Interview with Humberto Rivas by David Balsells on 5 June 2006

David Balsells (D.B.): Argentina.

Humberto Rivas (H.R.): When I was living in Argentina when I was very young I began a very close relationship with art in general. I studied Fine Art and painting was very important to me. So was the cinema. I was mad about the cinema—a passion I still maintain--, to the point that I became a member of a place where they showed films and I went there every day. This passion for the cinema brought with it the wish to own a camera. I wanted to take photographs like the ones in films. After a lot of insistence on that wish and with the help of my father, I bought a 35 mm camera, a Nikon, and I started taking pictures non-stop. I began to get more and more enthusiastic.

In spite of my intense photographic activity, I hadn't given up painting; on the contrary, I painted a lot. I began exhibiting both painting and photography. But in 1968, from one day to the next, without even being able to find a justification myself, I decided to give up painting.

(D.B.): Why?

(H.R.): I don't really know, I simply didn't want to go on. And it wasn't because my painting wasn't going well, on the contrary, I even exhibited in the United States. But I had taken the decision that I would never paint again and I even destroyed all the pictures I had. From that moment on, I've never again done so much as a drawing.

(D.B.): I realise that that was a radical change in your life, but when did photography appear as your ideal means of expression?

(H.R.): Photography had already appeared earlier in my creative process. We might say it coexisted with painting. I used them side by side. But as from that decisive moment when I decided to give up painting, photography was all I had left. And also, though more sporadically, some things in film. I even made a few 16 mm shorts. There was a group of us who were restless people. We met at my studio two or three times a week. When it came to sharing out the work we took it in turns. If there was someone who knew about editing, they didn't do the editing. If there was someone who knew about lighting, they didn't do any lighting... that was so that we could all master the different stages of production. Eventually, we all knew something about everything. I've never given up the idea of going back to films, I feel tempted... maybe later on.

But it was photography that took centre place in my life. I've never stopped taking photographs, and I'm pleased with the decision I took at the time. I was a great fan of Pessoa, of his poetry and writing. From 1968 I lived with that, and although I expressed myself through photography, I never lost interest in the other arts, especially painting and films.

In photography I admit to a strong influence from August Sander's portraits.

(D.B.): Was August Sander one of your earliest discoveries or did you have a closer point of reference?

(H.R.): I met a Russian photographer who was living in Buenos Aires at the time. His name was Anatole Saderman. We were neighbours, we lived barely fifty metres apart. We became very good friends. He was already quite an old man. It wasn't so much that he actually started teaching me, but he was constantly passing on everything he knew to me. He wasn't one of those people who won't talk so that other's don't learn, quite the opposite.

(D.B.): You mention August Sander, but was he already well known in Argentina at that time?

(H.R.): Oh, yes. He was already well known in Argentina. In Buenos Aires, in spite of all the problems it had as a city and although the administration contributed very few funds for cultural activities, there was a lot going on in the way of culture. I learnt a lot thanks to that.

(D.B.): Instituto Torcuato di Tella.

(H.R.): I worked there for ten years. I was the institute's official photographer. It was a wonderful time.

(D.B.): Was it a multidisciplinary institute?

(H.R.): Yes, there was painting, photography, drama; it was really fantastic activity. I was the photographer there. I didn't just have to take pictures for this and that, I could also take them the way I wanted. I had all the freedom in the world, whether I was photographing a play, as concert or any other activity. The photograph was by Humberto Rivas. It wasn't just a good place to work in, they also paid well.

That's where I began to feel I was a professional in every sense.

(D.B.): Later you took up advertising. Why?

(H.R.): One day the military turned up at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella and closed it. The mood in the country became very tense... disappearances... it was very difficult... it was terrible. They closed it down because it was a centre of freedom. It was a repressive closure, totally repressive. I had no choice but to work in advertising.

(D.B.): Spain.

(H.R.): The decision to come to Spain was one my wife María and I took jointly. Things were getting very bad in my country. We had lost friends, who disappeared during the dictatorship...

We decided to come here, to Barcelona, which was a city we liked. We had seen it on an earlier trip we made and we had good memories of it.

We were both married and we got separated from our respective partners to live together. To celebrate, we came to Europe on a five-month visit.

We saved up for that trip. We got to Paris and we had an arrangement with Citroen to buy a car from them, but which they would buy back from us, with a minimum discount, when we finished our trip. And that was where we started our tour of Europe. When we passed through Barcelona we were delighted with the city. And four years later, when we decided to leave Argentina, the alternatives we had were either to go and live in Caracas, where there was a lot of money to be made at that moment, or else to go to the Barcelona we remembered so well. And luckily we chose Barcelona. Soon after our arrival the coup took place in Argentina.

(D.B.): The Argentine period closes and the Spanish period opens. The situation in photography, I imagine, must have surprised you. What was it like arriving here?

(H.R.): At that time, what was being thought and done in photography were, in my judgement, the wrong things. Photography provided an excuse for a meeting of friends who took photographs, but not much more.

We only knew one person when we got here, and that was América Sánchez. He had arrived from Argentina years before us and had been working successfully as a designer. Thanks to him I got my first job, with the artist Corberó, who I worked with for a year. It helped me a lot,. After that I started getting advertising jobs.

(D.B.): Was settling in Barcelona like taking a step backwards for you?

(H.R.): No. The outlook may not have been ideal, but even so I've always found a strong relation with culture here in Barcelona. Not only in photography, but in any discipline, even though at that moment there was some disorientation. We liked being here very much, we felt identified.

(D.B.): And what photographers do you remember from those first contacts?

(H.R.): Someone who put me in touch with a lot of photographers was Jaime Camino, the film director. He had a bar and restaurant where they put on exhibitions and that's where my first exhibition was organised in Barcelona. There was a place for exhibitions and some photographs hanging in the restaurant.

(D.B.): What photographers did you meet?

(H.R.): At first, as regards professional photographers, I only had dealings with Xavier Miserachs, but I didn't meet Maspons, Català-Roca, Pomés...

(D.B.): You've never wanted to mix your professional work with your personal work, like other photographers have done. Why's that?

(H.R.): Because they're two different things. It's not that one's good and the other bad. In my case I've always wanted to keep them separate, It's a very personal question and everyone has their own feelings about it. There are plenty of examples of that in the history of photography in one way or another.

(D.B.): But you, on some occasion, went so far as to say you didn't want to sign your professional work.

(H.R.): Yes, that's true, but on occasions I've been forced to sign them, as in the case of Burberrys, who was a big client for whom I did all their campaigns for fourteen years and with whom I was committed.

(D.B.): Whenever we refer to your work, we automatically think about portraits.

(H.R.): Yes. I may be known as a portrait photographer; it doesn't bother me, but I've done committed work in landscapes, still life... It's a subject that interests me a lot, because it's related to what one is oneself, to one's way of being; not to force a particular style on oneself, but a way of approaching creative work, not just in photography, but in any artistic discipline.

(D.B.): But a lot of people think your landscapes are also portraits.

(H.R.): That depends on how the person looking at them perceives them. Something happened to me once at the Forvm gallery in Tarragona. It was an exhibition of portraits and an elderly lady came in with a shopping trolley and she went round the whole of the exhibition, looking closely at all the photographs. Suddenly she turned to us and asked, 'Who photographed all these lunatics? I'll bet he's madder than they are'. I thought it was great. When you don't feel obliged to do things, it inevitably shows through.

(D.B.): Do you feel identified with Avedon?

(H.R.): There might be a relationship in the sentimental part of the portrait, the same as with Irving Penn and with Sanders. The portraits Sanders does are wonderful, though I don't think the relationship is in the work.

(D.B.): You say the moment of taking a portrait is a situation of war between the photographer and the person being photographed.

(H.R.): Yes. When I explain to students how to take a portrait, I remark that there's a war between the sitter and the photographer. And that war, if the photograph is to be a good one, must be won by the photographer and not the sitter, because obviously the sitter takes on a role, a pose of what he wants to look like. In a way, he's playing himself, he makes a funny face, he smiles... but that's got nothing to do with his inner personality, which is what we're looking for when we take a portrait.

(D.B.): You've always been a great defender of photography outside the ghettos. Now it seems that moment has come, we find photography integrated in other disciplines, but you've become a point of reference in pure photography. How do you feel about that?

(H.R.): I don't care if other people pigeon-hole me. Let them; I don't care, they can do what they want. The real problem would be if I pigeon-holed myself. I don't think any discipline should be limited. The artist must be free to mix media. We need to be free to use any medium, with the conviction that techniques are for using and not for respecting.

And as for ghettos, when I came to live in Spain photography was hardly given any consideration. It lived alongside the world of art, but it didn't have any importance. There were very few places for exhibiting and it was generally dogmatic photography, not free like it is nowadays. A painted photograph? Why not? Why be dogmatic? What matters to me is the quality, the plasticity and the expressiveness of what I'm looking at, not necessarily whether it's a photo-photo or a painting-painting.

Not long ago there was an exhibition at the CCCB, Correspondències, by two film-makers, Víctor Erice and Abbas Kiostami, who know each other and have great respect for one another. It was an excellent exhibition, with a flexible approach, with photographers, film screenings, etc. They didn't follow any dogma, they did what they felt. There were photographs where the background was painted almost pure white and they were exquisite photographs. But contrasting with that, and just as good as this exhibition, we find the one by Dianne Arbus.

(D.B.): Can the new trends influence photographers like you?

(H.R.): I'll carry on working as I did when I was beginning, but I can't promise I won't change one of these days if I really feel the need to change. I'll say it again and I know I'm a bit obsessive, but putting limits to any artistic discipline to condition that this should be done this way or that way is suicide. I don't know what I'm going to do in the future, but whatever it is I want to do it freely. I haven't followed dogmas and I never will. Whenever I go to Amsterdam I go and see the Rembrandts. They're all very good but there's one, in particular, I can spend half an hour looking at. It's the one of the Jewish couple. Rembrandt, like Vermeer, had an expressive capacity that was very much his own, something difficult to find. On a trip to Austria I went to see some very strange Vermeers. They were very big, about two metres, and I saw a woman with an easel copying one of them. The copy was identical, the same size and the same colours, all impeccable, but no-one can explain why when you looked at the Vermeer you were moved and then you looked at the woman's and, well, it wasn't bad.

This also happens a lot in the cinema. There are films that move you and others that don't.

(D.B.): The exhibition contains a selection of 72 works from the last thirty years. Do you think this selection shows the essence of your work?

(H.R.): I think it does, because I've never let myself get trapped by myself. That's my work, I've no doubt, a deeply felt work. I couldn't have taken those photographs any other way.