Author and documentary film maker
When you stop to look at Julio Brujis’s pictures - for example, Pastoruri or The City - you soon realise that something very odd is going on. They look like regular photographs, and with their wooden frames they set up in the viewer an expectation of solidity, of physical presence. However hard the eye may hunt for it, though, his landscapes and cityscapes have no discernible point of view. All familiarity, verisimilitude - indeed any sense of perceived and dutifully recorded reality - have been stripped away. Scale and perspective relations are out of kilter. Buildings have been moved, replaced and re-envisioned. Landscape features melt into each other, lower over one another or are repeated as pattern in eerie and unexpected ways.
Focus is scattered; and if you try to locate where the picture is taken from, you soon lose yourself in a maze. Brujis’s images, in fact, contrive to bypass and deny entry to both the eye and the ‘I’ of the spectator. They are objects without subject: seen from everywhere and all at once, denuded of human reference or mediation. They seem to belong to a time before man or after man, to be God’s-eye views or else panoramas of an alien parallel universe.
The best way to approach these remarkable images is to understand that Brujis is essentially a painter. Indeed that’s how he began (after a short period studying computers) as a painter of abstract landscapes in his native Peru, while enrolled as an art student at the Catholic University in Lima. He was coming of age, however, at a time when photographers and sometimes fine artists like David Hockney - were increasingly using polaroid, video and particularly digital technology to invade what was regarded as art territory. They were following the paths that painters had taken, in response to photography, in the first half of the 20th century. So by the time he arrived at the Byam Shaw School of Art in north London in 1997, he had become unsure about what his own kind of pure painting had to offer.
After a period of indecision, then, he went back to computers and took up print-making. He’d scan his prints and drawings into the machine and make collages with painting or etching on top. This too failed to satisfy him. 'It was too layered and showed too much of the process' he says. So, he concentrated more and more on photography and on the digital manipulation of his own images. He experimented with human figures and imaginary animals and with what he calls 'the stunts and tricks now being used in advertising'. But, by the time he arrived at the Royal Academy Schools, where he became the first Fellow in Digital Technology, he had begun to be drawn back to the sort of landscapes he’d painted as a student, particularly images of his native Peru, but also of Thailand, Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest.
The level of criticism during his three years as an Academy student was, Brujis allows, 'extremely high' - and very good for him. He little by little abandoned all 'the stunts and tricks', and elaborated his own method of working. 'I began to take pictures, with a 35mm Nikon, of everything there was at a particular place above, below and in a 3ó0-degree rotation around me - so that I could ultimately record its entirety in a single image'. Back at his computer, he‘d then scan up this ‘bank’ of pictures often without any particular goal in mind. 'With Photoshop, I have complete freedom to do what I want, to erase and clone. And that freedom is necessary. For what I like to do - have to do - is to re-experience the place from scratch, as if seeing it for the first time'.
In this, of course, Brujis is exactly like one of those 19th-century painters who took off for Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt and only produced finished pictures when back their studios, surrounded by souvenirs and sketches. Most of the latest work is the product of a recent journey to two separate areas of Peru, Yauyos and Ancash. But the Analogy between painting and what Brujis does cuts deeper. For what he brings back from his field trips are not just sketches but a palette: a palette which has considerably broadened and deepened in these new pieces. For he has begun, in developing his raw material, to photograph each element in his panoramas at different exposures and speeds, often returning to them and repeating the process at different times of day. And this has given him an even greater freedom to choose, to invent, to depict what remains in his mind’s eye. It has also given his work a fresh and sometimes alarming new subtlety by taking time and the fixedness of light out of the pictorial equation of the finished piece. The places he shows are outside time and beyond point of view. They are both total and non-existent.
There is one last way in which Brujis’s work can be directly related to painting. For just as the painters of the early part of the 20th century were forced into new ways of thinking and seeing by the invention of photography, he has managed to bring back into these manipulated photographs many of the strategies they employed. Is he a point-of-view-killing cubist? A collagist? A surrealist? An abstract artist? He is, of course, all four. But he is also something more. For whenever I see works like Yauyos or Vilca, I am reminded of the story of the young Australian Aboriginal being taught perspective in a reformatory. He couIdn’t understand it at all. But then he suddenly stood bolt upright at his desk and said. ‘I get it!, I see! You don’t paint it how it is! You paint it how it looks!’ Against the odds, Brujis has found a way of using photography to enter the world that the Aboriginal boy suggested existed out there, out of reach to the Western way of seeing: ’How it is’. Perhaps it is a step too far to call Brujis’s work religious, but it does occupy an extremely interesting philosophical terrain of its own in the history of contemporary photography.