Meaning & Identity Part One – Jo Mazelis

Jo Mazelis guest edits the photography in Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd. In this first extract from her introduction to the new issue, Mazelis focuses on the work of Maria Guerra and the Guerra family. 

The pair of portfolios I’ve chosen as guest editor of this edition of The Lonely Crowd are in some ways like two opposing sides of a coin. Interestingly the native tongues of each are closely related Romance languages, Spanish and Portuguese, but Humberto Gatica’s Spanish comes from his original homeland in Chile, while Maria Guerra’s is that of her and her family’s Portugal. There the similarities end, for Humberto Gatica’s work is objective in the purest sense of the word; showing both natural and manmade objects, and bestowing meaning on these everyday items by the stark way he has photographed them; creating images of beauty, implied violence and dislocation. In contrast Maria Guerra’s selection of photographs all feature people and represent bonds of love that are grounded in a sense of belonging and continuity.

The selection of photographs taken of and by the family of Maria Guerra constitutes a ‘family album’ of sorts, but contains uniquely powerful and thoughtful portraits. Amongst the earliest is one taken by Maria’s grandfather José Luis Costa of her mother as a child. While José Luis Costa may have been an amateur photographer he has none the less created a work that seems magical and could have been an illustration for a picture book. This may have been a fairly everyday event on a farm but the children’s concentration on the baby chick is intense. The light seems to emanate from the tiny bird onto the children’s faces and they are suspended in time, caught for eternity in innocence and rapture.

A generation later in the 1950s there is a picture of Maria Guerra as a small child, her dark hair cut in that short bob so redolent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Liddell and the black and white movie star Louise Brooks. The child lies alongside her handsome father on some lost summer’s day in the countryside, both of them in a harmony of restive dreamy weariness. The connective tissue that links all these photographs is Maria, and the portraits of her as a young woman were taken by her husband, Zhe Guerra who was a seriously gifted professional photographer. That Maria’s daughter Patricia Costa should have created such a skilled and knowing portrait of her son and his friend as well her self-portrait in a bikini is no surprise. The image of the two boys with oranges in their mouths seems to echo the move forward in the history of photography to the colour work of photographers like William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Nan Goldin with jarring colours, beauty from banality and less than poised elegance.


Maria’s mother, Maria José Costa as a child in the 1920s. Photo taken by Maria Guerra’s grandfather, José Luis Costa, an amateur photographer.

Photo by Patricia Costa of her son, Vicente and his best friend.

Maria and her father in the country near Porto. Photo by Maria’s father, Gustavo Afonso, amateur photographer (1921–1998).

Maria and Zhe meditating while on their honeymoon in Sesimbra, Setubal—photo taken with Zhe’s Nikon camera by a friend.

All of the photographs discussed here (including those shown) are available in Issue 7 of The Lonely Crowd.

Jo Mazelis is a prize-winning novelist, short story writer, poet, photographer and essayist. Her debut novel Significance (Seren, 2014) won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2015. Her latest book, a collection of short stories entitled, Ritual, 1969 (Seren, 2016), was named one of Wales Arts Review’s Ten Best Books of 2016. Her first collection of stories Diving Girls was short-listed for Commonwealth Best First Book and Welsh Book of the Year. Previously she worked as a freelance designer and photographer in London. She has photographed Tilda Swinton, PD James, Kathy Acker, Nan Goldin and Miranda Richardson amongst many other leading artists, writers and actors. Her work has been exhibited at Camerawork, London, The Pontardawe Arts Centre, Glyn Vivian Art Gallery and Dylan Thomas Centre.

Words © Jo Mazelis, 2017. Images © Maria Guerra & Family, 2017.