About photobooks – old and new.
“Fotografias de Lisboa à Noite”, from Luis Pavão, introduces viewers to the nocturnal Lisbon of the early 1980s. More than 120 black & white pictures document a wide range of social environments, which for the most part no longer exist.
The book starts off with photos depicting the traditional and genuine atmosphere of fado bars in Bairro Alto. The pictures at “The Sabina” for instance, give a real sense of intimacy between habitués who spend their evenings singing, drinking and smoking heavily. Deeper in the night and in contrast with this homelike environment, Pavão also explores dodgier places in the underground atmosphere of Cais do Sodré, an area frequented by sailors and prostitutes.
The photos are often dark and with high contrasts, offering few details in their composition. But the author’s detailed description of each picture, giving a full account of the context and local habits, is an important complement and an interesting aspect of this photobook. In particular, I like the photos of the bar “Café Rei-Mar”, known as the meeting place for the transvestites from the Avenida da Liberdade. According to Pavão, this is the only place in the world where the waitress sips on each beer before handing them to clients. “I need to cool off” she says.
Pavão also has a compassionate look at the arduous life of those who work throughout the night – bakers, street cleaners, security officers, fish and vegetable market sellers, among others. There is a funny picture of “Zé das Cebolas” on his cart pulled by a horse, driving towards the main farmer’s market in Lisbon. This picture clearly illustrates a traditional life style at odds with a society in a process of modernization.
The realistic and humanistic approach of Pavão is evident in this work, but the book as a whole misses a narrative that could give greater coherence to all these pictures. Published in 1983 by Assirio & Alvim, this photobook can now be regarded as a classic of Portuguese street photography. Recently, the Photobook Club of Lisbon organized a presentation of this book with the participation of Luís Pavão.