Half a lifetime ago, our steps echoed on the cobblestones of Buenos Aires. Some of my photographs taken so many years ago, betray sentimentality, romanticism – poetry even.
Is it surprising that my gaze was drawn to images similar but infinitely superior to my attempts, accompanied by poetic text in long hand? They were images and words by two eminent Argentine artists published in 1978 as a limited-edition book, Más Letras e Imagenes de Buenos Aires. My copy, now unfortunately water damaged, is number 1809 of 5000, purchased in 1980.
At the front of the book a full-page photograph shows a youthful Aldo Sessa posing with the more mature Manuel Mujica Lainez at one of numerous statues gracing this beautiful city. The award-winning photographer Sessa still lives there, aged 82. Mujica Lainez, descendent of a founder of Buenos Aires, died shortly after the book’s publication. He received many accolades and honours during his lifetime.
As a young couple living in a vibrant, passionate and culture-rich city, we enjoyed the sites: expansive green parks, French-style architecture, museums, classic coffee shops, restaurants – especially for those fond of beef, the asado on the grill (parrilla). There’s La Boca, colourful Italian quarter and birthplace of the tango, San Telmo antique fair on Sundays, the Recoleta cemetery. And all along elegant porteños – as the inhabitants of the port city refer to themselves – on a gentle stroll down fashionable Avenida Florida. Here were the latest haute courtier styles and exquisite book shops, art galleries and renowned Argentine leather goods. A few city blocks away was the eclectic Teatro Colón, one of the world’s finest opera houses with ceiling frescoes painted by renowned artist Raúl Soldi.
Buenos Aires is an old city, founded nearly 500 years ago. Its wealth reached a peak in the 19th century, as evidenced by the ornate churches, palaces and bank buildings, even private residences. Many are now somewhat neglected and decayed – as some of Aldo Sessa’s photographs attest, poignantly focused on the faltering facades.
More lasting, although increasingly less so, are the cobblestones in the streets of the city’s older districts. The street where we lived was cobbled. We were told these stones came here as ballast in the empty ships returning from abroad after having off-loaded Argentina’s bountiful exports.
Mujica Lainez lamented the demise of cobblestones being buried under asphalt. Here is my English translation of his loving text:
Old cobblestones of the City: San Telmo, La Boca and Barracas. Asphalt has suppressed them, but some remain, and when we cross them, we experience a mysterious vibration: the echo of the ghostly carriages, of spectral horses, which clattered here,
before we were even born
or when we were very small;
the echo that passes and vanishes.
What a legacy.
Author’s note: Most images in this article were captured on 35mm colour slides during our sojourn in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I have now converted the slides to digital, and besides cleaning off dust and scratches, made only minor adjustments for colour and sharpness. Still, such old images hardly compare with the output of modern photographic equipment.