SSitting at the counter of the “Galeto” snack bar and looking out at the hustle and bustle on the Avenida da República, Armindo Rodrigues’ lines come to life: “Alegre ou triste/uma cidade como esta/é semper para olhos uma festa (Happy or sad/a city like this/is always a feast for the eyes). What is the best way to understand Lisbon as a sad-happy city? Maybe with the help of Victor Palla. The artist, born 100 years ago, on March 13, 1922, made the attitude towards life in the Portuguese capital visible in the book “Lisboa, cidade triste e alegre”, created with the designer Costa Martins in 1959, with photographs from the 1950s – and almost physically noticeable.
The spontaneous shots of streets, situations and people characterized what was then a “modern” snapshot style: Palla photographed out of hand, without any preparation. Palla was a role model for the American photographer Peter Fink, who was working on the Iberian Peninsula at the same time. He wrote in an article for the Dallas Morning News in May 1956: “Fortunately there is little here to attract tourists, so you can see a real difference with America.” Sounds condescending, but Fink admired Portugal for its history, its people and their craft.
Like Fink, Palla was a chronicler of beauty, as the book Lisboa, cidade triste e alegre shows. The black and white photographs radiate respectful empathy for the people photographed, in an almost poetic imagery. Large parts of current Lisbon can still be recognized in the volume. That is part of the fascination that emanates from Palla and his pictures.
The burden of hard work, not only at the port, the nocturnal lights of the big city, the lives of women, rich or poor, in between repeated shots of children, engrossed in play, curiously looking out the window, excited at the fairground. For Palla, the young generation seemed to be an expression of hope and joie de vivre, at a time when the Salazar dictatorship had already lasted for about three decades. He treats the old people with furrowed faces with dignity, couples in love throw happy, sometimes questioning looks at each other. And it is always worth taking a look at the details of the pictures: an umbrella in the arms of a young woman, a house facade with clotheslines, a cat’s eyes peering out of a hiding place, a table in a café that has not yet been cleared, a load basket carried on the head, the curtain to her house, slightly lifted by a woman. The themes are loneliness and community, thoughtfulness, confidence and despair.
The first snack bars in Lisbon
Quotations from 20 authors, alongside Armindo Rodrigues also Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Fernando Pessoa and Älvaro de Campos, add color to the volume. Below a shot of three boys looking fearlessly and bravely into the camera, believing in the future, as it were, are lines by Sidónio Muralha: “Meninos de olhos adultos / Fundos como dois segredos” (Boys with grown-up eyes / Deep as two secrets) .
Studies in architecture and the fine arts in Porto and Lisbon had opened up Palla’s broad scope of action early on. Between 1946 and 1973 he ran an architectural office. The partnership with Joaquim Bento d’Almeida resulted in an impressive number of works, including the first snack bars in Lisbon, such as the “Galeto”. Detached houses, office and residential buildings, industrial plants and public buildings such as the Escola Primária do Vale Escuro in Lisbon also go back to the architect duo, who moved stylistically between Bauhaus, Brutalism and Azulejos, the pictures made of painted ceramic tiles; In 2017 it was honored in an extensive exhibition at the Centro Cultural de Belém.
Palla not only worked as an architect, he also experimented in many other arts. In literature for example. With his younger brother, the writer José Palla e Carmo, also known as José Sesinando, he translated works by HG Wells and Somerset Maugham. In the 1950s, however, it is said that he spent more time on photography than on any other subject. After studying and working for a long time, he and Costa Martins set out to methodically explore the city – especially the districts of Bairro Alto and Alfama – to capture places and people.
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