Miguel Rio Branco

Article Bio Works
death, ritual, violence
Media Arts (multi media installation)
Visual Arts (painting, photography, video art)
created on:
April 26, 2003
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Colour as the flesh of life

Miguel Rio Branco is an outstanding contemporary colour photographer. His main theme is the everyday life of ordinary Brazilians whom he shows on streets, in pubs, brothels and circuses and out in the country. His images do not report on reality but lend it pictorial life full of unusual beauty and harmony. Details, daring perspectives and simultaneous planes of focus and fuzziness are important and lend what is shown a thrilling and sometimes mysterious candour. The starring role in his works is played by colour, whose warmth and vitality are all-pervasive and the main means of expression.
Even Miguel Rio Branco´s photos reveal his background in visual art, since they have the quality of paintings, even when in black and white, like his early ones. When he began in the early 70s, his theme was the metropolis New York, whose streets and interiors showed the misery and loneliness of city life. His images were not spectacular but insistent, with silhouettes rather than details, and full of atmosphere.

Much is left to the fantasy of the viewer who, from fuzziness, greys, dimness and sharp contrasts, may conjure up an image of his own. Dustbins part streets from the front of houses; a tramp is asleep on a bench; a dead dog lies in front of ominous blocks of flats; televisions are on in front of the bare walls of rooms; human silhouettes glide along empty footpaths; couples dance as torsos whose heads are out of frame. Even at that time, Rio Branco began turning to Brazil. Still using only black and white, he photographed whores in Rio de Janeiro, a group of posing workers and men playing board-games in Carnaiba. He viewed them frankly as actors on the stage of life.

In the second half of the 70s he turned increasingly to colour. The photos taken at this time on the streets of Maciel with their crumbling facades and stray dogs are still mostly subdued in colour and concerned with the texture of objects. They suggest filth and stench without being offensive. Yet as time went on, his hues grew more luminous and forceful and seemed to pervade all objects. According to David Levi Strauss, "In his best images, color pushes up into an intensity that occurs only when light is dying or being born - at dusk or dawn or any other time these extremities are induced. His colors vibrate between mourning and exaltation... In these images colors become characters with their own histories, attributes, and roles to play." They lend the pictures warmth and intensity, poetry and dignity without denying the tragedy of many scenes. Critics have often compared them to paintings by the Venetians Titian and Tintoretto but especially to those by Caravaggio, whose sensual naturalism Rio Branco seems to share.

Many of Rio Branco´s photos show the milieu of prostitution with nudes in shabby surroundings. The women look weary and drained but proud and self-confident. The hues, gestures and postures lend the scenes mystery, vitality and festivity. Many of his photos reveal their themes and motifs only gradually. Sometimes only parts of a scene are highlighted. A pair of hands have a meal; faces laugh; torsos embrace; cut coconuts lie with a knife on a stone slab; a television set flickers behind a coiffeur; palm-leaves cradle a fruit beside naked feet; birds ooze blood; or a broken-off animal´s horn lies on a moist stone floor. They are images of hard manual work, of festivities and rites, of struggle and violence, of life and death. Nothing is shown or exposed directly. Situations and actions are suggested symbolically and immersed in an intoxicating climate of colour. Life becomes mythical and dreamlike; the real becomes the surreal.

Often Rio Branco presents his photos within the framework of installations, as in the case of his series about the boxing school Santa Rosa in Rio de Janeiro - a series shown in the 90s in various exhibitions in Germany. The installation entitled "Out of Nowhere" was made up of photos hung separately on black cloth on the wall, half-blind mirrors to include viewers among the bruisers, and old newspaper-articles about eminent boxers and their entourage. The heroes of these photos are the male and female boxers shown often only schematically in this school serving also as a meeting-place. "Viewers are drawn into the exotic milieu of the boxing school where, in specific surroundings, they are brought face to face with universal experiences like nostalgia, dreams, pain, defeat and success." (press statement)

Rio Branco faces up to reality and does not shy away from the dark side of life like poverty, loneliness and violence, especially in Latin America, though these are present less as motifs than as atmosphere. He is a photographer who used his camera like an x-ray camera "flattering nothing, never lapsing into nostalgia for a lost paradise or even into sympathy and tears" (Iris Lenz). He lends the simple and vulgar, the everyday and common a visual existence in their own right, opening them to feelings and criticism. Nothing is cut and dry; everything is malleable and open to change.

Author: Michael Nungesser


Miguel da Silva Paranhos do Rio Branco was born in 1946 in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria. Self-taught he first exhibited pictures and photos in Bern in 1964. From 1966 to 1968 he studied at the New York Institute of Photography and at the Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial in Rio de Janeiro. Since 1969 he has been professionally active as a photographer and filmmaker, and in the following 20 years he was the casting director and cameraman of 14 short and 7 documentary films. During his time in New York from 1970-72 he took photos and made experimental films. Since 1980 he has been a correspondent for the photo-agency Magnum in Paris and New York, and since 1982 a member. His photos have appeared in well known magazines like Aperture, Geo, National Geographic, Paris Match, Paseante, Photo Magazine, Stern and Time.

Rio Branco has won many awards including the 1st prize of the Photography Triennial in São Paulo (1980), the prize of the Brazilian Film Festival (1981), the special prize of the jury of the XI. Festival International de Court Métrage et du Film Documentaire in Lille for "Nada levarei quando morrer aqueles que mim deve cobrarei no inferno" ("I shall take nothing with me on dying, since my debtors will cover my costs in hell", 1982), the Prix Kodak de la Critique Photographique in Paris (with two other photographers) and the prize for best casting and camerawork in the films "Memoria Viva" und "Abolição" at the Brazilian Film-Festival (1988).

His works are on show in museums like the Museu de Arte and the Museu de Arte Moderna, both in São Paulo, in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and in the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego in California.

Miguel Rio Branco lives and works in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia.


Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2005 "Mapas abiertos. Fotografía latinoamericana (1991-2002)“, Centro de Fotografia, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain "Colección de Fotografía Contemporánea de Telefónica”, MARCO. Museo de Arte Contemporánea de Vigo, Vigo, Spain "The Anniversary Show“, Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, USA "Colecção Nacional de Fotografia: Novas Aquisições”, Centro Portugues de Fotografia, Porto, Portugal 2004 "Shanghai Biennial 2004“, Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai, China "Relating to Photography“, FFi - Fotografie Forum international, Frankfurt (Main) "Fotografia e Escultura no acervo do mam (1995-2004)”, MAM Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo, Brazil "Mapas abiertos: Fotografía Latinoamericana 1991-2002“, Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City, Mexico "Acquisitions récentes“, MEP - Maison Européene de la Photographie, Paris, France "Mapas abiertos. Fotografía Latinoamericana 1991-2002“, Palau de La Virreina, Barcelona, Spain 2003 "Realidad y Representación. Coleccionar paisaje hoy”, Fundación Foto Colectania, Barcelona, Spain "Calcio di rigore“, Scuderie di Palazzo Santacroce, Rom, Italien "Como si nada - Colección Juan Redón”, Fundación Foto Colectania, Barcelona, Spain "La Mirada“, Daros Exhibitions, Zurich, Switzerland 2002 "La Mirada“, Daros Exhibitions, Zurich, Switzerland 2001 "Brazil Body and Soul“, Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA ”Virgin Territory”, The National Museum of Woman for the Arts, Washington, USA 2000 "Mostra Brasil +500”, Módulo de Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo, Brazil 1999 "Biennial of Contemporary Art”, Tate Gallery, Liverpool, Great Britain 1998 "Mysterious Voyages“, Contemporary Museum, Baltimore, USA "The Garden of the Forking Paths“, Kunstforenningen Copenhagen, Oslo, Norway 1997 "Between the Eyes the Desert”, In Site 97, San Diego, USA 1996 "Door into Darkness“, Prospect 96, Kunstverein, Frankfurt, Germany 1995 "Panorama da arte brasileira”, Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo, Brazil 1994 "Out of Nowhere”, Ludwig Forum, Aachen, Germany ”A Hidden View”, Barbican Center Concourse Gallery, London, Great Britain 1993 "Arte Amazonas“, Kunsthalle, Berlin, Germany 1992 "Arte Amazonas“, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1990 "Suadouro“, Galerie 1900-2000, Paris, France 1989 "Rio Hoje“, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1987 "Latin American Photography”, Australian Center of Photography, Sydney, Australia 1986 "50 Jahre Moderne Farbfotografie“, Fotokina, Cologne, Germany "On the Line, the New Color Photojournalism”, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA 1985 "Auto retrato do brasileiro”, Museu de Arte, São Paulo, Brasilien "Brazilian Color Photography”, Burden Gallery - Aperture Foundation, New York, USA

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2005 "Oeuvres recentes“, Galerie 1900-2000, Paris, France "Plaisir la douleur“, MEP - Maison Européene de la Photographie, Paris, France "Miguel Rio Branco“, Groninger Museum, Groningen, Netherlands 2004 "Gritos surdos“, Galeria Millan Antonio, São Paulo, Brazil "Miguel Rio Branco“, Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica, USA "Algunas Habaneras, otras no...“, Galeria Oliva Arauna, Madrid, Spain 2003 "Nakta“, Fnac Montparnasse, Paris, France "Door into Darkness“, Aperture´s Burden, New York, USA 2002 "Miguel Rio Branco“, Galerie 1900-2000, Paris, France 2001 "Miguel Rio Branco”, Peggy Guggenheim Museum, Venice, Italy "Gritos Surdos”, Centro Portugues de Fotografia, Porto, Portugal 2000 "Nature presque Mort“, Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot, Paris, France "Door into Darkness”, Hellenic American Union, Athens, Greece 1999 "Nakta”, Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, USA "Entre los Ojos“, Fundación La Caixa, Barcelona, Spain 1997 "Between the Eyes, the Desert”, In Site 97, San Diego, USA "Nakta”, D’Amelio Terras Gallery, New York, USA 1996 "Out of Nowhere”, Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1995 “Out of Nowhere”, IFA Gallery, Stuttgart, Germany 1991 "Petites réflexions sur une certaine bestialité”, Rencontres d’Arles, Arles, France 1990 "Drawings and Paintings”, Espaço Sergio Porto, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1989 "Paintings”, Galeria Saramenha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1988 "Heart Mirror of Flesh”, Pallazo Fortuny, Venice, Italy 1987 "Coração Espelho da Carne”, Fotoptica, São Paulo, Brazil 1985 "Coração espelho da carne“, Burden Gallery, Aperture Foundation, NewYork, USA 1982 "Fotografias”, Gabinete de Cultura, Bilbao, Spain 1979 "Negativo Sujo“, Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil 1978 "Negativo Sujo“, Escola de Artes Visuais, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1977 "Photographs“, Ipanema Gallery, Tel Aviv, Israel 1974 "Photographs“, Galeria Grupo B, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil