FOT Revista Peruana de Fotografia e Investigacion Visual, Issue 5, 2021
Self-portrait: Fernando La Rosa
Hotel, Trujillo, Peru, 1974
In 2008 Peruvian photographer, Francisco Zeballos interviewed Fernando La Rosa. A selection of this 5 hour long interview was printed in Issue 5 of FOT Revista Peruana de Fotografia e Investigacion Visual in August 2021. This is the first time any part of this interview came to print.
Link to Editorial by Franz Krajnik:
Link to Interview of La Rosa by Zeballos in Spanish: https://revistas.upc.edu.pe/index.php/fot/article/view/1506/1200
English translation of interview:
FERNANDO LA ROSA (1943-2017) WAS THE CENTRAL FIGURE IN PERUVIAN PHOTOGRAPHY OF THE LAST QUARTER OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. HE FOUNDED AND DIRECTED THE SEQUENCIA PHOTO GALLERY AND, UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF MINOR WHITE AND AARON SISKIND (DISCIPLES OF ANSEL ADAMS), HE INITIATED PHOTOGRAPHIC MODERNISM IN PERU. IN NOVEMBER 2008, ONCE HIS GREAT RESTROSPECTIVE WAS INAUGURATED IN LIMA, I WAS ABLE TO SIT DOWN WITH HIM AND RECORD A CONVERSATION THAT LASTED 5 HOURS, AT HIS HOME IN BARRANCO.
IN THIS INTERVIEW, PUBLISHED FOR THE FIRST TIME, FERNANDO TALKS ABOUT THE SEARCH FOR FREEDOM THAT ACCOMPANIED HIM THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE IN OPPOSITION TO THE BONDS OF HIS CHILDHOOD AND THE RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS FATHER. IN THIS SENSE, HIS POETICS ARE LINKED TO THE MELANCHOLY, SADNESS AND LONELINESS THAT INTOXICAT THE TIMELESS CHARACTER OF HIS WORK. IN A WAY, HIS PHOTOGRAPHS WERE — AND STILL ARE — A LIFE LESSON.
Francisco Zeballos Valle, Photographer & Teacher
Department of Communication & Photography, UPC, Lima, Peru
Tell me about your family in Arequipa, from the time of school and if at that time you already had artistic interests.
My father and grandfather were bankers, they worked for the Peru Bank of London. With my father we traveled a lot. For his work, we lived in Cusco, Tacna and Lima. I didn't get along much with my father because he was very authoritarian. He liked to put his hand in a lot and that created resentments. As soon as I could, I left home. I was 16 years old when I arrived in Lima, to live alone. I guess a lot of people don't like to talk about those things, but they're important because they're part of one's training. I would not be who I am if I did not live what I had to live.
Has the artist's life always been sacrificed, conflicted from the economic side or is it a pose?
Of course. The day I left my house I never got a penny from my father again. It was a very hard period, but it was my freedom. A friend helped me so that I could rent a small room on a fifth floor, behind the Rome cinema. Many times I came walking from the school because I had no money to spend, with the help of friends, I paid my bills. It was fucked up poverty. I became a seller of Encyclopedia Britanica in Spanish, which made the Barsa. It was hard because at that time I was with friends who were in the Champagnat and suddenly I was knocking on their doors with my books to sell.
It is what I perceive in every artist, there is always something that has happened in his childhood and that makes his sensitivity exacerbated.
Before I left for Lima one summer, my father punished me without being able to leave the house. In addition, he would call from the bank and the employees were the spies. I remember accepting the punishment with a certain tolerance and went to the rooftop. At home there was a Brownie camera, I looked through the little window, I didn't have rolls of film or anything and what I was doing was writing what I was seeing. Then I found out that a French writer named Robert Merle was doing that kind of thing.
Is that where the theme of windows in your photographs comes from? Probably yes, there are always things that come together, right?
At that time I read Melville's Moby Dick and in the part in which he describes the whale, he says that he has the eyes where we have ears; that is, you are always looking at two simultaneous things that do not resemble each other, which is impossible to imagine. He [Melville] made the analogy of solving two theorems simultaneously because he is seeing two things. That fascinated me. Some diptychs that I made a few years later had to do with that, with those two images that have no solution but are together.
It is a little bit what Mario Montalbetti expressed in the presentation of your latest book, the idea of the mirror and the window of Szarkowski. That dual gaze, of seeing inside the soul and outwards, towards reality. But, to you it placed you in a kind of continuity or limbo between both sides.
Actually, Szarkowski said that it was a continuum and that more photographers are in the center, rather than at the ends. He said that Robert Frank was a documentary filmmaker, he was a window, and Minor White was more of a mirror, but in reality, they both cross him. I am more mirror, by the influence of Minor White, photographing what is inside.
At what point do you get to photography?
It was in Fine Arts. There was a teacher, Jesús Ruiz Durand, who was doing photography. He showed us the slides he had taken in the Rimac and a series of abstractions he made. I was very interested at the time. He was a great artist, he made all the posters of the military era, which were formidable. He was a very cultured and well-read guy, who introduced us to James Joyce and a lot of authors. That's when I started my first steps in photography using a Leica M3 camera, from the year 1938.
Was it a real fetish?
At that time I knew the work of Cartier-Bresson and, well, he used a Leica. Also, the same one I had. He had a whole discipline of photographing with the 50 mm and natural light, he strived to respect the framing, what he saw was photographed and never cut his photos in the enlargement. He had almost an equation, he said: "Photography for me is the simultaneous recognition of a fraction of a second, of the meaning of a fact and of the organization of the visible forms that explain this fact".
He was talking about the decisive moment, the man who is jumping the puddle of water, the one on the cover of his book.
Of course. I would go downtown and photograph people because I wanted to find that confluence of things that were happening in the instant and grab it there. It was a beautiful, wonderful thing from Bresson, a unique eye to compose with impressive speed.
I see in your work, in your book and in your exhibition, fabulous photos, but the great absence is the human being and rather landscapes and objects reign.
There is a lot of human presence my work. You don't see it, but it is. It was an election, when I started to take photography seriously, to put aside the physical presence of the human being, because I think it's the hardest thing to photograph.
At that time, did the photograph have a place that allowed you to live off it?
I did portraits. A friend who had money lent me the money to do my lab. He became my patron. He told me not to worry, to pay him when I can. I bought a car and an enlarger. Then, he tested me telling me he needed the money and I did everything to get it. I was a marketing writer at McCann Erickson, I photographed children in natural light in a tiny place that a friend had and then showed the pictures to their moms, and of course, they all bought from me, it was a good deal. But in the end, this friend told me he didn't really need the money, he was just putting me to the test.
When do you take a step to photography that will then mark the transcendental line of your work?
There was a serious world in photography, it was to raise your image to the level of a work of art. It was at that time that I met Billy Hare, I really liked his work. In the beginning, Billy distrusted me, but then we partnered and did the studio La Rosa-Hare. We went out a lot to photograph together, but a year later we separated because Billy wanted me to be the one to collect and I didn't want to be the collector of society. Then we pass that very important point in friendship where one learns from the other and with that we killed suspicion.
How do you know Minor White?
Once in Camera Magazine an article came out about him and I decided to write him a letter and invite him to Peru. He talked about things that I didn't understand at the time, like perspectives and framing, but he also had a whole vibe in the mystical, "photography is pure perception," he said. It is with Minor that I define my course in artistic photography. I remember we took him to San Mateo and it was a great experience for us. Then I photographed the desert of Sechura, the Presbitero Maestro and also started with the series of windows in Callao.
These themes that you love, and that you were building in series, did you preview them, sketch them mentally or just go out to find what was presented to you?
I went out to photograph what I found. I was an image hunter. I would go into abandoned houses and, when I came across one of those windows, I saw enormous desolation. The elegance of the window as opposed to the melancholy. At that time I was already working with photographic plates, it was with Minor that I started with the 4x5, I had bought a Speed Graphic, exactly like yours.
In those early years of the seventies, with Billy, we made a show in the Museum of Italian Art, I remember that we made, as a performance, a camera obscura and we saw people walking upside down, it was perhaps one of the first performative experiences of conceptual art in Lima.
You tell me that by then you defined your route through artistic photography, but, within this genre, do you consider yourself more a landscape photographer, of portraits, of nudes or of still life?
I am a formalist by nature, that is, I go to the usual genres. I do care about discourse but, for example, I conceived of the windows intuitively and then, when I saw them, I started to wonder what a window really is, and I realized that there are many aspects to a window. Before the Renaissance the window was just a hole in the wall through which light and ventilation entered. The Renaissance brings with it Humanism and the buildings are no longer the unattainable vertical constructions that want to reach to the sky, but become frames that, like paintings, framed the outside view. It's like it's a painting on the wall.
Like Magritte’s windows?
Yes, of course. But in my case there was no surrealism, there was something else, it framed the Peruvian reality.
Did you then discover your own creative process that was somehow a mixture between consciousness and intuition, but by that time you had heard of conceptual art?
The first exhibition was almost an installation, but that word in Lima was only used by electricians. I learned from Mario Acha that he was a "sabi", a knower, of techniques and things of art. With him we made an exhibition that was called Initiation to the cinematographer.
With Minor we began to understand what photography was. With him we went to Paracas, La Perla, San Mateo, Chilca, etc. To him, San Isidro and Miraflores seemed unreal. And you saw Billy and me with tripods and 4x5 cameras. There was a technical need, I urged that information, but Minor was more involved in the spiritual thing, in the subject and essence of the image, he called it "the cross of the situation". The core that one had in front.
Is it with Minor that you came to know the Zone system?
Yes, with him we learned the zone system and the concept of sequence as a group of photos that tell something and are grouped by some characteristic.
Is that how the name of the Secuencia school was born?
Yes, exactly. That's where the idea comes from. He [Minor White] made graphic sequences and from there the name of the school is born, as following a kind of tradition with the conceptual equivalence that Minor brings. Although in itself, it is a concept of Stieglitz who developed a kind of visual metaphor that amounts to a rhetorical figure of poetics, that is, he photographed a series of clouds but when you see them they remind you of something different. Then, you generate a connection and elevate those images to another dimension. It's the same way that Leonardo Da Vinci saw great battles in the stains on the walls, he had that ability to see forms in the midst of abstraction.
So did they not only learn to know technique, they learned to see photography from a greater discursive and conceptual breadth, but they were also faced with one of the most rigorous techniques to be produced in direct photography of the f.64 era?
Yes, of course. We figured out how we could improve the shot, how to get more detail out of the darkness without leaving out the clear parts. With prolonged and correct exposure in development; with a 'reverse' luck, where the greater the exposure you obtained greater detail and in the development the highlights were controlled. If you had a negative of low contrast you increased the development and the white moved away from black thus creating more contrast.
The light of Lima always presented that problem, it is a light too flat, so the question was how to create contrast. We had to learn to do photography in a different way. It was a simple thing but very significant for our future work. But beware, Minor did not want to talk about technique, he was no longer interested in that, he wanted to talk about deeper, more mystical things, but we had an enormous thirst, we desperately needed the technique.
Is it at that time that you came to know the work of Aaron Siskind?
Yes, his work was very interesting. I invited him to Peru to inaugurate the Fotogalería Secuencia. When I returned from the United States, I first had a place near the Colina cinema, in Miraflores, Entre Nous, where I taught the Zone System and had as students Carlos Montenegro, Roberto Fantozzi, Javier Silva Meinel, etc. After that experience I opened, in Jirón Ilo, in the center of Lima, another school to teach and at the same time I made a non-profit society: Secuencia. We opened the gallery with the assistance of Mariella Agois, who had also been my student.
Aaron came with a very different photography to that of Minor, who was more attached to the school of Adams, Weston and Stieglitz. He came with more influence from the Bauhaus, from Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. His photography was much more abstract. For him, photos are movement and gesture, technique pushed to the background.
How does a photo of La Rosa happen, what is your light, do you care about the time, work in the morning, avoid noon, look for the warm light of the afternoon or the mystery of the night?
I'm interested in the day, previewing, seeing areas and composing. Sometimes I take a picture in 35mm and come back to the best time and suddenly I see something else or sometimes I lose interest. Sometimes, the simple fact of changing the format forces you to look more. In larger formats you make fewer photos but with higher quality in every way, it makes you selective. With the camera I framed, I don't know why, a depressing piece of reality. It carried a lot of nostalgia, loneliness, silences; and discovered that photography is a mirror of who we are, of what we keep inside, a series of conflicting emotions that come out and are impregnated on paper with great fidelity.
Why black and white?
Color has a problem with reality, I don't care about color, black and white allows me to make an interpretation of the same, because reality as it arises does not interest me, so I care about other realities or reconstructing them in some way.
In your book, there is a very impressive portrait entitled "Portrait of a Man II", from 1972 in Huaraz, of a subject with a translucent look. It is striking because it is one of the few portraits in the publication.
I did it with a medium format Hasselblad and a 150mm, but the instant I took the picture the guy turned, so he has that look that he goes through you. It is a very special and rare photo in my collection.
Another element that I see in your photos is that there is no sense of temporality, it is clear that these images can be of all times. How do you achieve that?
Sure, they're timeless. It is an aspect that arises in an absolutely unconscious way. I am not looking to eliminate anything, I simply see something that fascinates me and I take it.
Within the existing artistic currents such as Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. What has been your stylistic preference since those isms? What car do you get into?
The truth is, none. Because whenever you get in someone else's car you end up, somehow, in the last one. I've never been interested in the waves out there. I've always liked to follow my own vibe and I never want to get into what's trendy.
But do we see very concrete and definite influences in your work, which in fact come from your own teachers and referents in your training?
For sure. American photography has been one of the best, a very strong photography and it has very good photographers, really very talented. I tell you something that happened to me in New York. I took my photos of intervened frames to the Witkin Gallery and the gallerist in charge observed my work with great care and respect. He said, "You have to be famous, but I'm not going to be the one who will make you famous. For two reasons: First, I'm not going to take your work because you're a foreigner and I don't know what your situation is in this country; and second, I'm tired of making many artists famous who then go somewhere else with their fame. But be aware, this is work of value." I came out vindicated and happy even though they didn't take my work because a guy of that level recognized value in my work.
The million dollar question, can you live off art and photography?
You can. I work, I teach full time and I also sell my work. But I would have to sell six or eight photos to match what my wife, who is a painter, earns. In the United States, the artist's print runs have been stipulated when submitting a work, that is, you can make 20, 50 or 100 copies, but you agree that there will be no copy that is outside that print run. This creates a sense of collectivity, exclusivity and professionalism. In addition, the price increases while the print run is finished, that is to say that if you make fifty copies, the fiftieth is the most expensive because it would become the last of the collection. I number my copies usually from one to ten for the United States and from ten to twenty, for the ones that are here.
We are living in an era where photography has revealed itself as a universal language capable of encoding a lot of information in a small box with a great speed of reading. What has this visual boom, democratization through the inclusion of the camera in cell phones and digitalization been like for you?
I actually try to discard everything unnecessary in the picture. I try to go to the essentials, what Minor said, go to the heart of the image. Sometimes, there is too much information and that makes me a kind of noise and confusion. Democratization is a reality, but beware, that does not make you a photographer, that is, not every person who has a camera in his hand becomes a visual artist.
Do you apparently stay in traditional analog systems?
We all have a stand from which the work is supported. When that support has enabled you to operate for so long, and gives you a correct image, there is no reason to leave the tangible to take a step to the uncertainty of the modern.
On the day of the presentation of your book, you spoke very little in front of such a large body of work, is it that suddenly the image did not need words to describe so much beauty?
Well, I never thought I'd see what was done until it was all hung up. Only the collection of the Presbitero Maestro was lent to me by the MALI, with anti-reflection glass that killed the photos. Everything else I brought in copies of different formats. I had to buy many frames, the ICPNA lent me some, Roberto Huarcaya lent others, and so we have achieved the assembly.
Let's talk about your role as a teacher, how is photography taught?
There are two aspects, the first is the technical aspect, which is to teach how it is done and the other is to teach the person to see things that they have. I mean, I tell you, you have wonderful things that you haven't discovered yet.
Is it like they're blind, that they're going to see for the first time?
Of course. Then, suddenly, we analyze the work produced by a group of students of the same assignment and they are hallucinated; different interpretations of the same thing, and when they stand out from the masses, young people get excited about photography.
So the technique can be mastered but the essential thing is to learn to see?
Of course, the technique can be mastered, and it is important to master it, without that the photo did not work. But the vision, you have to discover it.
Is there another important side that is style, you think this definitely seeps in when it comes to teaching photography?
It must be remembered that the first task of the disciple is to betray the teacher. In this way their own expressive horizons are defined.
What do you have to do to get your own style?
It's a clarifying process that you go through. It all lies in the problem of looking. Photography is that, because I don't think you can copy others better, but it is a discipline that suddenly alerts you that you are doing certain things that are clarifying a style of looking and suddenly, one day you have it.
You are closing 40 years of work with this show, what can you tell us about it, from the style?
That it is a product of discipline. Genius can come from rare beings, but it can also be built through work. For example, Mozart was a genius who already at the age of four played and composed like the gods, but perhaps someone else would achieve the same at age 60.
Do you feel that everything has already been said or that suddenly new projects are coming?
No, I feel like I still feel like showing new things, there's a lot more to do. I've also been looking at things from the past that I've never paid attention to and suddenly rediscovering a new value in them.
What would you say to the people who follow in your footsteps?
That they define what interests them in photography and that they do not abandon their ideas. I enjoy photographing in an intuitive way. I look and find the idea behind it. Follow the idea and not abandon it. I think that ideas are like a mine, that you have to explore them and they become concepts with infinite potentials.
Are they like your windows, where you find enormous potential, but, I imagine, you will ask yourself at what point I close to open something else?
Of course, I prefer to see many images with few ideas, than to see many ideas with few images. Because photography is a constant exploration and that's what this is all about. I, for example, want to do something that speaks more about Peru and its temporality.