Last Saturday, I was finally able to buy a book of photographs by Pierre Verger: 'Retratos De Bahia' ('Portraits Of Bahia'). It is a very beautiful oblong, clothbound book, printed in Bahia, Brazil, itself in 1980 by publishing house Editora Corrupio. The book contains more than 250 black and white photographs of Bahia and its people by this enigmatic photojournalist, ethnographer gone native, and Candomblé priest.
Pierre Verger (1902-1996) is now best known for his photographs printed in two books by Surrealist dissident Georges Bataille: photos of bloodspattered Voodoo ceremonies, printed in Bataille's 1957 book L'Érotisme and his 1961 art book Les Larmes d'Eros. These photos were taken in 1948 in Haiti, where Verger was living in the Centre d'Art, an institution in Port-au-Prince which supported Haitian folk artists. Photos from the same period can be found in the classic 1958 ethnography "Le Vaudou Haitien" by Bataille's and Verger's close friend, the ethnologist Alfred Métraux. Bataille, who did not know Verger personally, called him "one of the most remarkable - and most famous - photographers of these times".
A remarkable figure indeed: after a career as a globetrotting wartime journalist, photographer and ethnologist, Verger between 1953 and 1956 gradually converted to the faith of the black descendants of slaves in Bahia. He was initiated into Candomblé and in the African Ifa divination cult, where he received the name "Fatumbi" and the title of "Babalaô" (The Father of Secrets), allowing him access to the orally passed-on wisdom of the Yorubá. As an ethnologist, Verger "went native", giving in to the attraction of the Other, losing all critical distance between himself and the subject he studied. 'Going native' is the ethnographer's eroticism.
'Retratos De Bahia' contains no photos of gruesome Voodoo rituals: instead, it is a testament to Verger's love for the vibrant black people of Brazil. The book collects photos of street vendors, Capoeira dancers, people celebrating Carnaval, fishers, musicians, people Candomblé rituals, people sleeping in the street, and so on. Many of these exquisitely beautiful photographs can be found on the excellent website of the Pierre Verger Foundation.
Below, you'll find a YouTube slideshow of photographs by Pierre Verger and his biography as found in 'Retratos De Bahia', amateurishly translated from Portuguese into English by myself.
"Pierre Fatumbi Verger, born Pierre Edouard Leopold Verger, on November 4th 1902, in Paris. French photographer, ethnologist, Candomblé priest, he used to explain the facts of his life as a series of accidents.
In the nineteenthirties the first important accident happens: he loses his mother, his last remaining direct relative. Without any identity rooted more deeply with the social context in which he was living, he then decides to abandon that context. With a backpack and a camera he parts to find new experiences and especially to be forgotten by too many others. Thus, he leaves Paris in 1932 and heads for the Pacific Islands.
For fifteen years he travels through different regions of the world, photographing that which took his interest. Bit by bit he collects precious documentation on ancient civilizations which are on the brink of disappearance, or were suffering a profound transformation of their cultural traditions. Examining these materials reveals his talent as a researcher.
This period takes him to the United States, Japan, China, the Philippines, Sudan (now Mali), Togo, Dahomey (now Benin), Nigeria, parts of the Sahara, the Antilles, Mexico, Guatamala, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentinia and Brazil. Besides reporting, he is also charged with the photographic laboratory of the Musée D'Etnografie (now Musée de l'Homme), in Paris. While a wartime correspondent in China for Life magazine, he also collects photographic documentation for the Museo Nacional de Lima in Peru.
A second important accident precipitates Verger definitively into research: the discovery of Bahia in 1946.
Drawn to Bahia by reading Jorge Amado's book Jubiabá, he is pleased by the city and especially by the people living here. He installs himself, and lives in an intense way with Bahia's people. He commences to tirelessly research the worship of Orixa deities and the way trafficking slaves has influenced economy and culture.
From then on, between 1949 and 1979 he makes several journeys between Bahia and Africa's west coast, mainly Dahomey and Nigeria. He visits every Yoruba stronghold of the New World. He intensifies his research on its ethnicity, on its influence on Bahian culture and on the ties which are established between them.
The relationship between Verger and black culture bit by bit starts to surpass mere intellectual interest. He involves himself deeply in the Candomblé, is initiated and starts to fulfill religious functions. In Bahia, he is an Ogã priest in the Opô Afonjá temple of Miss Mãe Aninha, and in the Opô Aganjú temple of Balbino, in Lauro de Freitas. In Dahomey, he is initiated as a Babalaô when studying Ifa divination, and receives the name of Fatumbi - which means 'Reborn' in Ifa.
As a Babalaô, he has access to the cultural heritage of the Yorubas, their mythology, their botanical therapies and the liturgy of their possession cults.
Verger creates, as photographic reporter, an important body of historical and ethnographic work. His acute powers of observation, the use of austere equipment, his intellectual humbleness, and his human wisdom - based on simplicity, respect and truth - certainly facilitated his task.
In 1966, the development and the talent of Verger's work is officially recognized by science: at the University of Paris, through the Sorbonne, granted him the title of Doctor, even though Verger abandoned his academic studies 17 years earlier.
Currently living in Bahia, Verger tirelessly works on his documentation, collected during 34 years of research. He focuses on the dissemination of his work, preparing books and articles for journals and conferences, answering the requests that come from various parts of the world.
Pierre Fatumbi Verger is the "free and available" man of which his friend Théodore Monod speaks. True to his calling, his profound work corresponds to loneliness and freedom."
Here is a link to an exhibition in Basel, Switzerland, called 'Black Gods in Exile'.