Pierre Verger's (1902, Paris – 1996, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil) stories about his life invariably begin with his discomfort at the moralism that ruled the bourgeois life of his family in Paris. In the 1930s, searching for alternatives, Verger became involved with a kind of young counterculture formed by dissidents of the French surrealist group, who experimented with nudism and veganism and formed coalitions for artistic experimentation, such as the Groupe Octobre. It was in the context of these exchanges that Verger started working with photography, a craft that supported him on the journey he began in 1932, leaving Paris to spend over a decade traveling the world, covering countless coordinates, including Russia, the Caribbean, Polynesia, Asia, and Africa.
From 1932 to 1946, Pierre Verger lived a kind of nomadism, sending his images to some of the biggest international agencies and deepening his use of photography as a device that could elicit exchanges of looks and interpersonal interactions despite clearly distinct languages and cultures. In 1946, Verger visited the city of Salvador for the first time, which would become his most lasting home, and became involved in Afro-Brazilian culture. Verger was initiated into Candomblé and, in 1948, drawing on his traveling character, started transiting between Bahia State and West Africa, seeking to compare and connect the religiosity of the Yoruba peoples with their diasporic descendants. This pendular transit became the main drive in Verger's life: through it, the photographer was initiated as a Babalawo [Yoruba priest] and rebaptized as Pierre Fatumbi Verger; began to work as a researcher, writing and publishing texts on religiosity in both continents; and assumed an important role with the terreiros [Candomblé temples] and pais and mães de santo [saint-fathers and saint-mothers, "priests and priestesses'' who run terreiros] of Salvador, who chose him as an ally and interlocutor.
Verger's relationship with photography and with the Bahian Candomblé terreiros caused a complicated episode, which will be revisited in the 34th Bienal. At the end of the 1940s, Verger was invited by Father Cosme to photograph an initiation ritual, including the private and trance stages. The resulting study, which combines the intensity of the ritual moments with a direct photographic approach, remained almost unseen, with only three of the photographs being published, via Alfred Métraux and Michel Leiris, in the books L'Érotisme [Eroticism] (1957) and Les Larmes d'Eros [The Tears of Eros] (1961) by Georges Bataille. In 1951, however, there was a surge of interest in publishing Verger's study after photographs of a Candomblé initiation ritual taken by the cineast Henri George Clouzot were published in an exoticized and sensationalist edition of the magazine Paris Match. In Brazil, the magazine O Cruzeiro tried to create a response to the French publication and contacted Verger, who chose to omit his photographs, believing the issue to have a disrespectful attitude. The photographer José Medeiros was then sent to Salvador to produce a photographic study that was published in the same year, while Verger only reconsidered his veto of his own study fourteen years later when he included some of his images in his book Orixás (1981), where he could be certain they were being contextualized by his research and experience.
Support: Institut français à Paris
Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).