Portrait of Nation Revealed in Photos of Bygone Brazil

Photograph: Sunday Strollers on Copacabana Beach, 1941. Photo Credit: Genevieve Naylor.

The year was 1940. A young American photojournalist named Genevieve Naylor arrived in Brazil on a program organized by the U.S. Office of Inter-American Affairs to counter fascist and Nazi inroads in South America. Her mission: to capture on camera the essence of Brazilian society and convey it to citizens in the United States to increase cultural understanding.

She returned to New York three years later with 1,500 astonishing images portraying the rich diversity of Brazilian life. Some of these photographs became a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943--a rare distinction for a woman then--and traveled to cities around the country.

More than 100 photographs from this archive documenting a vanished time will be on public display at Columbia Mar. 5-27 in "Brazil 1940-1943: One Woman's View; the Images of Genevieve Naylor." Coinciding with Women's History Month, the exhibition is a testament to the lasting influence of a boldly creative photojournalist who went on to break new ground in fashion photography. A selection of her early images that brought fashion photography for magazines such as Harper's Bazaar out of the studio and onto the streets will also be on view.

Sponsored by Columbia's Camões Center for the Study of the Portuguese-Speaking World, the exhibition will be on display in Low Rotunda. Hours are 9:00 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. Monday through Friday; admission is free. The exhibition's curator is Naylor's son Peter Reznikoff, an actor and producer of international jazz radio programs for Next Wave Communications. The photographs are lent courtesy of Reznikoff and the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York.

Naylor, who died in 1989 at age 74, was 25 when she went to Brazil with her husband, Misha Reznikoff, an artist. They both were part of a State Department effort headed by Nelson Rockefeller to help win the hearts and minds of the people of Latin America. An extension of Franklin Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy, the Office of Inter-American Affairs enlisted writers, artists, musicians, dancers and others to help improve the lives of the local populations by introducing techniques of modern sanitation, agriculture and other matters and American culture. Among the emissaries were Orson Welles, John Ford, Walt Disney, Aaron Copland, Rita Hayworth, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. A number of U.S. universities, including Columbia, received funding to enroll Latin American students in specially designed programs.

"This was a humanitarian, diplomatic effort that is little remembered today," said Reznikoff, "but it had lasting impact." His mother, who had studied photography with Berenice Abbott and worked for the Associated Press before the Brazil assignment, was "discovered" at her 1943 MoMA exhibition "Faces and Places in Brazil" by Alexi Brodovitch, art director at Harper's Bazaar. He admired the artful quality of her documentary photos and launched her on a career in fashion photography that brought a new realism--with real people in real settings--to the genre.

Naylor traveled widely in Brazil to capture the life and culture of a country known for its eclecticism. Photographs on view in the Columbia exhibition reflect the variety of lifestyles she recorded, from the playgrounds of the privileged in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to the Africa-rooted culture of Bahia and the interior of the São Francisco River Valley. Scenes of children--at school, at play and at work--complement views of celebrities, among them a brooding Orson Welles on the set of It's All True, his uncompleted film about sailors who traverse the coast by raft. Dramatic street scenes, images of religious life, views of Carnival and portraits of people at all levels of society provide an intimate glimpse into a bygone era.

A symposium on "Naylor in Context: The Cultural Dimension of Brazilian-American Relations During WWII" will be held Wed., Mar. 6, in the Faculty Room of Low Library from 6:00 to 7:00 P.M.

Columbia University Record -- March 1, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 18