A few years ago, a batch of just under five thousand stereoscopic glass plates and a handful of paper photographs belonging to Bernardo Croce, an Argentine doctor who died in the 1950s, were added to CIFHA's collection.
Produced between the 1910s and 1930s, this material - mostly by him - responds to a spectrum of interests characteristic of a time when both photography and what we now call tourism were far from being mass practices. Like other educated and well-to-do professionals interested in the technologies that modernity made available to the amateur user, Croce was an avid collector of images that satisfied a geographical, artistic, archaeological and ethnographic curiosity shared with many amateur photographers of similar status, both inside and outside Argentina. On the other hand, the choice of the stereoscopic system for the realization or acquisition of the images signals a late phase in the popularization of one of the most popular optical entertainment devices of the 19th century, a central player in the process of industrialization of the photomechanical image as well as in the consolidation of photography as a modern tool for the appropriation of a reality that has been simultaneously converted into an object of scientific study and mass spectacle.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1881, Bernardo Bartolomé Croce was the third of nine children of a Uruguayan wholesale trader. At the beginning of the 20th century, he graduated as a doctor and married Ismenia Cánepa, daughter of a Genoese rancher living in Saladillo, with whom he would have two children, Alberto and Alicia Haydée. The bulk of the photographic material that has come to us corresponds to trips to various parts of Argentina and the world, made by the couple between the years immediately before the birth of their firstborn in 1915 and the following two decades. Bernardo and his wife died a few years apart (he in 1956, she two years before) and the archive, which was left in the hands of their daughter -as far as we know their last descendant, without children-, would remain stored in their home until her death in 2012, when we learned of its existence.
En sus aspectos más generales, la trayectoria de Croce se ajusta a los imaginarios de ascenso social e interés por los avances de la modernidad que atravesaban a la sociedad argentina de su tiempo. Profesional exitoso y primer universitario de una familia inmigrante, propietario de un amplio petit-hôtel en el barrio de Belgrano, Croce fue un visitante asiduo de Europa y Mar del Plata, a la vez que un prolífico fotógrafo y cineasta aficionado. Un evidente interés –tan caro, como señalaría Susan Sontag (2006), a la inserción de la fotografía en la vida cotidiana del siglo XX– por dejar testimonio de su prosperidad y felicidad familiar determinó la producción de un vasto archivo de imágenes, del que sobrevive un total de 4867 fotografías estereoscópicas en vidrio (de las que 106 son negativos) y una veintena de copias positivas monoscópicas en papel a la gelatina de diversos formatos, incluyendo la única estereoscopía en papel de la colección.
In both supports - to which should be added an undetermined number of 16mm films, now lost - the general theme is that expected in this type of record: journeys within the country and abroad, in a geographical arc that goes from Uruguay to China, Africa and Northern Europe. In addition to the mandatory destinations for tourists of the time, such as France, Italy or Germany -with stops in Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro- there are other less usual ones, such as the Scandinavian Peninsula, Denmark, Hungary or Czechoslovakia, as well as a wide range of European colonies in Africa, the Near East and Southeast Asia. The diversity of topics is typically correlated to the geographical one and includes landscapes, emblematic architectures due to their historical importance or their innovative character; constructions of port, road or railway infrastructure that show the transformation of the landscape by modernity; museum rooms and monuments in public spaces; rituals, physiognomies and daily scenes of tribes associated with the stereotype of the savage or more or less exotic populations of Asia or Europe; portraits of the author or his companions in various situations; current records, in short, such as the Great War, the visit of the Prince of Wales to Buenos Aires or the crowds of fascist Italy.
Bernardo Croce was an amateur photographer. His production reaches peaks of technical quality that remain stable over two or three decades in an important part of his collection. He also produced, in those same years, hundreds of underexposed, moved, out-of-focus or double-exposed plates. The evident ability to compose making the most of the resources provided by the stereoscopic device is evident in nearly a thousand of his shots, but many others show extremely uneven results. Like other travellers and photographers whose massiveness was still emerging in the society of his time, he allowed himself to be surprised and seduced by the curious, the unknown, the monumental and the banal, which he turned, cameras and viewfinders through, into a show to give to his friends, his family environment and offspring. He made thematic, genre, compositional and technical decisions that were surely influenced by reading treatises and magazines such as those mentioned at the beginning of this article, but also by an equally uncertain volume of famous snapshots, films, works of art and family photographs observed in his home or those of his friends, in the same network of sociability into which he would later insert the images he made or bought on his travels around the world.
What remains of it, in any case, is a collection of almost five thousand photographs that document - each and every one equally - much more than the intention, more or less explicit or non-existent, to produce works of art, historical evidence or testimonies of family bliss. They are, above all, eloquent witnesses of the universe of expectations, ambitions, fears and desires with which an inhabitant of Buenos Aires elaborated, in the first half of the last century, the map of references he considered necessary to establish his position in the world around him. His patrimonial value is derived from everything he has to say to us, which will be, above all, what we know how to ask him.
Buenos Aires, August 2017.