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 He also found beautifully handcrafted and carefully polished wooden cabinets and bars, outdated technologies, and wildly incongruous displays of goods, some neatly arrayed and others stacked higgledy-piggledy.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. 


Los Pagos-The Places 

Guillermo Srodek-Hart 

I began taking these photographs in 2004 driven by an interest in the old ways of life of rural Argentina. It was evident to me that the passage of time was eras- ing these sites of beauty and mystery, and with them, their owners’ histories. A generation of men and women whose identity is viscerally connected to what they do is slowly vanishing with their shops and busi- nesses. Those places that still survive stand as living monuments of a disappearing way of life. They are doomed landmarks of the past. They are the last ones standing. 

My grandfather’s death had a lot to do with my ob- session with mortality and what is left behind after someone is gone. The memories I treasure the most are the stories he would tell me of his own personal history. The objects of his that I have kept—clothes and photographs, watches, hearing aids—all have a value because of the person he once was. Together with my memories, it is all that remains. 

Alberto Lindt owns the Leili bike shop in the town of Moisesville, but he is also the sole engraver of tombstones in Yiddish in the entire province of Santa Fe. The day I took the picture, I randomly pointed at one of the tombstones and asked him if he would translate the text for me. He said it was a traditional saying within the Jewish community: “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” 

In these ten years of photographing, I have wit- nessed the closure and subsequent demolition of 

many of the places that I have visited and document- ed. An example is Bar Firpo in Tandil, a five-hour drive south of Buenos Aires. The day I found it, the guy running the bar told me that there had recently been a legal settlement by which the owner had de- cided to sell the bar, split the money among the heirs, and move on. The old corner where Bar Firpo stood was to be demolished as soon as the lease expired. Whoever bought it was going to build something new, I can’t remember if it was a restaurant or a store, it doesn’t matter. There was no initiative to protect this site, a landmark within the community, a place where old guys had gathered for years, maybe lifetimes, to play cards, watch soccer, have a drink, and socialize. 

The afternoon I took the picture, one fellow walked in and sat in his usual spot to read the paper, the way he always did at that same time of the day. Because he was going deaf he couldn’t hear the others telling him to move out of the frame. It was such a ritualized behavior that he was oblivious to the fact that a large camera was being pointed straight at him. Bar Firpo, like many others, serves as a second home for these guys who embed themselves into the space; they define it, they own it. 

Months later I went back to give the bartender a copy of the picture and to find out what was going on with the demolition. The front was shuttered but I could hear people laughing and chatting inside. I slapped the metal blinds and the bartender came out 

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from the side of the building. He was happy to see me and was pleased with the print. I asked him what was going on with the bar and he said, “Your timing is per- fect. We were just having our farewell toast. Tomor- row the contract expires and the new owners are go- ing to tear the whole place down.” A small brick pillar was to be left commemorating the bar with a plaque that would read, “In this old corner once stood the historic Bar Firpo.” From that day on, people will have to imagine what this place felt and looked like. 

The failure to protect these landmarks is not the only thing that conspires to their imminent disap- pearance. Social change can also act as a destruc- tive force toward the older ways. Juan Carlos was the owner of “El 91” butcher shop in Las Flores. He told me how, when he first started, he would deliver the freshly cut meat, wrapped in newspaper, door to door, in a cart pulled by horses. Later he managed to buy the corner from his employers and became the head butcher. For the rest of his life he sold the meat straight from the marble counter. By the time he was in his eighties new sanitary regulations made it man- datory for butcher shops to use temperature-con- trolled refrigerators. Juan Carlos was selling meat the old way and had done so all his life. It was too late to change. He had never had a customer complain about his meat not being fresh, nor had anyone gotten sick from eating it. Having no one interested in carrying on with the trade and too old to make the investment, 

Juan Carlos was forced to close the “El 91” butcher shop. He went home and soon became ill. The last time I knocked on his door, his wife told me he had re- cently died. We hugged on the sidewalk as she cried. 

As time goes by, these places become harder and harder to find. I might start following an itinerary based on past locations that remained pending from another trip, or sometimes I will go somewhere just out of curiosity, perhaps because I heard something about that town on the radio or read about it in a book. During the long drives, I find shrines on the side of the highways devoted mostly to the Gauchito Gil and the Difunta Correa, the two most popular pa- gan saints in Argentina. Contrary to the places I am photographing, the shrines seem to be growing and multiplying. I find them fascinating in their collab- orative and dynamic nature. No shrine will look the same from one week to the next. They are in constant flux, the result of anonymous people leaving their of- ferings, anything from a written letter to a vehicle, symbolizing a fulfilled promise or a future wish to be granted. The shrines to these two popular saints keep me company as I drive to the next town. Once I arrive, I look for the old façades, hoping I might find some- thing inside, or catch a glimpse through a window, or feel the need to get out of the truck and spy through an old wooden blind. I might randomly walk into a place with my portfolio under my arm, which often makes people think I am a tax collector. I will then introduce myself as a photogpher looking for shops and old stores still functioning “as it used to be,” open my folio of pictures, and ask for their help in finding them. They get it right away; they understand the kinds of places I am looking for and point me in some direc- tion, and that is how I find them. 

But it doesn’t always work out well. One time, when I was in Uriburu, La Pampa, in Bar El Mate, I was looking at my pictures with a bunch of regulars who were having a late afternoon drink. Among them was Tucho, a sign painter who convinced me to drive three hours across the desert to a town called Chacha- rramendi, in the direction of Patagonia. He was abso- lutely sure I was going to find the most unbelievable old general store I could possibly imagine. Apparent- ly the place was still functioning from the times of the Indian wars. I asked him if it was the real deal and not a museum, and he said, “Trust me, you will not regret it.” He even said that if I had any problems I could mention his name to the town mayor. “Tell him Tucho sent you, he knows me well.” Tucho was so convincing that the next morning I decided to go to Chacharra- mendi. I drove three hours southwest across the des- ert in the heat of a summer day. When I finally made it, I ran to take a look through the window. My heart sunk. The place had historic objects from the past labeled with computer printouts and arranged in the most perfunctory fashion. It was a tourist trap. I went in just to make sure I was seeing right, and left 

without taking a picture. Instead, I drove the long distance back to my hotel cursing Tucho (and myself ) all the while. 

As I try to find and photograph these places, I have been a witness to their demise. I feel I am losing the race. Why is this happening? A big part of it is due to the fact that they stand alone. No one takes care of them except their owners. Their passion and love and their connection to their place is the engine that keeps them going. The people who run these estab- lishments feel their entire self is defined by what they do and where they are. It is their lugar en el mundo, their place in the world. Yet they are treated as ob- stacles in a frenetic race toward an uncertain future. This, to my eyes, makes them true rebels, stand- ing by themselves with their beliefs and ways of liv- ing, which is why I am so endeared to them. They are who they are and they will not change; as the world around them goes in other directions, and despite time playing against them, there is no retirement. They will go on until they die, and when they do, these places will most likely die with them.