Sombras Secas by Marcelo Greco, reviewed by Robert Dunn

Marcelo Greco’s Sombras Secas (Dry Shadows, in Portuguese) is a black-and-white Provoke-era-style photobook comprised of 35 recent shots from Greco’s home city of São Paulo, Brazil. The Provoke influence intrigues. Sombras Secas successfully captures the are-bure-boke (rough, blurred, out-of-focus) visions of early-’70s Japanese masters such as Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, yet Greco transports the visual approach across decades and continents, and in doing so keeps the aesthetic fresh and enlightening. In Sombras Secas, Greco’s blurry, out-of-focus city is not Tokyo, but it’s not demonstrably anywhere else, either. As with the best of the Provoke masters, the landscape is more dream and metaphor than physical space.

There are strong photos in Sombras Secas, but they don’t leap out from the book … because here the book is everything. Spend time among Greco’s shadows and you begin to sense the book’s a journey, a narrative, possibly even a novel.

The journey is set up in the first photo as we meet our guide: a ghost image of a middle-aged man, hand to chin, pondering, about to lead us into his half-world. Where does he take us? Past high-towered apartment buildings, melting into the sky. Past graffitied walls and stark black trees. We hop on the subway, a figure in huge sunglasses indifferent above us. Further along we come upon a lonely-hearted streetlight; in another shot, a tarp twisted over two strings of barbed wire. Those further photos, what are they? No way to know, the blur, as intense as anything in Moriyama’s nihilistic masterpiece, Bye Bye Photography, reveals nothing but a cruel beauty.

The story’s overall meaning? Implicit, never articulated, but still satisfying.

Again, the book is all … which leads to a slight digression.

A few weeks back I picked up a copy of Chris Killip’s far different photobook In Flagrante (the first edition, not the forthcoming version two), and a line from his short intro hit me hard: “The book is a fiction about metaphor.”

That line seems key to any great photobook. Even though by definition comprised of actual photographs created through a camera lens, the great photobook is invented, the same way fiction (even if “based on real events”) has to at bottom simply be made up. The great photobook also tells a story. Even though, curiously, casual lookers at photobooks tend to flip around from page to page or even to start from the back—I’ve seen this time after time when proffering my own photobooks to interested souls—I like to think that if a reader begins to cherish a photobook, they’ll read it from cover to cover, the way the photographer/author intended. And when they do, they’ll discover “a fiction about metaphor.”

Metaphor is key. In the great photobook, images stand for other things. Pictures talk to each other, the discussion is always about more than what’s depicted. Themes abound. Meaning lurks in shadows, whether wet or dry.

Time will tell if Marcelo Greco’s Sombras Secas is a great photobook, but it undeniably does what great photobooks do. It sweeps us up into a story, carries us through its haunted landscape, surprises us, challenges us to find understanding, yet ultimately leaves us as uncertain as the guide we met in the first shot in the book.

Look, here he is again, four photos from the end: a black silhouette shot from the back, atop a flight of darkened city stairs. The next photo is comprised of three layers—bricks, violent graffiti scribbles, rusty corrugated metal wall. The penultimate shot: Our guide again? Hard to be sure, a lovely blur of what looks to be a man slipping away from us in the lower righthand corner. Then the final image: A deserted interior, an inexplicable free-standing concrete wall, a pointless window in the wall’s center.

It’s an ending for sure, though I won’t speculate on where we’ve ended up, and what it all means. What I know for sure is that Sombras Secas is a journey well worth taking.

Sombras Secas by Marcelo Greco can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info here). In Fall 2016, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.

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