A little over a year after joining the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB), an amateur camera club in São Paulo, Gertrude Altschul had already secured a spot for her work on the cover of its monthly bulletin. By September of 1953, her photograph Linhas e Tons (Lines and Tones) was circulated to hundreds of fellow practitioners throughout Brazil. Lines and Tones reveals the urbanization and precipitous vertical growth taking place in downtown São Paulo at midcentury; Altschul’s simple title strips away local context and persuades us to experience the image through its soaring curves and lines. This ability to reduce complex objects to their most elemental and visually striking forms would become a hallmark of her work.
By the time Altschul joined the FCCB, the organization had already been in operation for 13 years. During that time it succeeded in nurturing a passion for photography across a wide network of Paulistas (São Paulo residents), many of whom were recent European emigrés working as lawyers, doctors, accountants, or entrepreneurs. Altschul’s background was no different: after fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, she settled in Brazil in 1939. With her husband, she ran a business making handmade decorative flowers for women’s hats and blouses. Her interest in botanical motifs found its way into her photographic work, resulting in dozens of lush vegetal prints.
Though Altschul belonged to a small contingent of women artists within the FCCB, her experimental ambitions rivaled those of her male peers. She photographed a diverse range of subjects, from urban landscapes to natural forms to still lifes. The resulting prints were routinely reproduced in the club’s monthly bulletin, mailed out for consideration by salons, and chosen for display in exhibitions. Between 1956 and 1962, Altschul was encouraged to submit Filigrana (Filigree) to no fewer than 18 different national and international salons, receiving an impressive eight acceptances. Despite its worldwide circulation, this photograph portrayed a thoroughly Brazilian subject: a papaya leaf, delicately transcribed into lattice-like veins.
Altschul fell ill in the late 1950s and, starting in 1957, her participation in the club waned. Following her death in 1962, the FCCB bulletin featured Filigree alongside her obituary, where it was praised as one of the first successful works of her brief but distinguished career.
Dana Ostrander, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, 2020
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women’s Fund.