I have been looking at the work of the Mallorcan photographer J. M. Ramírez-Suassi (Ramírez-Suassi 2021). His most successful book to date is Fordlândia 9 (Ramírez-Suassi 2020), a photographic essay on Henry Ford’s Utopian and disastrous rubber venture in Amazonia in the 1920s.
Against all advice from aghast colleagues Ford created a settlement and factory in, effectively, the middle of nowhere and tried to run it on strict Puritan lines under the direction of security patrols. There were to be no women, no alcohol and no loose behaviour, like gambling. Needless to say the workers Ford managed to recruit did not take kindly to these dictates, and when it emerged that the chosen site was inhospitable to growing rubber trees anyway, the workforce began to drift away and the venture soon collapsed. The story could be straight out of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (Herzog 1982).
Fordlândia is still there, somewhere in the forests of Amazonia, though it is in ruins now and while the population is slowly increasing again the inhabitants are mostly poor people driven to the place by necessity.
I like Fordlândia 9 because of its dreamlike and poetic atmosphere (see Figs 1-4). The sequencing has clearly been made with great care. In Ramírez-Suassi’s words
‘It is a nod to literature; in literature the 9 is important. There are 9 sections with 9 photographs each. And 9 black and white photographs. Most of the photographs of F9 are limited to a specific geographical context, but my intention is that they generate a discourse that helps us to weigh all the territories we step on with our feet. In F9 we do not find any symbolic image that summarizes the book, in this sense it is an open book. There are endless paths in the book and in the middle of the jungle, and also images that suggest being taken in populous cities. I think that the human being needs these two spaces, because he is both a citizen and a pilgrim’ (Titchener 2020 B).
The result is that the images both individually and collectively express a duality, foreboding and entrancing, dark and light, romantic and forbidding at the same time. This is very much Ramírez-Suassi’s particular style, and the same duality, the same interplay between fiction and documentary, can be seen in his ongoing series One Eyed Ulysses (Ramírez-Suassi 2018). I love engaged but quirky urban photography of this kind and when the pandemic is over I look forward to makes some new work in this vein.
Fordlândia 9 reminds me of some of the work of Gregory Halpern such as Let the Sun Beheaded Be (Halpern and Chéroux 2020). Both Halpern and Ramírez-Suassi are looking at ways of bringing complex historical traces into their work, and both are clearly trying to express what Halpern has said about photography in general:
‘For me, what makes photography such an exciting and troubling artform in general is the deception and tension hard-wired into it, the difficulty of defining its slippery relationship to truth. A photograph has potential to be much more objectively truthful or factual than, say, a painting, but painting is more honest about its intentions and possibilities’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).
Fordlândia 9’s story of the power of nature confronting greed and desperation reminds me of my own project. In Oxfordshire in 1596 there was starvation across the countryside caused by nature (failed harvests) and homelessness and poverty brought on by man (land enclosures). Among the wealthy merchants and landlords who were directing the enclosures in Oxfordshire there was plenty of what one reviewer has detected in Ramírez-Suassi’s portrayal of Henry Ford’s failed venture: ‘blind ego marching forward … armed with arrogance and the belief that money and power are enough’ (Titchener 2020 A). And I too am looking at how best to bring complex historical traces into my work.
As both Ramírez-Suassi and Halpern have successfully demonstrated, however, the key is to manage this subtly, indirectly, using allusion, perhaps simply setting an image in the half-light of a misty dawn rather than in the glare of the day. One has to keep the magic alive. If a viewer looks at an image and merely declares ‘Well, that’s only a photograph’ then one has failed. As Ramírez-Suassi has said in an interview (Feuerhelm 2020), ‘Fordlândia is a manifestation of a time loop: myth and present do not annul each other, as a matter of fact, they feedback each other.’ So, too, there is a strange time loop between the events in Oxfordshire of 1596 and today. The magic lies there, in past manifesting as present.
BOURGEOIS-VIGNON, Anne. 2018. ‘Power and the Camera: Gregory Halpern Talks Intuition, Reflection and Representation’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gregory-halpern-profile-intuition-representation/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].
FEUERHELM, Brad. 2020. ‘JM Ramírez-Suassi: Fordlândia Interview’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2020/06/jm-ramirez-suassi-fordlandia-interview.html [accessed 17 Jun 2021].
HALPERN, Gregory and Clément CHÉROUX. 2020. Let the Sun Beheaded Be. New York: Aperture Foundation.
HERZOG, Werner. 1982 Fitzcarraldo. [Film].
RAMÍREZ-SUASSI, J. M. 2018. One Eyed Ulysses. Madrid: Self Published. Available at: https://www.ramirezsuassi.com/bookstore/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].
RAMÍREZ-SUASSI, J. M. 2020. Fordlândia 9. Madrid: Self Published. Available at: https://www.ramirezsuassi.com/bookstore/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].
RAMÍREZ-SUASSI, J. M. 2021. ‘J. M. Ramírez-Suassi’. J. M. Ramírez-Suassi [online]. Available at: https://www.ramirezsuassi.com/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].
TITCHENER, Robin. 2020 A. ‘Fordlândia 9 by JM Ramirez-Suassi’. Robin Titchener [online]. Available at: https://www.robintitchener.com/post/fordlândia-by-jm-ramirez-suassi [accessed 17 Jun 2021].
TITCHENER, Robin. 2020 B. ‘Utopia, Rubber and Dreams of Madness, Fordlândia 9 by JM Ramirez-Suassi’. Photobook Store Magazine [online]. Available at: https://photoeditions.co.uk/photobook-reviews/utopia-rubber-and-dreams-of-madness-fordlandia-9-by-jm-ramirez-suassi-reviewed-by-robin-titchener/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].
Figures 1-4. J. M. Ramirez-Suassi. 2020. Untitled. From: J. M. Ramirez-Suassi. 2020. Fordlândia 9. Madrid: Self Published. Available at: https://www.ramirezsuassi.com/bookstore/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].