COMPLEXLY WHITE

THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF
ARTUR PASTOR

The Sunrise Seen from Uptown, 1980s.

Words by Pedro Rei

The photographer of serendipity, Artur Pastor, sought and registered the immutable nature of the true and of the meaningful. Through fifty years his lens and his eyes teamed up to leave us a magnum opus of tens of thousands of pictures. His legacy, currently housed at Lisbon’s Municipal Archive, not only is the faithful portrait of one nation and its people but also that of the entire humanity.

Sunset, 1969.

It might be tempting to think that the discovery of beauty is accidental. That the expression or register of a beautiful thing, from an original angle, comes from a place of purity and natural talent. But there is no artist without demons and no beauty without chaos. The artist is the result of the balanced forces of his experiences, resources, will and time. Time is crucial for the identity of the artist as either artists define themselves as an opposing force or align with time itself. Since the former are those we know best and celebrate the most, we tend to neglect the latter. That is perhaps because controversy did not play a role on them. Despite so, very seldomly, if ever, beauty comes from a place of pure innocence. Just as white light results from the combination of every coloured radiation of the visible spectrum, man-made beauty results from the composition of the different shades of the human nature.

Artur Pastor with his
Rolleiflex Camera, 1960s.

So we shouldn’t be led to believe that every artist is eccentrically colourful but can be instead complexly white. Just as we acknowledge the rebel and decadent artist, we must as well learn to look for the conformed one. For the family guy with his principles and values that don’t stand on the way of his talent. The guy that was slightly bohemian and then changed it all to marry and lead a responsible family life. The guy that lived in a small forgotten country at a time the world was at war, in a turmoil of change, destruction and rebirth. Had this guy had a more irreverent life, had he born in a more cosmopolite country, he might have been as famous as Herbert List, photographing for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But the reality of the context he had born into and lived in didn’t allow him such extravagant achievements or even the deserved recognition.

Children Playing, undated.

This is the story of a reporter and an artist. Reporter because to report is what he did; artist because art is how he did it. Artur Pastor was born in 1922 in Alentejo, the arid centre-south countryside of Portugal. Hired by the state to be an agricultural engineer, he ends up devoting his work to a photographic recording of Portugal’s regions, cities, professions and people. In a country left aside during World War II, capital of an overseas colonial empire still ruled by a fascist dictatorship, it may seem curious to find such simplicity, purity and provincial way of life. Maybe it was that same rule that kept it that way for so long as a peripheral and introverted European potency lost in time and parted from the rest, a nostalgic paradise on earth, so vast in its colonies, so small in its borders and so rich in its diversity.

The Washing of the Fishnets,
Monte Gordo, undated.

The Drying of the Jackets, 1969.

Fishnets, 1969.

Ultimately it was the pursuit of beauty that led Pastor to the world of photography. While being sent to work in the north of Portugal, the first night there was so cold that he slept with his clothes on convinced that, first thing in the morning, he would leave that place for good. He did not however. The following morning he woke up to see from his bedroom window a dramatically changed view. Artur Pastor was seeing snow for the first time and it was that moment which made him realise that there was a place for him there. In fact, he understood that there was a place for him everywhere. From that instant on, he learned how to truly look at life and how to truly see. Through the sight of snow he discovered the hidden secret of nature, the secret of real beauty and the place where it lies—simplicity. More than that, he learned that beauty is very often a mere question of what photography does best: perspective.

We can almost hear
the murmur of the foam
and taste the saltiness
of the breeze

A first glance at Pastor’s pictures may transport us to many places though they all somehow guide us to an imagined story. In the pictures that go along with these words, we feel carried into the neorealist universe of Luchino Visconti, to the film «Death in Venice» based on Thomas Mann’s homonymous novel. We can see the children playing at the beach and the waves splashing at their feet. We can almost hear the murmur of the foam, taste the saltiness of the breeze and indulge in the joy of the party. Not even the coldness of the of black and white can prevent us from imagining the sun’s yellow warmth reflected on the surface of the ocean, on the tan of their skins and against the blueish green of the waves. A child playing on his own by the shore evokes the quietness of the morning, an empty beach waiting for the fishermen to come back. While the child stares at the mirroring sand, we are led to believe that he might have found a rare shell, perhaps a starfish, certainly some wonder.

Mackerels, undated.

The fishermen soon return from fishing and with them the beach becomes a stage for all sorts of different incidental players. It is now a different fuss as they methodically pull their boats and nets onto land. Their toned yet skinny bodies are shaped by everyday’s repetitive labour and the immaculate white clothes they wear contrast boldly against their darkened skin. We can even sense the thin layer of salt on top of it as the intrusive cosmetic to which they have grown accustomed to. There is a sensual atmosphere to it all... the tired but happy conquerors return from distant places back to their families with their daily sustain. Women whose anguish is quickly replaced by cheerfulness. An epic feeling invades the moment and makes it look grand and unique. It is almost as if we forget, if only for just a minute, about the banality of such happening and how tomorrow the same will happen all over again.

Lining Up for the Fishmarket, undated.

The Dawn at the Beach, 1980s.

The Toy of a Poor Child, undated.

While the women take their places at the market, or the streets, to sell the fish, the men take their time off for some amusement... The young will maybe bathe in the same waters where a few hours before they fought to extract their sustain. Although the waters are the same, they feel different now by cooling their bodies, distending their muscles and taking them back in time to a place where they feel like innocent children again. We can see them swimming as fishes and the clear water filtering the rays of sun reflected on their skin just like brushstrokes of gold. Even though it is a still picture, we can follow with our minds the sliding movement of their silhouettes underneath the water. How refreshing and liberating it must feel, how amusing and exciting it looks... It is almost as this could have been a scene from «The Blue Lagoon».

“That is what these
pictures are all about:
that eternal place at our
family’s table”

As men are playing, their clothes are left hanging on the beach, gently caressed by the wind as women ordinarily left them there to dry. The same garments that protected their recently uncovered bodies from salt and sun float over the sand just as silk kimonos drying outside of Kyoto. Even if it wasn’t the artist’s intention, he takes us to Japan, making us think about distant countries and stories about Asian noblemen and brave samurais. A world about emperors and empresses, about conspiracies and quests for power, about plotters who have been turned into dark silhouettes outlined in rice paper windows. Yet suddenly we are driven back again, back to the beach and its men. Even if their clothes are not as shiny as the silky kimonos or as strong as the iron armours of the samurais, they serve the same purpose... status and protection.

Summer, undated.

Dawning, 1969.

Bibelots from the Atlantic, 1943-45.

The sun went high and soon will start its descent. The photographer focus his lenses on the pristine white walls of the village. It must feel so hot at this time of the day that, for a moment, the silence fills the streets where the breeze doesn’t penetrate. The straight lines of the buildings project geometric patterns and overlapped shades of grey whereas at the beach the boats lay still by the resting nets and fishing tools. Where moments before there was vibration, now there’s stillness. But in the pictures such stillness comes alive. The vivid hot red of the clay pots cease from being feelingless grey and can now be touched by the fingers of our imagination.

Architecture, undated.

Swimming Youngsters, 1950s.

We can now see through the walls: the men, lying in bed some, on the couch others, taking a nap most probably. The women, some by their side, body against body, others in the kitchen. Blinds closed, shady and cool interiors that call for rest. As the heat becomes bearable, the doors open, the blinds too. The village awakens. There is children’s laughter and baby cries again. A table is set outside on the terrace and there is wine and summery fruits in a bowl. We can sense the scent of the figs, see the bursting ruby of the grapes and smell the wine, subtly evaporating. Even if we don’t find them anywhere in the pictures we feel them anyhow. Again, we are taken somewhere else and leave the fishermen village. This time we are transported to a white villa’s fresh terrace on the cliff of a Grecian island, unaware of time or duty. Just us, the terrace, the ocean and that bowl of fruit.

Sunset, 1998.

The sun sets. And it doesn’t make a difference anymore. Where we are, who we are, what we see. The more we look, the less we understand. And yet it is so comforting. We might even wonder: did the artist realise to have this power to make the viewer travel beyond his pictures? Did he realise the richness and variety of the simple themes he approached? A journey through Artur Pastor’s pictures manages to do that indeed. They take us on a nostalgic travel to be confronted with a common place of familiar memories and sensations. They take us to places of peace and joy and, in their simplicity, for no logical reason, we feel completed. It’s just that same feeling of belonging which fills the long departed son as he returns to sit once again at his mother’s table. That is what Pastor’s pictures are all about: the eternal place at our family’s table. The given truth which we take for granted and that yet feels so good... Just like white is complex.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN
SCALA REGIA #3
scala regia magazine

Opening spread of the paper version.

SCALA REGIA, 2020