the industrialization process. There was a significant influx of foreign investment into the country, in addition to a sharp expansion of the domestic market. Urban growth rates, literacy rates and per capita income rose to levels never reached before. The middle class emerged as a political force and the country entered a phase of democratization after more than a decade of dictatorial rule.

This climate of optimism would be particularly felt in the capital of São Paulo, which sought to establish itself as a modern and cosmopolitan metropolis. In Lorca's photography, Oscar Niemeyer's building, an example of modern Brazilian architecture, suggests a bridge between the present in its raw state and a future time of achievements based on the autonomy of national industry and technology. It is as if the unusual construction materialized a kind of common destiny, towards which the different generations are heading. Here the truth of the image is not in capturing the real. Lorca did not seek to register an event, but to create an image capable of symbolizing a certain collective feeling in relation to the future of São Paulo. Through a carefully staged photograph, built in dialogue with the concept of the decisive moment, he offers his sensitive interpretation of the lived history.[X]


The modern photography that was developed in São Paulo, at the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante in the 1950s, came to respond to the needs of updating the local culture, given the impact of post-war urban growth, the challenges of our late industrialization and the contradictions of the our modernization process. Modernist photographers positioned themselves as protagonists in the construction of a developing country and found in photography a vehicle, not only to give vent to the symbolic construction of this ideal country, but also to affirm their own cultural identity, as an emerging social class. The place they wanted for photography was the museum. The dream was to make photography recognized as art for its intrinsic qualities. Lorca's trajectory in the 1940s and 1950s was punctuated by this utopia.

*Helouise Costa is a professor and curator at the USP Museum of Contemporary Art and co-author of the book Modern photography in Brazil (CosacNaify).

Originally published in the exhibition catalog Photography as memory – German Lorca. Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 9/12/2006 to 11/3/2007.


[I] I arrived at German Lorca's work through research, carried out together with Renato Rodrigues da Silva, between 1985 and 1986, which resulted in the book Modern photography in Brazil. São Paulo: CosacNaify, 2004.

[ii] The reflections that I will develop below were originally presented by me on two occasions, in the curatorial text of the exhibition “German Lorca: photography as a vision” (Museu de Arte Contemporânea da USP, 17 Aug. – 24 Oct. 2004) and later at the round table “The aesthetic and the social in the photographic plot”, in the cycle of debates “Fotopalavra”, Itaú Cultural / CosacNaify, São Paulo, 4 out. 2005.

[iii] In the title of the photo, German Lorca takes poetic license by associating the monument with the myth of Icarus. It is, in fact, a work by Amadeo Zani in honor of the composer Giuseppe Verdi, inaugurated in 1921 as a gift from the Italian colony to the city of São Paulo. The monument, as described in Zani's original project, features the figure of Verdi, seated, and behind him his winged genie (thanks to Anna Carboncini for this information). According to Prof. José de Souza Martins the monument was transferred from its original location and is currently at the foot of the stairs on Rua Libero Badaró, still in the Anhangabaú Valley. Martins reiterates that the figure represents Verdi himself, who “has in one hand the leaves of the pentagram of the inspirations of the soul” and is “protected and distracted under the immense wings of musical inspiration”. See: “In Anhangabaú, Verdi and freedom”. The State of S. Paulo, Caderno Metrópole, 1 Apr. 2006, p. C7.

[iv] This photo was produced for a report commissioned from German Lorca by Editora Abril. At the time, it was published with another cut and accompanied by the caption “The future sprouted from the earth”. The building, now known as Oca, has the official name of Pavilhão Lucas Nogueira Garcez and was called, at the time, Pavilhão das Exposições. Therefore, the title of the photo given by Lorca is recent, as the author himself admits. See: Magazine of the IV Centenary, n. 1, 1954, available at:, accessed on Oct. 2006.

[v] Mari de Thézy. The photographie humaniste, 1930-1960: histoire d'un mouvement in France. Paris: Contrejour, 1992.

[vi] In André Kertész's archive, for example, two negatives were found that show other shots of the place where the photo Meudon, from 1928, was taken, previously considered as an image taken spontaneously. In them, the photographer seems to want to test the framing and strength of the composition, with and without the presence of the train on the viaduct. See: Hans-Michael Koetzle. Photo Icons – the story behind the pictures. London: Taschen, 2002, p. 8-17.

[vii] The information in this paragraph is found in Koetzle, op. cit., p. 72-79.

[viii] The essay was published with six double-page spreads, including Le baser de L'Hotel de Ville, in the edition of Life from 12 Jun. 1950.

[ix] Koetzle, op. cit., p. 79.

[X] German Lorca never omitted the staging that originated several of his photos. In this case, the lady portrayed is the photographer's grandmother, and the child is her son. Both appear in another image published on the cover of the Magazine of the IV Centenary, already mentioned. The picture Girl in the Rain (1951), in turn, had Lorca's niece as the protagonist. Information provided to the author by the photographer in two interviews, conducted in 1985 and 2004.

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