Vivien Bittencourt grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, receiving a degree in history from the University of São Paulo. She moved to New York City in 1986, where she decided to pursue her interest in filmmaking. She has produced and directed documentary films on artists, including Rudy Burckhardt, Alex Katz, and Kiki Smith. She also captured some historic poetry readings on film, including a 1988 reading of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, with Eileen Myles, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bernstein and Nina Zivancevic, and a reading of Hanuman Books authors in 1989 that featured Herbert Huncke, Taylor Mead, Elaine Equi, Cookie Mueller, Rene Ricard, and others.
Along with filmmaking, Bittencourt has also photographed extensively. She has made portraits of poets, musicians, and artists. She has photographed ruins, in which she is interested in graphing the effects of time on man-made structures. She has photographed trees in Rome, Puglia, Lebanon and elsewhere. She considers these photographs to be portraits of living, changing, beings. Her photographs are notable for a certain placidity, an almost classical quality. Humans rarely appear in her landscape work, though their presence is inescapable.
Vincent Katz (Rail): How do you decide the distance from which you photograph trees?
Vivien Bittencourt: I photograph not only the trees but also the portraits spontaneously. I know the subject I want to shoot, but I do not work with a planned composition. I use natural light, and I try to familiarize myself completely with the subject I am photographing. When I press the shutter, I am reacting to the moment. Later, I see what I have shot and see if it captures the feeling I had looking at the subject.
In the case of the trees, I look around, lie on the ground, to see how the crowns of the trees interact with the sky and the other crowns. I look at the trunk to observe its texture and the changes in structure from scars and effects of the wind over years and decades.
When I photographed in the Villa Doria Pamphili in Rome, a huge public park almost on the outskirts of the city, I was going to the park almost every day. The groves of the pini domestichi were planted in parallel lines when the trees were babies, dozens of years ago. Their crowns were severely cropped, transforming the trunks into very long lines.
I saw these woods in all seasons and, depending on the light, the trees danced madly or produced amazing shadows, and that was highly emotional.
Rail: When you photographed the olive trees in Lebanon, you photographed from close range, registering the convoluted curves of their trunks in ways that suggested anthropomorphic forms such as knees and elbows and disordered growths. However, in Puglia, in southern Italy, you kept a certain distance from the trees. Can you explain this difference?
Bittencourt: Those situations were very different. In Lebanon, the olive trees were older, they were nearly 1,000 years old. The ones I photographed had just been transplanted. They were going to be cut to open space for a road, and my friend, the painter Nabil Nahas, bought them and brought them to Beirut. The amazing thing is that the majority of them took and were already blossoming! Those olive trees attracted me right away because they were really grabbing the ground. They are survivors, who clearly know the chaos of living in extreme weather and political conditions. Their knees, ears and curvy tumors called my attention to their beauty and resilience.
In Puglia, the olive trees, while seasoned, were younger and still producing a lot. The groves were everywhere. I would jump the fence and stay awhile to see how the trees behaved, in which direction they were extended. I was able to photograph them in a more collective context.
Rail: When you photograph places that live or have lived in constant conflict, do you consider how the photographs will express that? How about the ruins, those landmarks of time’s passing.
Bittencourt: What one excludes or includes, consciously or unconsciously, in an image is a political act.
I have an attraction to historic remains. They are the garbage that was left behind. Why did some temples or artifacts survive, while others did not? The leftovers of history evoke the grandeur and domesticity of humanity. When I saw the shepherd bringing the sheep to eat the little celery that grows inside the temple at Selinunte, in Sicily, I thought that was very appropriate! The name Selinunte comes from “selinon,” a wild celery that grows in that region. Then I thought, Here come the lambs to worship the selinon!
Rail: Human interventions with nature seem to attract you. As you mentioned, the trees planted in rows at the Villa Doria Pamphili in Rome interacted with the elements, and that introduced chaos into the domesticated Italian garden. You are not interested in what is normally termed “nature photography,” where one does not find any human traces. But your most recent photographs, taken at Captiva Island, Florida, a more remote place, show a more pristine nature, without historic remains.
Bittencourt: I am a little afraid of nature. I get intimidated. In Captiva, I ended up observing the birds. They are creatures of a collective nature and are always in groups. The birds are the majority on the island. They are dominant in number, and they live freely there. Their situation is very protected. Of course, their lives are not always in harmony, things can get messy! There is the delicacy of their bodies, the lightness of their movements, but then there are the pelicans! Socially, they are sometimes harmoniously organized, sometimes it is a big mess! Their group movements are beautiful; they are like ballets, or streets in rush hour.
Rail: What are your plans for upcoming projects? Will you do any more portraits (of people)?
Bittencourt: I am doing portraits in color. I have been doing couples and that has been so different than focusing on one person.
Vincent Katz is the author of the poetry collections Southness (2016) and Swimming Home (2015) and of the book of translations The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius (2004). His next book of poems, Broadway for Paul, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2020.