Capturing the Paradoxes of Life

An Interview with Claudio Edinger

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1952, Claudio Edinger has travelled far and seen much of the world. Whatever his keen eyes taken care to observe, his mind took a note of and even more importantly, whatever his mind maintained a journal of his camera was sure to translate on photographic plate. Over the years he created a treasure trove for audience carefully uncovering the untold stories of human heart or uncared for saga of a city’s life.

A student of economics of Mackenzie University in São Paulo, Brazil, Claudio Edinger’s journey into the world of photography begun in early seventies. In next four decades he received Leica Medal of Excellence, 1983 for ‘Chelsea Hotel’, Leica Medal of Excellence, 1985 for ‘Venice Beach’, Ernst Haas Award, 1990 for ‘Madness’, Higashikawa Award, 1999, Japan, Porto Seguro Award, 2010, Sertão da Bahia, Hasselblad Award, 2011 for ‘Downtown Los Angeles’ among many more noteworthy awards and accolades. Paradoxically, his selective focus has become all encompassing in his visual story telling.

Rio de Janeiro, Photography by Claudio Edinger

How did your childhood spent in Brazil influence and contribute in deepening of your inner sensibilities?

Growing up in Brazil in the sixties and seventies was to live under a military dictatorship that forced us all to take sides. It also made you grow up in a hurry. We read a lot. I studied classical literature and philosophy in school and on my own and through philosophy I discovered photography. Photography was a political weapon to bring awareness to the people. And it was a way to tell stories, a new language, understood by most of the young people, students like me. Awareness brought exchange and this exchange enriched us all. This was one of the most creative periods in Brazilian history, with great musicians — Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque de Hollanda. Also, in Latin America, it was a fertile time of great literature with Jorge Luis Borges, Jorge Amado, Gabriel Garcia Marques and many others. It affected us all.

You do what needs to be done, find ways to do it, don’t worry about results. In due time they come.
New York, Photography by Claudio Edinger

Perhaps, ‘It couldn’t have happened anywhere but in little old New York’ that you received some of the most significant sources of artistic inspiration. How New York, or more importantly the New Yorkers, managed to touch a chord in the soul of young Claudio?

I moved to New York in 1976, a youth of 23 who just had a major show in São Paulo’s best museum — MASP. I immediately moved in with the Hasidim to photograph them. It was, I realized later, a perfect way to get introduced to the Big Apple gradually. Every weekend I went to museums and movies. And I read a lot, studied a lot (had no TV) and met all the great photographers who interested me: Philippe Halsman, Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Richard Avedon, Eugene Richards, Andre Kertesz, Lee Friedlander, Mary Ellen Mark. After photographing the Hasidim and having an exhibit at ICP I moved to the Chelsea Hotel and also started teaching photography at Parson’s School of Design. I spent five years living at the Chelsea and got my first book published, about the hotel.

Paris, Photography by Claudio Edinger

On the other side of the Atlantic, Paris has bewitched you with its artistic mastery expressed both through impressionist paintings and later day photography. How as an artist do you feel invigorated under the tutelage of the past masters?

Paris is the mother of modern art and of photography. It bears its mighty tentacles over all of us. We are all children of Paris and it was with great excitement that I took the 4×5 camera to photograph the city, as if to photograph my own mother. The impressionists are the most interesting group of artists in history — their travails, their difficulties, their creative freedom, their courage and love for art are unbeatable. They very much inspire all of us who study their lives. Photography was one of the main causes painting turned into Impressionism so I feel we are linked together like the root, trunk and leaves of the same tree…

India, Photography by Claudio Edinger

In your many coloured kaleidoscopic experience what pattern did India create with its unique cultural heritage.

India for me is another mother, a spiritual mother. I have been studying Indian philosophy since I was a teenager and have followed the teachings of an Indian guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, since 1975. It is safe to say that Indian philosophy pervades my entire work. It gave me a mental attitude that made it possible for me to keep on, even when facing unbelievable obstacles — like having 7 books ready and no one to publish them.

To borrow the words of Paulo Coelho, ‘Tears are words that need to be written.’ Your visual essay of ‘Madness’ fulfilled that obligation. How important was the project for you that portrayed the anguish of human mind when at a personal level too you experienced deep pain through your grandmother’s illness?

This was a turning point in my life. I received one of America’s most prestigious awards at the time – The Ernst Haas Award (1990) – and was able to combine technique with content where one helped the other make sense. To be able to see madness in a square format, with very fine-grained film and flash, has made this essay gain in stature for me. All the elements worked well for the first time in my photo research. Madness is the genesis of all the work I have been doing with selective focus. It took a long time to crystallise, almost ten years but when I bought my first 4×5 camera it was due to the work I did in 1989 and 1990 inside the largest mental institution in Latin America.

The open minded traveller in Claudio Edinger journeyed many places and while he absorbed all that he has experienced the cities too did not hold back in sharing pieces of their own souls with him. Looking back how privileged and fulfilled does the traveller feel?

I was just talking about that with another photographer. How privileged we all are, to be able to spend a whole life making photos. Gaining entry into people’s lives, discovering who we are by measuring our own lives against the world. This is a most blessed life, the life of an artist learning what this whole big mystery is all about.

Corcovado, Photography by Claudio Edinger

You have received many awards, accolades, published books and seen much. But according to your opinion what has been your most cherished accomplishment till date?

Ha − that’s a very hard question. I would say it has to be the first time I held the Chelsea Hotel book in my hands. From the start I dreamt of doing books. But I always thought and had to fight this my whole life ‘Who are you to make books? You are just a simple guy from Brazil…How dare you?’ but then I reasoned, someone’s got to do it, why not you? So I kept going and going… when I was photographing the Chelsea Hotel five other photographers were doing the same, were doing ‘a book’. But I stayed there photographing three years, every single day, no matter what. I stayed in the lobby, waited for people, made appointments, did what had to be done… And that was the greatest lesson of my life. You do what needs to be done, find ways to do it, don’t worry about results. In due time they come.

In the paradoxical world of ‘selective focus’ blurring the boundary between dream and nightmare how would your own photographic journey be viewed and captured by you?

We are all so full of contradictions. Our lives are so ambiguous. The selective focus is about that, registering paradoxes, opening them up like you open a can of food. Placing them in front of us like mirrors so we can understand this world moved by dualities, fuelled by love and hate and ignorance and knowledge and fear and courage.

‘Madness’ is the genesis of all the work I have been doing with selective focus.
Portrait of Claudio Edinger
Claudio Edinger

Claudio Edinger likes…

True to the empathetic traveller that Claudio is, he soothes his mind going through the pages of Autobiography of a Yogi. The simple pleasure of Japanese food satisfies his palate. Closer home, the sound of Brazilian music helps him tuning into the rhythm of life.

Find more of his work at http://www.claudioedinger.com/

Image Courtesy: Claudio Edinger