In 1995, Brazilian historian Robert Levine was fortunate to come across the catalog of a small exhibit of photographs by the American Genevieve Naylor that had only come to light after her death in 1989. In the 1940s Naylor had participated in an OIAA assignment to document Brazil for the U.S. government’s education and publicity departments, which planned to use the images as part of a campaign to inform American’s about the Brazilian people’s potential as wartime allies. Over 1000 photographs from this project had been in storage and in the possession of Naylor’s son, Peter Reznikoff. Their fortuitous discovery and the subsequent contact between Levine and Reznikoff have resulted in a short documentary video and a soon-to-be-published book, The Brazilian Photographs of Genevieve Naylor, 1940-1943 (Duke University Press). Even more significant than the discovery of the photographs, which by themselves are remarkable documents of Brazilian life at midcentury, is the fact that Naylor was able to complete her assignment and capture the country’s extraordinary diversity, while still avoiding the censorship imposed by the dictatorial administration of Getúlio Vargas. The video is but a brief introduction to what promises to be an important publication about everyday life in Brazil during the 1940s, and one that will certainly counter the false image promoted by the Vargas administration.

Vargas would only approve propagandistic images that showed Brazilians as contented workers participating in the industrial progress of a modern nation. It was an elitist view that paid little attention to the true plight of the poor and the dark-skinned majority. Although Naylor could not focus on squalor (it was not part of her assignment and would open her up to the risk of deportation), she was intent on recording the unique diversity of Brazil’s culturally heterogeneous population and treating each member of society with respect. Class distinctions are evident in her work.

For two years and nine months Naylor journeyed through Brazil, capturing the people not only with the eye of a journalist, but with the eye of an artist. It was her artist’s intuition and sensitivity that enabled her to arrange her figures as black-and-white tableaus in aesthetically captivating compositions, with no manipulation. She masterfully juxtaposed the past with the present, and the young with the old; and she took pictures of people from all walks of life, set against backgrounds that vary from the vast expanses of nature to sleek modern architecture.

In this perfectly edited video, over one hundred of her images come to life with music and motion to paint a picture of Brazil and its many moods and faces. However, although technically skillful, the video is more than just a documentary about Naylor’s work in Brazil. It succeeds because the images succeed. One only wishes it were longer than the more than one hundred images it contains, and that the images could have been seen by the people they were meant to educate, rather than being hidden away for so long. Nevertheless, the messages of diversity, multiculturalism, persistence, and progress that the images portray are just as valuable tools for tolerance and understanding today as they would have been in the past.