I wanted to talk about things in absurd numbers.
Have you ever wondered what the world looks like to a bird? The Brazilian photographer Cássio Vasconcellos knows. Combining his loves for photography and aviation he has made many spectacular aerial photographs. Some, such as those in his series ‘Aerials’, are ‘straight’ photographs, unaltered in the darkroom or on a computer. But others go beyond this: he creates images on a grand scale that explore the complex and multifarious nature of our contemporary world.
In his largest work, which extends for twelve metres, thousands of cars, lorries, trucks and vans are neatly stationed on an endless parking lot. From a distance the print appears like a shimmering array of coloured dots but, as one comes closer, one sees the individual vehicles and, moving closer still, one can inspect in detail the structure and state of repair of each. In the simple act of stepping towards the mural what at first appears to be a homogenous sea resolves into myriad distinct and separate objects, each with their own characteristic, their own story.
Cássio Vasconcellos brings a different point of view to his images of the city of São Paulo at night. Here, the striking colours of artificial light recast the city as powerfully graphic: full of lines and intersections and sweeping curves. Distance and perspective collapse, flattening the forms and hues into a wonderful quilt of shape and colour. This exploration of the urban palette extends into his series ‘Multiples’ in which the same building is photographed from exactly the same point of view at different times during the day. As the lighting changes, so does our perception of the structure. These are changes lost in the linear unfolding of normal experience, but they become clear when assembled into large matrix grids which bring the various tints and tones together like the many instruments of an orchestra which, while they are all playing the same tune, do so each with a different timbre.
Alasdair: How did you become a photographer?
Cássio: It started on a weekend trip with my parents when I was fifteen year old. I have not stopped since. It was all very natural… and now I wouldn’t know how to do anything else. My parents encouraged me a lot in the beginning, especially my father. He was an art dealer and antiquarian, and he always told me to keep working in photography because I was born for it.
What is it about photography that especially makes it your passion?
Photography is simply what most gives me pleasure in life. It is the medium through which I am best able to express myself. It is all I have wanted to do, ever since that family trip as a teenager. The medium has many qualities that draw me to it. The first, or course, is that it freezes the moment, capturing it forever. But it is also captured from reality, extracted from the world so that we have the power to transform that information into a new language.
Tell me about the making of the ‘Aerials’ series.
I have the same passion for helicopters that I have for photography. I specialise in aerial photos and fly quite a lot. It is my favourite way of making photographs… and it unites my two passions.
How do you select the locations?
Most of the times, I don’t. I mean, there are two ways of selecting: sometimes I do some research before the flight using Google Earth, but mostly it just happens that I come across an interesting scene en route.
© Cássio Vasconcellos various views of ‘Múltiplos 01’ and ‘Múltiplos 02’ [multiples 01 + 02] 2007–2009
In a number of the composite images in your earlier series ‘Multiples’ you photograph the same subject at different times of day. It is a little like the way Claude Monet [1840–1926] painted haystacks over and over throughout the day. The colour changes are striking.
Yes, I wanted to talk about how the light is important; how it is the only thing capable of changing so dramatically how something looks – in this case a building. Yet we don’t notice these changes as they evolve over the day. It is only through photographs that it becomes perceptible. In this series, it is these changing patterns and the visual effects that matter to me most.
In your earlier series ‘Nocturnes’ you explore the cityscape through the competing colours of artificial lighting and dark skies. Again there are unusual tonal effects.
I began this series because I wanted to make an extended work about my own city. The act of photographing is a way of getting to know where you live. When you photograph, I believe you can achieve a new kind of relationship with the city. We photographer’s go to places people wouldn’t normally go, we walk on foot, and this gives us a different – and very interesting – relation with the city, like rediscovering it.
I began working with these unusual colours because I thought it would be interesting to create a new atmosphere in my city while, at the same time, creating a portrait of it. It’s a city that is recognisable and unrecognisable at the same time. In a way, it becomes a fantasy of the city.
‘Collective’ is a series of massive prints containing a large number of smaller elements arranged in a grid. How were these images made?
They are imaginary scenarios, or ways of retelling the story of a particular place. For example, there is a ‘boneyard’ in the Arizona desert, full of planes. It really exists.
In this context, what is a ‘boneyard’?
A boneyard is a graveyard for airplanes. They are usually located in the desert areas of USA, particularly in Arizona. Planes that have reached the finish of the working life end up there to be dismantled and to have their parts recycled. There are also some planes that are still in good condition but surplus to demand. They are also stored here precisely because the weather is so dry, which helps ensure that the aeronautical components do not get spoilt. After 9/11 these yards were full of new aeroplanes waiting for the aviation economy to recover.
Boneyards are impressive because of their huge scale and the large number of planes being dismantled there. So, in that sense, my photographs represent this situation. However, in each case, the individual planes were shot separately. Each of the composite images takes me months to finish.
© Cássio Vasconcellos ‘É Nóis!’ [it’s us] from the series ‘Coletivos’ [collectives] 2011.
The original image is 1.75 metres wide and 1.5 metres high. The subsequent two images show details at increasing magnification.
There is a similar image of crowds of people shot from above – from a distance they appear like grains of sand.
As with each of the composite images in the ‘Collectives’ series, I wanted to talk about things in absurd numbers. This time it is absurd numbers of people. It is like another image I made of cars; you can view it at different distances and see it in different ways. To me, from a distance, the crowd looks like a fluffy carpet; it is only when you get much closer that you can recognise that these are people. The whole thing is formed by people, a huge anonymous agglomeration… the scale of the world nowadays.
© Cássio Vasconcellos ‘Aeroporto’ [Airport] from the series ‘Múltiplos’ [Multiples] 2012.
The original image is 5 metres wide and 2 metres high. The subsequent four images show details from this larger mural.
Tell me about the making of the huge ‘Airport’ image.
I began by making a floor plan, like a sketch on a smaller scale, and I used this as the basis, building the imaginary airport from thousands of images. The aeroplanes were photographed individually in many airports around Brazil and the United States. There are over a thousand separate pictures of planes, hubs, cars, runways, people and so on, and it took me eight hundred hours to assemble in the computer; about a year’s work.
Can you talk about the ideas and feelings that underpin these images?
It’s a subject that interests me a lot. The issue of consumption, the repetition of patterns and the amount of stuff we need to make to survive (or at least we think we need it). It is a global phenomenon. In Brazil or USA or China, it’s a question that embraces the whole world. We make such a lot and have nowhere to discard it all. We don’t recycle, we just discard and so we are all the time generating more trash, more residue, it just doesn’t stop growing. This is something very recent in the humanity’s history, from the twentieth century until now; it is post Industrial Revolution. The problems are growing in a geometrical progression. Consumption grows faster even than population. Everyone wants the right to have everything, all the comforts, and the big question is how to absorb it all.
© Cássio Vasconcellos ‘A Praia’ [the beach] from the series ‘Coletivos’ [collectives] 2011.
The original image is 3.6 metres wide and 1.6 metres high. The subsequent two images show details at increasing enlargement.
Tell me about the beach aerial scene. Where is this place?
The base for the picture is in fact a deserted beach in the northeast of Brazil. What drew my attention to this beach was that it was huge and yet there was nobody on it. So I used this beach as the basis of the image and then I filled it with bathers from aerial pictures I have in my collection. Those pictures were made all over the country, mostly shot from a helicopter.
Are you making a comment about the Brazilian attitude to the beach?
In Brazil we have a giant coastline. Some beaches, like Copacabana, have a very high concentration of people but, luckily, most beaches are still deserted. I live in São Paulo, which is a densely inhabited region, so I am used to seeing crowds. When I came across this huge totally deserted beach – it is called Peba Beach – I thought: “Wow! What if this beach was close to São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro? How would it look then?” So it was like that: take an almost virgin beach and bring the crowds that already pack onto the beaches further south in the country.
Where do you exhibit your work?
Museums and galleries, mostly. In September last year  I exhibited the ‘Collectives’ series at Today Art Museum in Beijing and at Art+Shanghai Gallery in Shanghai.
© Cássio Vasconcellos Installation of the complete work: ‘Coletivo’ [collective], from the series ‘Coletivos’ [collectives] 2008.
The original image is 12 metres wide and 2.2 metres high. The subsequent three images show details at increasing magnification.
What kind of audience responses do you get?
In the case of ‘Collectives’, I can see people are dubious and become quite unsettled by the work. They see each picture is so rich in detail – so ‘believable’ – that they think it must be real. Then they want to know where I took the picture. But, of course, it was made in many different locations! It is a kind of strange question to ask, because each scene is clearly absurd… but, at the same time, I create this doubt…
Of course, all the elements do exist, just not in that arrangement. I like to tease the audience, to create doubts: where was the picture taken? Is it one picture or many? Is it a montage? … I achieve this result because of the depth of detail in each image.
What is the strangest thing anyone has said about your work?
A well-known Brazilian photographer first saw my work when I was just beginning as a photographer. He said that he was impressed that someone of my age had made it but that he thought I wouldn’t survive to my thirties because I would probably become suicidal. I didn’t know him then, but he has since become one of my best friends. We’ve known each other for more than thirty years now (more time than I was supposed to live, according to his initial expectation!)
What advice would you give to a young photographer starting out today?
Don’t go seeking inspiration from other photographers, look for it in the world. The real source of inspiration is what is happening around us.
Cássio Vasconcellos was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1965. He studied photography at the Escola de Fotografia Imagem Ação in São Paulo and, in 1981, began a career in photojournalism. Shortly after, he set up his own studio specialising in aerial photography and, in 2011, he co-founded the Fotospot gallery for contemporary photography in São Paulo. His work has featured in more than two hundred exhibitions in twenty countries across the Americas and Europe. He is the recipient of a number of prestigious awards including the Conrado Wessel Art Prize (São Paulo, 2011); ‘Best Photography Exhibition of the Year’ from the São Paulo Association of Art Critics (2011); The Porto Seguro Photography Award (São Paulo, 2001); The J.P. Morgan Photography Award (São Paulo, 1999); and The National Photography Award (art category), FUNARTE (1995).
Works by Cássio Vasconcellos are held in major public collections including those of the Museums of Modern Art in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo; the National Museum of Fine Art in Buenos Aires, Argentina; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA; and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France. He is the author of six books: ‘Brasil Visto do Céu’ (Editora Brasileira, 2017); ‘Aeroporto’ (2015); ‘Aéreas do Brasil’ (BEI, 2014); ‘Panorâmicas’ (DBA, 2012); ‘Aéreas’ (Terra Virgem, 2010); and ‘Noturnos São Paulo’ (2002). He lives and works in São Paulo.
Photo: Bia Stein
This article was first published in Chinese, in the September 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.