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Ordinary
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Genevieve Naylor’s wartime work in Brazil as photographer was
not a documentary or confrontational approach except in the Northeast, where ignoring the
poverty would have been impossible. It’s possible, of course, that had the political
climate been different, or had she been older and cynical or rebellious, Naylor might have
broadened her range. Her work speaks for itself and does it eloquently.
By Bondo Wyszpolski

The Brazilian Photographs of
Genevieve Naylor, 1940-1942, by Robert M. Levine (Duke University Press, 155 pages)

In her early twenties, took photographs for Time and Fortune, and for the
Associated Press. When she was twenty-five, Naylor and her husband, the painter Misha
Reznikoff, were offered an opportunity by the Office of Inter-American Affairs to travel
to Brazil. At this time, in the early years of World War Two, the U.S. wanted to bolster
its relations with Latin America lest the Axis influence outweigh the Allied. As Robert M.
Levine puts it, "Naylor’s job in Brazil was to create propaganda, to photograph the
country in ways that would convey to Allied audiences the essence of Brazilian life, to
educate Americans about Brazilians, to reassure Americans that Brazilians were reliable
wartime partners."

Between 1937 and 1945, Brazil was under the somewhat benevolent dictatorship of
Getúlio Vargas, benevolent in the sense that Vargas was generally well-liked and would in
fact be re-elected president in 1950, five years after the country had reverted to a
democratic constitution. But in 1940 the Vargas regime controlled the media and set down
the rules.

Just as the United States wanted upbeat images of Brazil (it must be remembered, Levine
points out, that Naylor had been hired by a wartime propaganda agency), so, too, did
Brazil want to project upbeat and positive images of itself. On the Brazilian side, Naylor
was discouraged from being too creative with her camera; she was, rather, expected to
focus on the picturesque. The U.S. position seems to have been that they didn’t want
Naylor offending her hosts. In short, there were railings on both sides of her. Being a
woman, however, may have worked to Naylor’s advantage in the long run. If her hosts didn’t
take her as seriously as a male photographer, they were perhaps more tolerant and
accommodating.

As it turned out, Naylor was a professional and worked well, even comfortably, within
tight guidelines. Hers was not a documentary or confrontational approach (except, to an
extent, in the Northeast, where ignoring the poverty would have been impossible), and thus
there’s quite a rift between the harsh, Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans and
Dorothea Lange, and the photographs of Genevieve Naylor. "Above all," Levine
says, "she captured ordinary people going through their daily lives with optimism.
Few of her photographs capture despair, in stark contrast to the photojournalistic
tradition of the United States out of which she emerged."

Although Levine himself repeats it too many times, he correctly informs us that Naylor
didn’t demean, belittle, or condescend to the people she photographed. Throughout the
one-hundred plates in this handsome volume, she’s left her subjects with their dignity
intact.

It’s possible, of course, that had the political climate been different, or had she
been older and cynical or rebellious, Naylor might have broadened her range. But there is
nothing here to the effect of the photographer looking back over twenty or thirty years
and saying whether she would or wouldn’t have done things another way. And so the work
must speak for itself, which it does, eloquently.

Naylor and Reznikoff stayed in Brazil for two years and nine months. In 1943, Naylor
became only the second woman to have a solo exhibition at MOMA in New York. She became
Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal photographer, and in the ’50s and ’60s took pictures for Harper’s
Bazaar. She died in 1989.

Robert M. Levine, who has published seventeen books on Latin American history, has
written an informative and thorough introduction to Genevieve Naylor’s Brazilian
photographs, balancing an account of the Vargas-era protocol with an overview of the U.S.
effort to prevent Brazil and the rest of Latin America from giving their support to the
fascist governments of Italy and Germany. If indeed we lose sight of Naylor for a page or
two, here and there, Levine’s readable and well-written lines certainly place her travels
in the context of the times, enabling us to understand and enjoy her photographs all the
more.

Taken nearly sixty years ago, Genevieve Naylor’s photographs of Brazil make for as
compelling a collective portrait as any other that can be found.

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The Brazilian
Photographs of
Genevieve Naylor
155 pp

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