Stories: Texts

Vernacular Visions 

Anne Wilkes Tucker 

Rushing along country roads precludes discovery; and if a list of “sites not to be missed” exists, burn it, because that is a record of someone else’s adventure. Instead, bring curiosity, an open mind, and a capacity to wander aimlessly, at least in the early days of the route. For ten years, Guillermo Srodek-Hart roamed over thousands of kilometers of remote country roads in Argentina, stopping in small towns, at isolated dwellings, and in front of buildings lacking any remotely modern details. Think of Alice’s adventure when she fell through the rabbit hole, or Owen Wilson’s character Gil in the movie Midnight in Paris when he is mysteriously transported into earlier Parisian decades. Srodek-Hart did not meet any mad queens, but he is now acquainted with a head-shrinker (of the physical not mental kind). More like the fictional Gil, he met artisans with skills more common in other eras, and he found types of businesses long since replaced elsewhere by chain stores. As he began to photograph, the project’s focus slowly became the interiors of these small business, some of which were no longer functioning but left with dust-laden merchandise undisturbed by the passage of considerable time. Other establishments were still selling hand-made products. These interiors included one with jumbles of ostrich feet and animal horns awaiting transformation into knife handles in Tres Arroyos and neat stacks of components for constructing brooms in Chivilcoy (pp. 101 and 129). He also found beautifully handcrafted and carefully polished wooden cabinets and bars, outdated technologies, and wildly incongruous displays of goods, some neatly arrayed and others stacked higgledy-piggledy. The bars and eateries included games that were not digital (and not even electric), the inevitable portraits of local sports teams, mounted hunting trophies, and great varieties of long-necked bottles lined up like soldiers on narrow shelves. These predominantly one-person operations employ human craft, not programmed automation, and personal, not corporate, visions of organization and inventory. Srodek-Hart also documented the workplaces of other professions, including those of welders, butchers, cobblers, dry cleaners, grocers, bakers, rope makers, mechanics, pharmacists, and, most frequently, bartenders and general storekeepers. Proprietors appear in a small percentage of the pictures, and all of them are elderly. Many of the shops have closed since the beginning of the project. Srodek-Hart’s work exists within a long photographic tradition dating to one of the earliest existing photographs by Nicéphore Niépce of a still-life display in his studio. Others in this documentary tradition, whom Srodek-Hart cites as influences, include Eugène Atget and Martín Chambi. A more direct and personal lineage can be traced from Walker Evans to Evans’s onetime printer Jim Dow to Srodek- Hart, who studied with Dow and Bill Burke at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and then worked as Dow’s assistant. In his book American Photographs, Evans worked from a deep and broad ambition to convey America in its ascendancy while struggling through the Great Depression. Working with an 8×10-inch camera in the 1930s, Evans photographed rural and urban localities in the United States with a particular genius for recognizing the unadorned beauty of vernacular objects and spaces.(1) For decades, Dow has also focused on vernacular architecture in all kinds of hybrid formations, initially photographing in black and white like Evans and then switching to color to better capture the eye-catching paint and light combinations on some of his discoveries. Like Evans and Dow, Srodek-Hart looks for “humble beauty,” particularly in less-visited regions, but Evans looked both for modern signs of progress, such as industries and their waste residue, and for historical buildings and monuments. Srodek- Hart is less ruthlessly classical in his style and allows an edge of nostalgia in his search for these residual architectures and shops from bygone times in Argentina. Having lived in the United States for eight years while in college and graduate school, he wanted to reconnect to what he associated with the Argentina of his youth. For instance, mention the knife maker and he talks about the gauchos of the Pampas who can “never leave the ranch house without a knife.” (2) The knife maker’s ostrich feet and armadillo tails, he says, “are what touch me about the rural world.” He also admires the totality of skills required by sole- ownership businesses, such as those of the artisan who skins animal carcasses and cures the leather to make saddles, belts, and lassos, or those of the butcher who slaughters animals in his backyard and cuts the meat for his shop in San Jorge, a town with fewer than two hundred inhabitants. Like Evans and Dow, Srodek-Hart looks at the changes that economic and political forces have generated in the physiognomy of places, but these businesses are on the decline and may soon be extinct. “The notion of disappearing worlds,” he notes, “is a worldwide issue.” (3) His intent is to preserve a trace of it. 

I am drawn to these pictures by their formal beauty, the intelligence of the observations, and the coherency of the series, and because I also grew up in a culture of small shops whose owners were known to me, all of which are gone now. Home Depot has replaced the hardware store in which aisles were lined with barrels of nails and open containers of seeds and grain. I remember its dominant smells were of metal, musk, and men. Conversations there were not brisk. One began with personal questions before shifting to purpose. At cotton gins, which I visited with my uncle, initially there was no conversation at all. The men sat in metal chairs or squatted, leaning back against aged wooden walls, and looked at the sky or cotton fields for what seemed like an eternity to a child. These men regularly used and collected good knives and guns for work and hunting, and appreciated well-made tools. They would have wanted to handle every knife in the case in El Ombú Fodder Shop, measuring the knives’ balance, the way the handles fit their hands, and the sharpness of the blades (p. 45). Although my family did not stuff the animals they hunted, plenty of people we knew did. Taxidermy also seems to be popular in Argentina. It took me a while, however, to notice the black wildcat perched on the knife case as well as the carancho protruding above the coils of rope in the shop in Saladillo. Just as the trips taken to discover these stores required patience and keen observation, so do the photographs, or one will miss the pleasures of Srodek-Hart’s adventures and discoveries.  

1 I am indebted to the exhibition catalogue On the Road: A Legacy of Walker Evans, Robert Lehman Art Center, Brooks School (North Andover, Mass., 2010) for observations about Evans, and particu- larly to Belinda Rathbone’s essay “All Gone to Look for America.” 

2, 3 Guillermo Srodek-Hart, e-mail to the author, June 30, 2014. 

4 A carancho, also known as a caracara, is a bird of prey in the falcon family.