It is a charming coincidence that the Isabel Pinto exhibition is housed in the Beautifull Life Building, as her images are full of beauty. The red brick walls, soaring ceilings and wooden beams of the True Blood Gallery compliment her natural, pure and simple subject matter, as do the vast windows letting in the light. Because that is precisely what Isabel Pinto’s portraits do: they let in the light.
Having lived between Mozambique and Portugal for most of her life, Isabel has settled in South Africa with her three children. Internationally renowned, she has worked on acclaimed advertising campaigns as well as shooting for Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire magazines. Photographing people – particularly children and the emotional connection and loving bonds between families, is her artistic passion.
It was this passion that led her to produce the book Familia which tells the story of 41 families which she has photographed over the last 20 years and includes 97 portraits, 12 of which hang in this exhibition.
Pinto’s photographs speak about the ultimate need for human beings to bond and belong, and she is moved by “that embrace, that touch that links families”.
Her images are printed on to raw organic linen – the first time this printing technique has been used in South Africa. This adds to the photographs a tactile quality which draws you closer, inviting you to touch them.
The 12 photographs represent Pinto’s diverse style of photography. Some, like the stylized portraits of couples clothed in rich ethnic fabrics and posing in front of clashing prints, echo her fashion photography. Others, such as the glossy monotone portrait of a handsome, smiling man and boy looking into the distance, are reminiscent of a Tommy Hilfiger campaign hinting at her advertising background. A stark black and white close up of a woman lifting her boldly patterned skirt reveals what appear to be intricate stockings, but on closer inspection reveal themselves as Ed Hardy tattoos. It is an eye-catching image – blending street style and lifestyle.
There is no text accompanying the photographs. Instead each is allowed to speak for itself, encouraging an emotional rather than an intellectual response. As the photographer Elliot Erwin said, “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t need to explain things with words.”
It is the intimate and joyful portraits of families capturing tender and spontaneous moments that show us as we truly are. Unadorned and unaware, Pinto’s subjects reflect the honest and warm way in which she sees the world.
As Pinto herself puts it, “The joy of an encounter is not on the list of favourite topics for contemporary art.” It’s true that the art world seems saturated with angst-ridden and tortured images, yet Pinto’s simple and sincere images are equally evocative.
The gentlest photograph is of a trio of children gathered around a wooden kitchen table. Strong light creates moody shadows and illuminates a bare shoulder, arm, cheek or hand. The juxtaposition of the table’s caramel hues, the blonde hair of the little girl and the children’s skin is suggestive of a Renoir painting – all golden light and deep green shadows. The young boy turns his back to the viewer, engaging instead with his companion, and all three clasp something in their hands, a cookie perhaps. This informal pose gives a feeling of having stumbled across a moment of childlike delight.
Hanging next to this image is a close up portrait of a child, which personifies purity. Big green eyes contrast with her dark hair; a rosebud mouth and the pink flush of her luminous skin.
Inherent in her images, is Pinto’s philosophy, “The best thing in life is having each other.”
Paula Moura Pinheiro says it best when she touchingly writes, “When I am sad or lost, I look at one of the many photographs Isabel has taken of me with my children over the years and I find myself, I find myself in the best of me.”
Isabel Pinto’s exhibition is being displayed at the Young Blood Gallery until 4 December.
Samantha Reynolds is a travel writer and photographer, and more of her work can be found on her blog, Travel and Photography – Golden Dreams.