José Louro Fernandes, usually referred to simply as José Louro, was a Brazilian photographer and film-maker who worked over a twenty year period, from 1915 to 1935, mostly for government organisations directed by Colonel (later General) Cândido Rondon. In the early years of the 20th century, Rondon was a major figure in Brazilian public life, having played a leading role in the ‘opening up’ of the Amazonian interior of the country, first as head of his own Rondon Commission, and later as the director of the Inspetoria de Fronteiras.
In 1928, Louro made No Río Içana, which primarily concerns the Wanano people of the Uaupés river in the upper Rio Negro region, in the extreme northwest of Brazil, on the border with Colombia. From an ethnographic point of view, with the exception of Luiz Thomaz Reis’s work, Rituais e festas borôro (1917), this is the most interesting film produced in Brazilian Amazonia prior to the Second World War. For this reason, it was chosen as the film that runs permanently on the About page of the Silent Time Machine website. Sadly, it also seems to have been the only film that Louro made.
The biographical documentation for Louro is scant and it has not been possible to discover anything about his personal background, dates of birth or death, nor even identify a photograph of him. What is clear, however, is that unlike many of those who worked on the projects associated with Rondon, Louro was not a member of the Brazilian military, but rather a civilian photographer by profession. His participation in Rondon’s projects also appears to have been intermittent.
When Louro was first recruited to the Rondon Commission, it was to work as a photographer. He showed from the beginning that he was not only both technically and aesthetically highly skilled, but also had the rare ability to establish a close rapport with his indigenous subjects. Of all the many photographers who worked on the projects associated with Rondon, he was surely the most talented.
Louro’s first photographs were taken in the course of expeditions in 1915-1916 and 1919 to the headwaters of the Jamari, Jiparana and Cautario rivers in what is now Rondônia in the extreme west of the country, close to the Bolivian border. In the course of these expeditions, Louro produced some remarkable images of the indigenous groups of these regions, many of which were only then entering into contact with the outside world, and many of which, as result of disease and the depredations of extractive industries, have since become extinct. Among these groups were the Takwatib (Tacuatepe), two of whom are shown in the images above.
Some years later, in 1922, Louro was commissioned to take a series of photographs of the telegraph stations set up by the Rondon Commission throughout Rondônia and adjacent headwater regions in Mato Grosso. In the course of doing so, he also took further striking photographs of the Paresí (Ariti, Haliti), the Nambikwara and the Umutina (see the image at the head of this entry).
Louro was clearly greatly appreciated by the Rondon Commission at this point since in the collection of its photographs that it published in 1922 to celebrate the centenary of Brazilian independence, the number of photographs by Louro is greater than that of any of the other twelve named photographers whose work is included there. However, there then appears to have been an interlude in his participation in Rondon’s projects.
It seems that it was only in 1927, when he was recruited to the Inspetoria de Fronteiras as an assistant to the film-maker Luiz Thomaz Reis, that Louro began making films. In the first year of his appointment, while Reis was engaged in making Viagem ao Roroimã with Rondon on the frontier with Venezuela (see the filmography of Reis here), Louro was sent on a smaller, subsidiary expedition up the nearby Uraricoera River, during the course of which he took some magnificent photographs of Ninam Yanomami (‘Xirianá’) and Ye’kuana (‘Maiongong’). He may also have carried out a limited amount of filming.
The following year, 1928, while Reis went to make another film with Rondon, Parimã, about the frontier regions with the French and Dutch Guianas, Louro was again assigned to a subsidiary expedition, this time led by Major (later Marshall) Boanerges Lopes de Sousa, to the upper Rio Negro. It was during this expedition that Louro shot No Rio Içana. This showed him to be as talented a cinematographer as Reis, if not more so.
Louro also participated in the expeditions led by Rondon in 1929-1930 along the Araguaia River and the frontiers of Mato Grosso do Sul and Paraná in the southwest of the country. During these trips, he took photographs of the Kadiweu and Kaiowa as well as of frontier installations and natural phenomena, including some extraordinary wide angle images of Iguazu Falls. He may also have assisted Reis on the two films that he made during the course of those expeditions, Posto Alves de Barros and Matto Grosso e Paraná. What is certain is that, unfortunately, Louro made no films of his own.
In February 1935, Louro was appointed as a cinematographer by the Inspetoria Especial de Fronteiras, the organisation that succeeded the inspectorate led by Rondon which had come to end with his resignation for political reasons in 1930. However, only five months later, in July 1935, Louro was replaced, for unspecified reasons, by Reis’s daughter Argentina, without seemingly having made any films.
It has not been possible to establish any details of José Louro’s life after that point.