Adriana Lestido

The woman who wanted to be a mirror

by Daniel Merle

Next Tuesday, the photographer Adriana Lestido, one of the most distinguished ones in the last decades for the wit and sensitivity of her work, opens a new retrospective of almost 30 years of work. In this article, she states that vanity is the enemy of creation and that her search is basically “looking”.

Adriana Lestido´s face is very similar to a feline´s. Big eyes, small mouth, impenetrable expression. The long and black hair, slightly curled, frames and strengthens the glance of the photographer, probably the most important one of the last decades in Argentina. Her background is very impressive: a Guggenheim scholarship (1995), Hasselblad Foundation scholarship (1991), Mother Jones Foundation award (1997), Konex award (2002). These are the milestones of a career that started in 1982 and that now gathers in a retrospective at the Recoleta Cultural Center.

Her books Imprisoned Women and Mothers and Daughters, just to mention two of her most well-known works, show her skill to record the invisible fabric that holds the lives of people subjected to extreme situations. The face of the prisoner mother crying the day she is separated from her two year old girl, to the calm portrait of Marta and Nana in Mothers and Daughters; these are the emotional counterpoints in which Adriana develops her talent to show what is not obvious for the eyes.

The large work of Lestido can be expressed in a few words: woman, pain, love, innocence, separation. A large fresco of intimacy, fragmented into minimal stories, almost imperceptible except for the persistent observation of this 53 years old woman that wants to understand the issues that obsessed her to find out how her fundamental search goes on: looking.

One Saturday afternoon, just before the opening of the exhibition, she answered the questions for LNR.

- Why this exhibition now? Shouldn´t it be a summary of a whole lifetime of photographing?

- I do this retrospective to understand what is it I was looking for. I wanted to reach the roots of my way of looking. To have everything together and looking at it from the beginning has been a very intense experience. I look trying to understand. –

- And what is it that you see?

- What I see is there, in the exhibition. The title was taken from a paragraph of the novel of Sara Gallardo, Eisejuaz: that for me explains everything. Whatever I say adds very little. I wanted to discover what the plot is, the leading thread of all my work. Perhaps, understand the sense of my life.

There is in your pictures a great concern for women. In “What you see”, the only work in which a man appears is in the series “Love”.

- I don´t believe I have a special choice for the subject of women. Perhaps bonds are stronger in women. My last photographs are oriented towards love, particularly when love ends. If there is a core in my work, that is separation. That´s the reason why I added that poem by Salinas when he writes “living, from the beginning is separating”. All the time we confront separation.

And what conclusion do you come to?

- Paradoxically, what I care for most is to discover what is the connection among people. When I observe, my interest is to disappear. I want to be a mirror of what I see.

What were the first images that influenced your career?

The first one that appears is an image where I am with my mother. A sunny day when I was three. A lost happiness.

- Is it a memory or a photograph?

- In a sense, memories are also photographs. I think photographs change as much as memories.

A retrospective is a way of coming to terms with the past. What comes after?

- Perhaps it will pave the way towards the film industry. I started studying movie making. But I like to be the solitary observer, not to depend on anyone. To be alone with the camera, be almost invisible. Still, I like the movies and perhaps I will do something in the future.

- Is your need to photograph still intact?

- Creation is not related to making. For me, the best way of living is to be in a creative state, and that mood can be achieved by just looking or reflect. I wish I could only see.

- Are you an artist without self-worship?

- I believe I have and artistic attitude, but I don´t think it is related to vanity. Vanity is the enemy of creation. The artists I admire most are not vain. Nothing belongs to anyone. Things are there and you take them. Creations should be anonymous, the author forgotten. I don´t need to pretend.

- But you also may also earn a living

- I may not have enough for a bus fare. But when I need money, I can always get it. I am not worried about that . Every now and then I write some reports for Vu, in Paris. I wish I could live on my photos. Not to do things on request. But being within the atmosphere of art, involves an energy and effort I am not interested in. I don´t have a gallery owner. I find people interested in the work I do, they value it and buy it. Regarding journalism, I have a great affection for it. I started my profession taking pictures for the press.

- Photography is in fashion. Can any photographer call himself an artist?

- You can call yourself any way you want, but being and artist is something only time will tell. I believe a photographer can make a work of art. But photography has to do with “something that happened”. An artist working with photography can do very valuable things but in order to capture the essence of a moment, you must be a photographer. Photography is ephemeral. It is magic. It involves a physical attitude. To merge with what happens in front of the camera.

- If the ideal were to see without mediation, shouldn´t you drop the camera?

- The image must be something connected to awareness. I am guided by intuition. I have a previous idea about the subject I am dealing with. But when I take the photographs I try to forget about myself. The scene is all, and at the same time, my presence sometimes takes me along other conflicts I am capturing. It is not simple to pass through peoples’ lives. But I wouldn´t be able to take those images if my presence there weren´t welcome. I like to compare myself with the behavior of a cat, which is there (though it may bother at times) and be around passing unnoticed. In some cases I can ask someone to stay under a certain light for some more time. Or suggest that they look at the camera. But no more than that. Regarding my way of displaying my work, I prefer a book or an exhibition. I prefer to photograph with a Leica because it interferes less with the eyes. It would be good to work with another type of camera and I don´t want to add something that will interfere in my observation. If it were possible to create images without the interaction of a camera would be the ideal.

- How do you avoid the cliché in your photographs?

I don´t avoid it. I am not in search of originality. Nobody invents anything. Believing that is mere vanity. Everything is in the reality we see. You must reach a state in which you disappear as a person. My mind must be quiet. I have a point of view. But when I look, I am all eyes. Before and after the take, my point of view works; when I take the photographs I want to merge with what I see.

- What do you want to arise in people?

That they connect with their own creativity. Bioy Casares said that he could identify a good writer because when reading it he felt like writing. That is what I search for when I show my pictures.