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Arts & Culture Brazilian Exhibition of Nazi Escapee Brings Jewish Contributions to Surface

A retrospective exhibit of mid-20th century images by a woman who escaped Nazi Germany as a teen is calling attention to European Jewish immigrants’ contribution to modern Brazilian photography. Born in Cologne in 1920, Alice Brill was 14 when she fled to Brazil with her parents. Her father, an itinerant painter, returned to Germany two years later and died in a concentration camp in 1942.

During a multifaceted career that included stints as a painter and university professor, Brill dedicated her energies to photography, especially photojournalism, from 1948-1960.

Her best work depicts her adopted home of Sao Paulo — its architecture, laborers, neighborhoods and monuments. Her images follow Sao Paulo’s transformation from a quaint state capital to its beginnings as a sprawling, dynamic metropolis.

Like Brill, many leading photographers of the period were Jewish immigrants who fled Europe in the face of Nazism or fascism: Peter Scheier, Curt Schulze, Hans Gunter Flieg, Heinrich “Hejo” Joseph and Fredi Kleemann.

Hildegard Rosenthal, nee Baum, usually is included on the grounds of aesthetics, her marriage to a Jew and the fact that she too fled Germany in response to Nazi persecution.

“This group has common origins in terms of culture, religion, geography and politics,” said Boris Kossoy, professor of communications at the University of Sao Paulo and one of Brazil’s leading experts on the history of photography. “Their influence is noteworthy.”

These immigrant photographers did not constitute a formal movement, but their work reflects a commonality of technique and perspective that seems to be getting clearer with time.

“They had been influenced by Bauhaus,” Kossoy said. “They have much in common in the way they used their cameras, their use of angles for illustration and their use of backlighting. You can see the influence of cinema and architecture.”

Also key, Kossoy said, is that they were comfortable with the 35 mm Leica camera — an innovation that increased a photographer’s mobility — which was mass produced in Europe beginning in 1924.

Until this group, with French colleagues such as Jean Manzon and Pierre Verger, hit the scene, Brazilian photography was dominated by well-to-do hobbyists stuck in the 19th century, Kossoy explained.

That left innovation to workaday photojournalists like Brill, who became a regular contributor to the architecture magazine Habitat.

“Alice was invited to contribute photographs of Sao Paulo to Habitat magazine because they wanted the painter’s eye-view of the city,” Brill’s lifelong friend, painter Eva Lieblich Fernandes, wrote in a statement published in the exhibition catalog.

Brill and most of her immigrant colleagues contributed to the leading news magazines of the day, Manchete and O Cruzeiro. Photojournalism proved fertile ground for expression; imitating Life magazine and some European titles, the leading Brazilian magazines went to larger formats.

“The photographer began to play an important role,” Kossoy said.

The Sao Paulo-based Moreira Salles Institute acquired the 14,000 images of Brill’s archives in 2000, adding to an important collection of work by female Brazilian photographers of the 20th century that includes Rosenthal and Madalena Schwartz, a Jew who emigrated from her native Hungary to Argentina in 1934, and began her career in photography after moving to Sao Paulo in 1960.

“In a way, our collection is a symbol of the importance that Jewish photographers have had in Brazil,” the institute’s director, Antonio Fernando de Franceschi, said.

Entitled “The World of Alice Brill,” the exhibition is on display at the Sao Paulo branch of the Moreira Salles Institute through March 5. It then will travel to the institute’s five other cultural centers in Brazil during the rest of 2006.

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