Leo Mendonca

In the words of Walker Evans, I draw something from being in nature but I dont use it…..I am interested in the hand of man and civilization.

Street Wise is an integral part of my understanding of myself as a photographer, an understanding that has spread from a center that has wrapped inside it my youth with its attempted denial of the artist I needed to be, my study of architecture and urbanism then graphic design, all as compromises. Like an organism, the photographer I have become was born long ago whole. It is in my progressive discovery of it that my history and my future lay.

I was only six or seven when my sisters husband who owned all of the movie theaters in Araraquara, the city of my birth, first let me come along on a trip to pick up the newly arrived movies in Sao Paulo, even then a city of more than 10 million people. Thereafter, Roberto rarely went without me.

Later in my teens it was not only the intensity and density of culture and commerce that drew me to the streets of Sao Paulo but rather that part of me that was rebelling against the restrictions imposed on life in Brazil in the 1970s.

Restrictions imposed -to protect me- was what I was told. When I was given my first camera and announced that I would be a photo-journalist the response was a simple yet resounding – absolutely not.

For a time after finishing high school in Araraquara I found myself in a life that Fernando Pessoa might have written a clerk in the maze of the power and light company toiling over endless mathematical calculations and, as was then expected, living with my parents. This position as a civil servant in a stable and strong company was one that my father, a shopkeeper since the age of 12, had dreamed for me. It was not, however, a dream that I owned and I was suffocating. Out of that suffocation came the motivation one afternoon to seek out the counsel of my chief engineer and confess my unhappiness and my dreams and the decision that my heart had already made. To my surprise this chief engineer with the resignation and regret of one who had taken the other path, confirmed that living the life my father planned and dreamed for would indeed suffocate me in the end and that I should and must pursue my own way even where that way was an uncertain future.

Shortly thereafter unlike most Brazilians of my generation, and over the continuing parental objections, I left the city where I was born in 1979 to move first to Santos to study architecture and urban planning at FAUS and then to Sao Paulo. It was only then, starting out as a student and later as a young architect that I began to understand that the diversity, roar and the rumble and the chaos of urban life would from that point on be my muses.

Today I am drawn to street photography first by the compelling sense of freedom of being unrestricted in my observations along with the diversity and roar and rumble that frees my most creative vision. My thesis project in the MFA program at the Pennsylvania State University led me to New York City where I worked not as an itinerant, but rather as a participant-observer, appropriating the icons of culture and commerce so as to capture the otherwise unperceived relationships and ironies of architecture, signage and pedestrian activity that challenge conventions and alter perceptions.

Since that time I have lived and worked in many places of which three in particular reflect my desire to better understand culture and commerce in places that were for so many years as repressive as that of Brazil in my childhood, Portugal, South Africa and Berlin. From those experiences came my work the showing the impact of globalism on the urban culture in environments dense with ironies arising from the juxtaposition of the global commercial icons of todays pop culture and commerce with the vestiges of yesterdays repression and its economic consequences.

Yet even the intensity of those experiences and the resulting photographs cannot match my time and work in New York City immediately after September 11, 2001 I stood at Ground Zero and for the first time in my life tasted the grit of death and war. I knew then that, along with New York City, my work as a street photographer was forever changed. That day I understood as never before Guernica and Goyas Horrors of War. I left Ground Zero in search of some sign of resilience and hint of normalcy or the new normalcy. Instead what I found was quite literally the terror pasted/taped/stapled over the quotidian icons of the week prior. These photographs are stark yet poignant reminders that violence is brutal not only in its force but also in its invasion of our privacy and its unforgiving and incongruent upheaval of our paradigm.

The photographs in Street Wise are not montages. The layers whether static images of signage and architecture or pedestrian activity against the background of larger than life marketing icons all result from a single shot that captures an urban cultures unconscious statement of condition. Sometimes I come upon the photograph and sometimes I feel as though the photograph comes to me. In either event that is the moment when I feel most alive and driven by the power of knowing that I may have but a moment to preserve the confluence of layers that are the essence of the streets. That is the irony of street photography, the photographers conscious observation of this essence that drives urban life even where the live participants remain unaware.