Sandra Cattaneo Adorno Reflects on the Relationship Between Photography and Memory
After taking up photography at the age of 60 in 2013, Sandra Cattaneo Adorno is embarking on a new chapter in life. At a time when many people her age are beginning to slow down, Cattaneo Adorno is creating a new path as an older woman in a culture that venerates youth.
This year, Cattaneo Adorno debuts her first solo exhibition at Personal Structures – Reflections, a mesmerizing meditation on the relationship between photography and memory. Curated by Women Street Photographers founder Gulnara Samoilova, the exhibition features selections from Cattaneo Adorno’s monographs Águas de Ouro and Scarti di Tempo (Radius Books, 2020 and July 2022).
“Photography is a journey of discovery,” Cattaneo Adorno says. “I am always looking, wondering, questioning, seeking to understand the world in what it reveals — and what it hides — in plain sight. With the camera, I can capture a fleeting moment before it disappears, preserving its majesty and mystery for future contemplation.”
Growing up in Rio de Janeiro during the 1950s and ‘60s, Sandra Cattaneo Adorno spent her childhood at Ipanema, just as bossa nova music captured the global imagination with its idyllic images of Brazilian life. As a child, Cattaneo Adorno gazed endlessly upon the beach, dazzled by the light dancing across the waves of the sea and taking great delight in the graceful silhouettes of the people moving slowly across the sand, gently swaying like a samba song.
The memories lingered long after the music faded away. In 2016, Cattaneo Adorno returned to the landscape of her childhood with camera in hand. Walking along the glittering beach, she began photographing the elements of life — water, earth, sun, and sky — for Águas de Ouro (Portuguese for “waters of gold”). Finely attuned to the nuances of light, color, movement, and body language, Cattaneo Adorno uses photography to fuse the present and the past, capturing the bittersweet yearning that Brazilians call saudade: intense feelings of nostalgia and yearning for something or somebody far away and out of reach.
While working on Águas de Ouro, she became increasingly fascinated by the reflections she saw in the water, the evocative language of silhouettes, and the abstraction of light flickering through the air and across the ocean waves. Under the Brazilian sun, standing at the shore, images from the present called up remembrance of things past.
Sandra Cattaneo Adorno (N 009)
Sandra Cattaneo Adorno (N 006)
“Like memories, my photographs flicker and flow in the space that lies in between fantasy and reality,” Cattaneo Adorno explains. “I am fascinated by the way light and shadow, color and form can transform the material world into optical illusion, so that it feels as if we are moving weightlessly through a dream.”
Buried deep inside the recesses of her mind, these little slices of time and space seemed to transcend the moment and transform into reveries all their own. Like old photographs tucked away in an album and fragments of songs whose melody lives on, our memories may trigger a complex array of emotions and sensations that allows us to relive the past. For Cattaneo Adorno, photography is more than what lies on the other side of the lens; it is a progression beyond the known to discover something new for ourselves. Attuned to looking at things that often go unseen, moments of revelation began to unfold as she went about her daily life.
While on press in Italy for Águas de Ouro, Cattaneo Adorno noticed “scarti’ (Italian for “scraps”), the color plates that separated her photographs into cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, each perfectly adjusted for the printing process. Reminded of Andy Warhol, Cattaneo Adorno began to consider how her photographs could be deconstructed and reconstructed.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cattaneo Adorno felt a change in her experience of time; it seemed to stretch out endlessly and then disappear without a trace, leaving strange gaps in her memories. “I began to feel as if I was accumulating “scraps” of time, rather than experiencing it as successive blocks that formed the linear story of my life,” she says. “No longer able to physically travel, I embarked on a journey through inner space, delving into my imagination while revisiting the photographs in my archive.”
Sandra Cattaneo Adorno (N 001)
Fascinated by how photography shapes the way we see and remember life, Cattaneo Adorno began collaging otherwise unrelated images from her archive to explore the possibilities of simultaneous coexistence at any given moment in time. The result is Scarti di Tempo, which means both “time discrepancy” and “scraps of time” in Italian. Here, Cattaneo Adorno offers a meditation on perception: how we experience time, memory, connection, and the boundaries between reality and illusion. Moving away from representation, the photographs dissolve into abstraction, transporting us into another realm, the one they share with music and poetry.
“Sandra almost magically absorbed the acquired knowledge and transformed it into her own understanding of street photography, pushing the boundaries of its documentary nature,” Magnum Photos member Gueorgui Pinkhassov writes in the foreword of the book. “Expanding on traditional techniques, Sandra developed a deeply personal photographic process, which ultimately led her to fantastic results. Although she began making photographs not so long ago, her view of the world is admirable.”
You can visit Sandra Cattaneo Adorno's exhibition at Palazzo Mora until the 27th of November or discover their work by exploring the virtual tours online. Discover more about the photographer on her profile online and on Instagram.