Liborio Justo, a Passionate Photographer

Abel Alexander

The historian Miguel Angel Cuarterolo asserted that the history of photography can only be studied by thoroughly researching original work from a specific period.  This axiom became once again true when we carried out an audit of the rich photographic legacy of the writer, politician and traveller Liborio Justo.

In 2004, his youngest daughter Mónica Justo asked us to organize the abundant photographic collection of this long-lived amateur, composed of thousands of negatives and photographic prints.

Just before his death at the age of  101, he stated: "I've been a strange sort of person  I don't believe there's  anyone in all of this continent who has lived a life such as mine. That’s what I consider important .I've had an extraordinary life due to a number of things that happened  and are still happening to me. I was a labourer  in the Paraguayan Chaco. Yes , I was a medical sudent  for 3 years , taking part in the 1918 University Reform Movement. I traveled in third class in a ship carrying immigrants from Europe in order to find out how they lived. I hunted whales in the Antarctic Ocean and shouted at Roosevelt ‘Down with imperialism!.". Yes, sir,  that's what I would like to point out as important in my life."

Liborio Agustín Justo was born in Buenos Aires on February 6th, 1902. He was the first child of Ana Bernal and Agustín Pedro Justo, both descendants of aristocratic Argentine families whose roots  go back to the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata.

His father pursued a most distinguished military career. He graduated as a civil engineer in 1904 and was promoted to Division General in 1927. He was Minister of Defence during Marcelo T. de Alvear’s presidency, supported José Félix Uriburu in the coup d’ état that overthrew president Hipólito Yrigoyen and, finally, became president of Argentina  from 1932 to 1938.

Liborio’s childhood and adolescence were influenced by his father’s various military appointments.. He began to enjoy the long inspection trips to remote places throughout the country, as well as the missions abroad, which generated in him a marked interest in exploration and adventure.

Another character who forged his thirst for travel was his godfather, Colonel Enrique Rostagno, whom he remembers as “...the eternal traveller who used to send us postcards from every strange place in Europe, the Far East (Constantinople, Cairo, Tokyo) and Czarist Russia, where he served as a military attaché during the Russian-Japanese war...”.

In his youth, he avidly read the works of  Jack London, Joseph Conrad and  Rudyard Kipling –with which he mastered the English language–, as well as those by the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga, increasing even more his interest for long journeys to lands of wonder.

And when he was finally able to materialize them, he was not alone: the photographic camera was his faithful travel partner,  reflecting every aspect of his journeys.

At this point, it is interesting to stress the fact that Liborio Justo used the photographic image in two very distinct  periods of  these journeys. In a first youthful stage, photographs served to document geographical, historical, manneristic subjects or were simply landscapes, in line with the ideologies of the great European and American travellers of the end of the XIXth  and  beginning of the XXth centuries. However, in the second stage and until the end of  his life, his photographs served the purposes of his political and social ideals.

From his childhood days, photography had a powerful influence on him. At the age of two, we see his fixed gaze at the camera of the Italian photographer Menotti Bertoldi, whose studio was located at Santa Fe 2478. Some years later, his parents hired a professional photographer to take a portrait of their children in their country house “La Tapera” in Bella Vista, Buenos Aires .  Of the family members on the photo, Liborio appears as the most noticeable. As an adolescent, he decides that his place is  behind the lens and, although we can not establish who it was who finally initiated him into photography, his own father must surely have influenced him in his activities as engineer, garrison inspector, professor of telemetry and ordnance surveys, all of them tasks that included photographic records.

The photographs he took during his travels provide us original images of Argentina, Latin America and the United States. With good judgement and following the example of famous travellers, he also engaged in the acquisition of photos taken by other authors about these regions. During those years, the most fashionable photographic process was the postcard . Avoiding  low-quality photomechanical prints, he always purchased photographic postcards directly from recognized professionals, such as  J. Kohlmann's Patagonian landscapes, or photographs by the renowned Peruvian Max T. Vargas.

When Justo began his photographic career, by the end of the 1910 decade,  photography had significantly evolved in different technical aspects. Wet collodion glass negatives were no longer used, and even dry plates were replaced by practical flexible film negatives provided by leading manufacturers, such as Kodak (United States) or Agfa (Germany).

There had also been an enormous technological leap in terms of cameras. Huge and heavy  wooden equipments  were replaced by hand held cameras, the most state-of-the-art of which were those called" folding", optically excellent . There was a vertiginous increase of photo amateurs from all over the world, and Liborio Justo joined this trend using both of these new technological tools..

By 1920, his technical and artistic training  had reached a good level. In his autobiography, “Prontuario”, he states: “...At that time, I  won a second prize at a photographic competition –one of the first ones ever held  in our country–, photography  attracted me as a superb expression of modern art”. In 1938, he submitted his work “Ruinas de Cobija” (Cobija Ruins) to the Second Annual Exhibition of the Argentine Photography Club, and his name appeared next to those of  great masters such as Anatole Saderman, Frans Van Riel and Alejo Grellaud .

Interestingly,  photography was for Liborio Justo a means and not an end in itself, it was a tool to capture the magnificence of his America, a weapon to denounce so much injustice, only photographs in the name of  his great ideals. That is the reason why he never used sophisticated technical equipment: a simple camera served his purpose.

At a very young age, he wrote: “ live,to travel, to know the world and gather all kinds of experiences, emotions and adventures...”. Soon after writing this, he would make this dream come true . At the beginning of the 1920's, he took part in an expedition organized by his father which started in Mendoza (Argentina), crossing  the Andes mountain range up to the Chilean border, thus following General San Martín’s route on mule. His panoramic photos of the high peaks are excellent.

And so began a long list of trips and photographic records, first throughout Argentina and then in different South American countries. He finally arrived in the Unites States, where –in 1934– he captured magnificent images of New York in the midst of the Great Depression. We consider these pictures as the pinnacle of his work..

From his mother's family, he inherited his love for Patagonia, mythical land of heroic epics for which he felt a fascination that lasted throughout his life. In 1922, he photographed  the small town of Carmen de Patagones,  birthplace of his maternal grandmother Ana Harris de Bernal, whose ancestors were English. These pictures were published in a Buenos Aires magazine called Fray Mocho.

Between March and April 1928, he made one of his most important photographic journeys. He  was one of a team which travelled in a caravan of cars through unexplored  regions of the provinces of Mendoza, Neuquén, Río Negro and Chubut,  through almost inexistent roads made the more difficult by a blanket of early fallen snow. Liborio came back from this Patagonian adventure with some 200 pictures of very important documental value.

A brilliant student, he completed  his secondary education when he was only 16 years old. He was an active member of the 1918 University Reform movement and started his career in Medicine. However, the magnetic attraction of far away horizons  signaled a definitive turning at this stage of his life.

It is almost impossible to try to list his multiple travels and itineraries. He visited the Malvinas (Falkland ) islands, where he took interesting pictures and acquired local photographic material. He was also interested in the northern regions of Argentina,  from Santiago del Estero to La Rioja.

His admiration for Simón Bolívar’s Americanist dream inspired him to explore most of South America. In 1924 he went to Peru, where he came into contact with  the Inca civilization and from there onto the profound reality of the Bolivian indian. Some years later and always aided by his camera, he would study the working conditions of the Chilean miners in the daunting  Atacama desert.

In 1925 he was hired as a landing laborer in the port of Pinasco , in the heart of the Paraguayan forest, where the extreme working conditions proved nearly fatal.. Four years later he returned to Paraguay as the manager of a rural establishment, carrying out an excellent photographic survey of the Jesuit ruins in San Cosme, photos which were published, together with an article he wrote on the subject, in the magazine Caras y Caretas.

One of the highlights of all of his photographic output is the trip he undertook in 1932 to the South Orkney Islands. In these images, one can perceive a well  developed technical and artistic mastery. His landscapes of  glaciers and snow-covered peaks are the perfect frame for the heroic Meteorological Observatory,  operated all  year round  by just a bunch of men. He then moved on to the archipelago of the South Georgia islands with their immense whale processing plants, then operated by more than 3,000 Norwegians, where he took part in the hunt of these giant cetaceans and of wild reindeers. The  photographs he took during this trip and the one that was taken of him by the grave of explorer Shackleton in Grytviken, are all of excellent quality and, together with his articles, were used in several magazines and books.

Another remarkable facet of Liborio Justo’s photography was the fact that he used his travel pictures to illustrate the many  journalistic articles he wrote. He was an esteemed collaborator of the Buenos Aires newspapers La Prensa and La Nación, which were proud to include such graphic notes in their Sunday rotogravures.

As from 1920, his travel diaries were also published in the most important magazines of the country, always illustrated with his own pictures. Due to their continental significance, we should mention, in the first place, his articles for the Revista Geográfica Americana, as well as for the magazine Fray Mocho  and his many contributions to the popular magazine Caras y Caretas. In our neighbouring  country ,Uruguay, his articles were published in Mundo Uruguayo.

Epic images contributed to the making of his own character. We either see him as a reindeer hunter in the South Atlantic Ocean; standing by a gigantic, dead –but still standing– tree on the shores of the Futalaufquen Lake in the province of Chubut; or posing next to a 17th century sundial in the ruins of an abandoned  Jesuit establishment in Paraguay. This image became more prevalent next to characters such as  the writer Horacio Quiroga, photographed by Liborio in the Misiones forest, or his picture standing by the grave mound of the Antarctic explorer Shackleton, in the Grytviken whale hunters' cemetery.

In fact, since his childhood,  he felt a fascination for his own iconography which began with a 1904 portrait taken in M. Bertoldi’s studio in Buenos Aires. In 1930 he posed for a portrait at the renowned Bixio and Castiglione gallery and, two years later, became one of Melita Lang's clients. In New York he visited the Sarony photographic studio –founded in 1864– and when he returned to Argentina, he posed for great artists such as Anatole Saderman and Annemarie Heinrich. In 2002, Roland Paiva obtained a warm image of Liborio with his daughter Mónica, and  Sergio Penchansky took one of his last portraits.

He would consider most occasions as a justification for a protrait, we have even found portraits taken by  modest street photographers .  His self-portraits should also be taken into account , the most significant of which is that which he took in 1949 at his establishment  La Maciega, in  Brazo Chico (province of Entre Ríos, Delta of the River Parana), during a period of great literary creativity..

Another valuable photographic initiative was his drafting of a complete family tree, with portraits of all his ancestors going back to the middle of the XIXth century. Among them , there is a magnificent ambrotype of his grandparents Agustín P. Justo and Liborio Bernal.

But  Liborio Justo's greatest merit  was, undoubtedly, his preoccupation for the creation of a photographic archive containing all of his work. Upon returning from his long journeys, and due to the fact that he never had his own laboratory, he entrusted his negatives to renowned firms in Buenos Aires, such as Guillermo Maubach, Casa Thiene, Lutz, Ferrando y Cía., Rossi & Lavarello, Max Glücksmann or Griensu.

He usually used folding hand cameras, with  flexible cellulose acetate medium format.  The contact prints were made in single weight paper with bromide or silver  gelatin. Negatives and contact prints were kept in the envelopes of these laboratories;  all of his travels and events were also carefully referenced by hand, including the dates in which the photos were taken..

In spite of its owner’s care and concern, this valuable documental archive suffered , for more than half a century, the dire consequences of several moves, finally ending up in an old wooden trunk stored in a cellar , exposed to water leaks and  high levels of humidity .

At this point, I would like to mention Mónica Justo's titanic task of preserving  her father's legacy as well as her efforts to organize a vast and very diverse archive.   In terms of her father's photographs, her intervention was providential.


An Argentine Camera in the Wall Street Crash

We would like to point out that Liborio Justo’s most outstanding photography spans the decades from 1920 to 1940 and, within this period, his most important work was definitely the pictures he took in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression in New York City.

At the age of 32, this idealistic dreamer was already embracing a strong Marxist position. His third visit to the United States confronted  these political ideas with the  country that best represented the capitalist phenomenon.

In his autobiography, published in 1940, he tells us about the strong emotions he felt seeing  the consequences of the economic disaster that had overwhelmed the US after the well-known crash of the New York Stock Exchange on October 29, 1929:

“(...) A few days after my arrival, I went to live to 14th Street, half a block away from Union Square, New York's famous  revolutionary neighbourhood (...) that situation seemed quite extraordinary to me, I was deeply moved. New York gave the impression of a city in ruins. Wherever one looked there were closed shops, bankrupt businesses,  empty buildings with the same “For Rent” signs obsessively displayed on all the streets of every neighbourhood , to the extent that the whole city seemed to be for rent or for sale (...) Where once there was only ostentation and wealth,  now one could only see the most horrifying  poverty. Thousands of unemployed people drifted around the city, crowding public parks whose lines of benches filled up with  real human swarms of people. In the suburban streets –and, specially, on the East River– entire neighbourhoods  had been abandoned (...) All over the city there was a dramatic sense of collapse and tragedy, while the central areas were daily shaken  by huge demonstrations of people carrying banners asking for clothes and food .Continuous and violent strikes practically paralyzed the city and every  corner seemed to be crowded by beggars and starving people (...)”.

In view of this colossal panorama , his first reaction was photographic. He immediately acquired a second-hand Voigtländer camera, a hand held camera that used film negatives. This was probably his second camera during his stay in New York, since Mónica Justo keeps two sizes of flexible negatives of the New York collection, most of them 6 x 8.5 cm and the rest 9 x 15 cm. The German camera must have been purchased due to its highest technical precision, specially regarding the lens quality.

From that moment on, he began an extraordinarily deep  photographic coverage of the situation . With great excitement, he walked, day after day, through the city streets, capturing shocking testimonies. We can imagine the excitement of that young revolutionary witnessing  the evidence of the collapse of  hated capitalism , almost like Karl Marx taking pictures of his political predictions.

1934 New York found him in his maturity as a man, heading towards his final political course, and as a privileged spectator of an historic world event. These emotions, that lasted many long  months, were translated into his camera’s viewfinder, producing his most beautiful  photographic images.

They portray a real frieze on hopelessness. His camera  hardly seems to be able to convey such a complex phenomenon. He is interested in everything, wants to grasp it all . He shoots images of the minorities -always discriminated– of black, Latin American or jewish people; of the poor and the vagabonds, and of course,of  the army of unemployed who aimlessly wander through the most majestic city in the world.

But  he also focuses on the great events organized by trade unions and political parties representing a truly radical left : pickets carrying big banners, strikes, protest marches with their passionate speakers, even the American people’s interest in the soviet phenomenon.

In fact, through Liborio Justo’s camera we see a curious historical inversion: it is no longer the gringo (Latinamerican slang word for an American) who is pointing his lens towards an exotic Latin America, with all its poverty and ignorance, but a South American who is capturing with  Kodak film all the crudeness of the economic and social collapse of the greatest world power.

Interestingly, Liborio Justo carried out this extraordinary coverage of the Great Depression in a personal way , receiving no financial support whatsoever. In this sense, he was a whole year ahead of a similar initiative put in motion  by the American government through the Farm Security Administration, which involved great American photographers.

Another important aspect of his work is the fact that –unlike some of his colleagues of the Farm Security Administration– he never “created” or manipulated a photographic shot in order to accentuate poverty or misery. In every  case , his pictures are direct, clean and untouched records. We even know that, since these are all contact copies, the framing  and composition were well resolved at the very instant the pictures were taken, obviously without any manipulation during processing.

His work on this  theme may be compared with that of the great masters of that era, such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein or Berenice Abbott, among others. In fact, by 1934, Justo was following the saga of other renowned pioneers in social photography, such as Jacob A. Riis, Lewis Hine or even the Swiss Samuel Timathé in Argentina.

There is compassion towards  the disinherited; political passion in those clenched fists pointlessly claiming fo justice; thirst for testimonies:  the little camera can not  rest. He also takes part  in the struggle and as a result we see another one of his emblematic portraits: it shows him selling newspapers in Harlem wearing the big white apron of the “Daily Worker”, the Communist Party’s newsletter.

The architectural images of New York , resolved with great audacity, are also of great interest, as well as the pictures taken on the great navail  and air-force maneuvers , forebodings of the approaching war against the Japanese Empire  He also visited Detroit and Chicago, centres of industry where he witnessed at close range, the effects of the crisis that was already in its fifth anniversary.

At midnight on December 31st , 1934, he boarded the Norwegian cargo ship “Argentino” to return to Buenos Aires. But he was not coming back alone,: he had with him more than two hundred pictures,  timely result of the encounter between a photographer and his subject  Interestingly, some of his films were developed in Gramercy Photo Studio in New York during 1934. Upon his return to Buenos Aires, he entrusted the rest of the material to A. Grimaldi S.A., located in 118 Florida Street. The next year, 1935, Liborio Justo organized a photographic exhibition dedicated to the Great Depression and, for that purpose, he selected and enlarged thirty pictures, which were exhibited in the Concejo Deliberante (Town Council) of the City of Buenos Aires.

Liborio Justo’s projects for these images –including the publication of a photographic book– were taken over by other political and literary urges. And so, more than forty years went by, until –at the initiative of Mónica Justo– the National Department for Visual Arts, then  headed by Teresa de Anchorena, organized the August 1986 exhibition entitled “1934 – New York: The Great Crisis” , featuring fifty works –out of which, thirty were vintage copies . The exhibition took place in the Cultural Center “Islas Malvinas”, located at 753 Florida Street. The response from the public and the local media was vay good. On that occasion,  at the age of 84, Liborio Justo was interviewed for a documentary film where he gave interesting accounts of that photographic experience.

The international projection of this extraordinary collection occurred in  1993, when New York’s Howard Greenberg Gallery organized the exhibition “New York in the Thirties” where Liborio Justo’s photos were exhibited together with those of Berenice Abbott, and two other artists.

Today, more than seventy years separate us from this giant visual frieze on one of the events that shook the XXth century. The Latin American Art Museum  Isaac Fernández Blanco –in collaboration with public and private entities– is exhibiting the most important retrospective of this artist of the camera , whose name is definitely among those of our  great Argentine photographers.

Abel Alexander
Ibero-American Society of Photography History


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