Redefining the Image: Miguel Rio Branco
Leonardo Carrato spends a day with one of his greatest inspirations and interviews the Brazilian photographer Miguel Rio Branco.
Miguel Rio Branco is one of Brazil’s most famous photographers. Branco is more than an individual; he is an institution and an inspiration for photographers like myself. Meeting him to discuss his work has been one of my ambitions, and after two years of exchanging messages, he scheduled a whole day this August for us to talk. It is my great pleasure to present our extended conversation in this article and video.
When the agreed day arrived, needless to say, I was very nervous. But I did not have to worry. Branco was a courteous and generous host. He welcomed us at his home in Araras, in the mountainous region close to Rio de Janeiro. His home is his refuge, studio, atelier, archive, and architectural project. Altogether, it is a truly impressive place.
Branco’s home is now even more impressive with his new installation – a series of sculptures sheltered in the woods to reflect on how nature takes care of concrete. These sculptures are a living work that Branco calls his “little Inhotim,” a reference to the Instituto Inhotim, a contemporary art museum and botanical garden in Minas Gerais. Always wearing his hat and proceeding with great humor, Branco guided us through his story despite the icy wind and clear sky of the winter morning we met.
Branco navigated me through his past, present, and future in our conversation. We discussed his career, partnerships, architecture, and passion for vintage cars. We talked a lot, and it gave me an understanding of his constant experimentation.
Branco came to documentary photography after establishing a career as an artist and film director. Now aged 76, Branco was born in Las Palmas, Canary Islands. His family were diplomats, and they traveled extensively before he later embraced Brazil as his homeland. Branco embarked on his artistic journey as a painter with a 1964 exhibition in Switzerland. His photography emerged later from his cinematic work and was presented in his 1978 inaugural exhibition, "Negativo Sujo," at Parque Lage in Rio de Janeiro. This show, a remarkable fusion of poetry and documentary photography, lingers long in our memory. It helped establish Branco’s global reputation in the 1980s when he skillfully employed dramatic color to delve into human themes such as sensuality, violence, and mortality.
As a member of Magnum Photos since 1980, Branco’s photographs have graced the pages of renowned magazines like Aperture, Geo, National Geographic, and Stern, among others. His artworks are found in esteemed collections, including MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Museum of Photographic Arts of San Diego, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro, the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo, and the Museum of Art of São Paulo.
Branco likes to do his own curating, telling a story he thinks is essential rather than just showing flawless photographs. He wants to write with the image – a characteristic from cinema, collage, and putting together pieces. He doesn't like being labeled or spending much time immersed in his archives, seeing his past constantly. “It's a hassle”, he says. In 1985, another Magnum photographer, Dennis Stock, said of Branco’s approach: “Your problem is that you want to make music with photography.” Miguel considered this a huge compliment because he sees music as the pinnacle of art. And that's what Branco seeks in his photography – to use the same notes but in different moments and places.
Today, Branco’s mosaics and collages, already seen, take on another meaning. A world of new sensations is created. It recalls the concept of “deterritorialization” by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. This concept highlights the process of moving away from established boundaries, fixed systems, and territories. It signifies the dissolution of existing boundaries and the breaking down of rigid structures, allowing for their “reterritorialization” through new connections, expressions, and possibilities. In a broader context, this approach highlights how ideas, concepts, and entities shift from their usual contexts, creating novel meanings and forms. Contemplating Branco’s artwork on a wall evokes these sensations, being undeniably contemporary and, above all, liberating.
Branco does not follow what is being done in the photographic world, and he is not concerned with his influence on and relevance to the new generations of emerging artists. But Branco has two new projects in the works: a book about New York and another for children. He has a five-year-old son and wants to make a happier book. Branco believes in books. "Ultimately, that's what truly remains," he concludes.
I hope you are inspired by this video of my day with Miguel Rio Branco.
Leonardo Carrato is a Brazilian photographer and filmmaker based in Rio de Janeiro and an alum of the VII Photo Mentor Program who writes and presents regularly for VII Insider.
In previous contributions, Leonardo has interviewed Sebastião Salgado, Claudia Andujar, and Lalo de Almeida and hosted discussions on Visualizing Indigenous Rights in Chile and Ethics, Representation, and New Visual Narratives In Latin America.