The Book of Emotions Photographic Analysis

Yale University

 

The Book of Emotions Photographic Analysis

 

                                                                                    Jane O’Bryan

 

 

            The Book of Emotions, by João Almino, is a reflection on the life of a young photographer in Brazil. His older, blind self narrates through his collection of photographs that like Stieglitz clouds, each conjure an emotion that so many years later can still make his heart beat (Almino 8). He draws the reader into the intangible realm of images in his memory with striking clarity, proving his introductory claim that to best see a photograph, one must close one’s eyes (8).

            One of the most interesting photographic concepts that Almino introduces is photography of absence as well as the idea of lost photographs. Photograph 3, “Evening at seaside,” is simultaneously an erotic and tragic image, illustrated in this excerpt from its description, “water traces curves of froth on the deserted beach” (Almino 21). Cadu, the protagonist of the story, calls this image a photograph of his fear, though melancholy appears to be closer to the emotional forefront. The disappearing footsteps in the sand and the brightness diffusing on the horizon create an image of neglect or departure that is more peaceful than lurid, yet retains a certain nightmarish quality that reflects Cadu’s desire for love and fear of abandonment in his old age.

            Photograph 10 exhibits a similar conflict in that the photograph’s visible, discernible emotion does not exactly align with the photographer’s emotional context. The image is nestled among accounts of Cadu’s histories with the women in his life and titled “Photograph of an absence,” however as he explains in the narrative “Anyone who can’t sense Antoinet’s absence in that photograph or hear my heartbeats thinks it’s just a peaceful postcard landscape” (Almino 51). As Almino writes at the end of book, “Meaning is conferred by love and also by its absence; by that instant and by the distance that separates me from it; by the joyful moments, the shared laughter, a stroll holding hands along the seaside, and the doubts, the never-ending search, the nostalgia, the missed encounters, and even the incomprehension” (Almino 230). Herein lies the knowledge gap between the photographer and the objective observer that results in both the expression and the absence of emotion.

            Photograph 55, “Lost photo or the logic of chance,” is lost, not in the sense of absent emotion, but because the intended subject of the photo did not wish to be photographed. Cadu reveals that “only an unmade bed and Marcela’s right hand appear, blurred in the left corner,” because when he set up his camera “she fled from [his] field of vision like a skittish cat” (Almino 198). Cadu questions the value of this “empty” photo, and concludes that its importance lies in its years of faithful companionship for a man suffering the bitterness of solitude. For Cadu personally, it evoked the pleasant memory of a night with Marcela and no strings attached (198). Operating without knowledge of the circumstances of the photo, however, the scene might appear to be another sad image of abandonment and loss, perhaps a metaphor for the temporary nature and insubstantiality of the majority of Cadu’s relationships with women.

            On a similar note, photograph 44, “Aida, Mauricio and me,” presents outward emotions that according to the description, do not match the reality of the situation. On photograph 44, Cadu comments, “I feigned a peaceful state that I didn’t feel. I tried to look at the two of them with affection; however, my eyes barely hid my anguish” (Almino 159). In choosing to feign a peaceful state, Cadu manipulated the emotional content of the photo, hiding the reality from the viewer. The title in this case does not reveal any of the actual emotional content of that moment in Cadu’s life, and the only detail of the photo mentioned that would hint at unrepresented emotional undercurrents is the description of Aida as physically drained (159). An objective viewer would have to jump through many hoops, however, to connect Aida’s appearance to a health crisis, and then presume the feigned happiness of those pictured.

            The last type of “lost” photographs mentioned are those that did not work out perfectly time-wise. In these types of photographs the light was just right—and then gone, or the perfect facial expression vanished just before the click. The moment was there, and then it passed, and by some chance the lost photo was kept over time with all the other files. The fact that photograph 14, “Harmony, by a hair,” survived for decades must have been the reason it merited a place in the final collection of the The Book of Emotions (Almino 65). Almino returns to this idea in the close of the book, recognizing the immortality of a photograph, “Photography has the ability to outlast its perishable materials as it reproduces itself, aspiring to eternity. I have the sense that when the world comes to an end its photographic images will survive” (Almino 230).

            The Book of Emotions also contains a variety of photos with very present subjects, ranging from inanimate objects to elements of nature to pets, with seemingly clearer emotional contents. As with the aforementioned photographs of absence and loss, the reader viewing the photograph in the mind’s eye must examine not only what is said to be present in the photograph literally, but also recognize what is missing and distinguish the obvious emotional content from the undercurrents, thus creating a storyline for the photograph to fit.

            On three occasions, Almino uses the presence of domestic animals in the photographs to convey human emotion. Seeing as animals react instinctively to their surroundings, using animals as photographic subjects complicates the emotional content. In these photographs, it is difficult to know whether the animals pictured were consciously or unconsciously channeling the emotion of the humans around them or simply acting and reacting independently of emotion.

            The first instance is photograph 7, “Quincas Borba and his owner.” Quincas Borba is identified as a canine in the description, “[he] rests his head on Tânia’s thighs; she is seated on the floor in a lotus position. The silky coat on his forehead reflects the natural light coming in through the window. There is something human about his expression. Perhaps he doesn’t like Guga’s longing look at Tânia, a look that doesn’t appear in the photograph but that is viscerally associated with it. The crease between the eyes denotes some concern or an air of suffering, and the sidelong glance at the camera is one of mistrust” (Almino 40). It is difficult to know, without the physical photograph’s presence, whether the dog’s eyes do indeed capture this emotion. An outsider examining the photograph would have no way of knowing that another person was present in the room when it was taken and therefore might disregard the importance of the sidelong glance. It cannot be determined whether the dog had indeed perceived the tension in the room, or if the emotional content of the photo has been fabricated or exaggerated by the jealous photographer.  Some details do, however, provide clues into the subjects of the photo. The dog’s allegiance to the woman pictured can be discerned from its closeness to her and its protective glance. The photograph’s location also reveals something about the relationship between the seated woman and the photographer because the indoor setting and the dog suggest a home and indicate that the photographer has been welcomed inside the woman’s private, familial space.

            Quincas and his female companion reappear in a public park setting later in the narrative. Photograph 11, “Quincas’s warning of danger,” personifies the canine as censoring Cadu’s intentions with his owner, (identified as Tânia,) in the park. The photo features the dog “[baring] his teeth like a wild animal,” a universally aggressive signal that is rarely misinterpreted (Almino 52). It is clear that the dog is uneasy about the photographer’s presence and prepared to defend his master. It is not certain, but can be inferred by the dog’s hostile stance directed at the camera, that some action of the photographer prior to the click of the camera provoked him. The absence of details about Tânia’s action in the photo assures this gap in knowledge.

            The third photograph that employs an animal to communicate a human relationship and emotion is photograph 24, “Of a woman’s scorn in a cat’s eyes.” The photographer notes, “I took a photograph of Josafá and recorded Ana’s scorn for me in his facial expression” (Almino 102). Instead of photographing Ana, the woman Cadu was unsuccessfully attempting to win over again, he pointed the lens at her cat, an animal known for the condescending looks and superior air Cadu also associated with its owner (102). It would be impossible in this case for an objective observer to deduce any part of this relationship situation from the cat portrait, especially since Ana herself was not present in the photo.

            The photographic subject that recurs most frequently in the collection is flowers, ranging from those of the îpe tree, to the manacá blossoms, to the blood-red poincianas and the green and yellow cambuí trees. The photographs of the flowers are an integral part of the narrative and serve several important roles. Most obviously, changes in the color of the flowers as well as their appearance and disappearance capture the passing of time. The first mention of flowers is in photograph 6, “it was March in the camera’s eye: the manacá blossoms in the foreground occupying the greater portion of my visual field, tingeing their white with pink” (Almino 32). Photograph 17, “April flowers,” uses more floral imagery to capture seasonal transition, and to symbolize the dissipation of Cadu’s love with Joana (Almino 73). Jealousy of Tânia and Guga’s relationship reemerges in photograph 25, which Cadu equates to crime scene evidence because he caught them as their eyes met, surrounded by a “carpet of crimson blossoms” (Almino 106).

            The îpe tree is prominently featured, and grows to become a symbol of loss and of Cadu’s love for Aida, who is sick and eventually succumbs to cancer. The titles of the photographs of the îpe tree hint at this symbolism, however it is unlikely that an outsider viewing these nature photographs would associate the sequence with a specific person or story, and solely appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the flowers. Cadu first mentions the tree in photograph 28, “Brasília had a thousand planters and four thousand native trees that would be covered with blooms in mid-June. One of the trees stood out against the uniform blue of a cloudless sky. It’s Aida’s tree” (Almino 116). Aida’s story is told through the îpe tree, initially representing the constancy of her bond with Cadu, “I looked to that purple ipê as a symbol of what I should do: stay deeply rooted in one place. With Aida, even if we didn’t agree on everything, there was the promise of a stable relationship” (116). He references this same stability in photograph 34, “Partial view of happiness on an August day,” speaking of the “tranquil marriage in pastel colors that [he] had always wanted and that contrasted with [his] troubled past and gaudy colors in Joana’s company” (Almino 134). The marriage and the day were captured in “vibrant green, spattered in purple by the ipê, [shining] with the first rays of sun” (134).

            Photographs of the îpe tree mark two other important landmarks—the first being the draining time when Aida’s illness reaches a climax and she is searching for a cure— “For someone who doesn’t know my story, photograph #41 of that purple ipê against a smooth bright blue sky seems innocent and happy. But when we reached the block that Sunday, Aida’s tree, the one I had selected as a symbol of who I should be and that I was now photographing, seemed sad and unhappy, signifying sacrifice and death” (Almino 150). In this description, Cadu speaks of a time of grieving, and references the exact dilemmas that photographers face in attaching alternative emotions to subjects with strong emotional connotations and also in conveying the alternative meaning to an viewer who is unfamiliar with subject matter’s significance or backstory.

            The second landmark, and last mention of the ipê occurs in photograph 49. It is significant because it is an emotional turning point. Photograph 45, “Landscape dyed gray,” is a play on the word “dyed” (died,) as it was “the first one after Aida’s death, on a cloudy afternoon following her funeral after those months of peaceful agony. The entire universe had been died gray, as if a new copy of a Technicolor movie had arrived in black and white” (Almino 161). Four photographs later comes the pleasant surprise of the blooming white ipê (those previously referenced were purple,) a celebration of new life. Cadu remarks, “I took it as a light, joyful symbol of a new beginning” (Almino 178). An independent interpreter of this succession of photographs could pick up on the themes of dark and light, the middle state of grayness as a transitional period after a loss, and the common association of springtime and flower blossoms with new life and new beginnings.

            Cadu frequently revisits the idea of creating a panel of flower photographs to celebrate Brasília, and in the end he does combine all those aforementioned and sells the panel to Tânia, an important woman in his life. The title of photograph 56, “The last flowers,” is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it was the last photograph in the panel of flowers, set in the garden where Aida had encouraged Cadu to love Tânia (the eventual owner of the panel), after her death. Secondly, it is the last photo of flowers in The Book of Emotions, and one of the last photos he ever took. It was in setting up this shot that Cadu first noticed his “eyes no longer saw with perfect sharpness, and [he] didn’t know yet that those were the symptoms of the cruel disease,” blindness (Almino 201).

            It cannot be deduced without seeing the photographs if Cadu’s gradual journey to blindness can be tracked in the quality of the photos. The descriptions of the photos, especially number 59, “The mechanical eye,” (perhaps a metaphor for his camera,) claim that there is such a correlation: “Time was marked by the varying degrees of my vision loss and my corresponding inability to take photographs, until a few years later I reached the phase of photographs of darkness, photographs of voices and other sounds, sometimes mere noise or what touch and smell revealed” (Almino 204). It is at this point in the story that Cadu acknowledges his shared experience with the reader.

            In excluding physical photographs from The Book of Emotions, Joao Almino has created an experience of blindness for the reader, in which the loss of a sensory ability actually permits limitless freedom of the imagination. He writes, “The colors of our surroundings only exist for our eyes, which capture almost nothing of the world’s light. But when our eyes go dark those colors cease to distract us and our eyes feel free to explore what is beyond mere appearance. Man’s eye serves as a photograph of the invisible, just as the ear serves as an echo for silence” (Almino 205). Almino has succeeded in capturing the indefinable emotion of the passing of time in this imaginary photographic masterpiece.

 

 

Jane O’Bryan

Brazilian Literature

Professor David Jackson

 

 

Sources Cited

Almino, João, and Elizabeth Jackson. The Book of Emotions. Champaign [Ill.: Dalkey

            Archive, 2011. Print.

 

 

 


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