By William Dowell
[This story was originally a file for a TIME International story on young Latin leaders]

[Click on photo to go to Vik Muniz' website ]

Vik Muniz is not quite sure whether his work qualifies as photography or art.  In fact, it is  both.   Muniz' photographs focus on his own sculpture and on images that he has constructed from sugar, soil, and even Bosco chocolate sauce.  He says that he realized early on that he liked his own photographs of his creations even better than the originals.  One of the hottest new talents in New York today, Muniz has been exhibited in New York's Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. A single photograph now brings anywhere from $3,500 to $16,000.

      Muniz was working for a small advertising agency in Sao Paolo, Brazil, when he decided to ditch his job and move to New York.  As a child, he had been interested in optics and wanted to become a doctor, but his parents were too poor.  His father worked in a bar and hustled pool. His mother was a telephone operator.  When Muniz arrived in New York, he barely spoke English and he had only $3,000 in his pocket.  He worked as a housepainter and a service station attendant, and spent most of his free time at the Metropolitan. "It was the only place I could afford to go," he says.  Muniz says he began creating sculptures partly as a reaction to his experience in advertising.  Advertising, he felt, created identity for things that had no identity.  "I wasn't interested in fabricating identities before I could find out for myself what identity is," he explains.    But as Muniz experimented with sculpture he soon found that he was even more interested in photography. He says he had always liked the way sculpture looked in photographs.  "I didn't care if I lost the sculpture, as long as I had the photograph," he says.  "There is always the best angle to look at a sculpture, so once you find it, you can photograph it and keep it. Before you know it, you are making sculptures just so they will look good in a photograph."  An epiphany of sorts took place when he saw a line of spectators waiting to see Peter Paul Rubens' portrait of his daughter, Carla Serena, at the Metropolitan. Muniz went through the line several times himself and noted that each person viewed the painting from exactly the same point. Rubens, he realized, had constructed the painting so that it made the spectator unconsciously select the proper viewing angle. Muniz vowed to accomplish the same feat in his own images.

     Muniz says he has always been fascinated by the trickery that is involved in images.  When he was a small boy, he noticed a mark on the ceiling from humidity that had seeped into the plaster, and he took detailed notes in his diary on what the mark might look like, a hippopotamus or another animal.    The authoritarian climate created by Brazil's military government in the 1970s also contributed to a certain aesthetic. Muniz calls it a "semiotic black market" in which artists and writers filled their work  with hidden meanings in order to express the truth.  Muniz says that he and his friends listen to music tapes backwards to see if a secret message hadn't been encoded into the lyrics.  "Nothing was what it was," he says. "It was actually a positive time for art because it allowed a type of poetry to emerge from the situation. Music was very good at that time. There was an elasticity of metaphor. You were open to things that had multiple meanings. You not only believed in complexity, but you became skeptical." 

     Muniz has tried to continue that sense of multiple meanings into his art today.  He says he seeks "not to confuse but to destabilize" perceptions. "Instead of making a picture of something," he says. "I always try to make people feel how they see."  If art is theater, he says, his images are often 'bad actors.'  "A good actor gives you the play," he explains. "A bad actor gives you the theater. You feel the mechanism of the presentation as a dynamic. An image with perfect technique becomes very static. That is what was great about the invention of photography. The painters were freed from the factual world, and they could go into a more complex world."  Muniz thinks that digital photography is now doing the same thing for conventional photography.  "Digital imaging is so ubiquitous that everyone can make anything and destroy the truth of the image," he says. "That is great for photographers because it liberates them from factuality. Today, as a photographer, you don't have to have any links to the actual world. There may be some links, but you can play with them. " 

      Muniz was still doing odd jobs in New York when a local artist saw his work and suggested that he show it to a gallery. He never looked back. 

   One of his early collections derived from a book of photojournalism, "The best of Life," which Muniz bought after he first came to New York in 1983.  The images in the book reassured him by making him feel part of his environment, especially since he couldn't speak English.   In 1988, he lost the book while he was on a beach in Long Island.  He felt sad at first, and then he began trying to capture the images from his own memory.  He made sketches with pencil and ink, recreating the original images, but with the distortion of memory.  To cover up the rough sketch work, he photographed the images slightly out of focus.  The result was an eerie, slightly off-key recollection of widely recognizable icons.  "I realized," Munis says, "that people don't just keep books for the information in them. They also keep them to help them to remember."   Muniz began experimenting with other forms that he could photograph.  A series of wire sculptures: water flowing from a faucet, a roll of toilet paper on a wall, a hanging light bulb, are so realistic that they look like pencil sketches in the photograph.  Muniz was inspired by the doors of the Baptistery in Florence, designed by Ghiberti, who tried to combine graphic perspective with a raised physical relief, to intensify the image of depth. 

    A lump of plasticene molded into different shapes in different photographs demonstrated the multiplicity of a malleable object. A series of pseudo-scientific stereocards which represent molecules and DNA with marbles and pasta.  A series of extraordinary images of nature and pastoral scenery which look like etchings, but which are actually sketches made by laying thousands of yards of loose thread on sheets of white paper.  In another series, he crumpled paper, photographed the results, and then sketched a series of nudes, by punching minute holes in the photograph. He then photographed the photograph with the holes in it.  The result is a series of images which seem to float ethereally over the crumpled paper. 

       Muniz' major breakthrough came during a trip to St. Kits.  muniz and his French-born wife, were talking with native children who had never learned how to swim. Muniz realized that there were two occupations on the island: tourism and harvesting sugar cane. Both were equally terrible.  He was reminded of several lines  by the Brazilian poet, Ferreira Gullar: "It is with the bitter lives of bitter people that I sweeten my coffee on this beautiful morning in Ipanema..."   Muniz took some black paper and poured sugar over it.  he then arranged the sugar to look like the faces of the children he had seen. he photographed the results and kept the sugar from each image in its own jar.  Eventually he used three types of sugar to create accurate images.  "What is photography?" Muniz laughs. "It is a collection of dots that can be arranged to create something. So, I thought let's look at the dots and give them an identity."

      After the sugar series, Muniz followed up with some equally startling images of well known figures, Sigmund Freud, Jackson Pollack, fans at a football game, the Last Supper.  These he did with Bosco chocolate sauce.  He had to finish the work in less than an hour before the chocolate dried and lost its sheen.

      Muniz' latest work involves soil on the light box. The images range from nudes to some images of eggs, one of a trout, and one of the torso of his own son.  "Light and earth," he says,"are the two elements of photography."

     As for his own perception of himself, Muniz says that the first time he called himself an artist was on a train to Hungary in the 1980s.  he was stopped by some border guards carrying machine guns who gruffly asked him  his profession.  When Muniz answered that he was an artist, a guard took out a clip board and told him to sketch one of the other guards. The train was held waiting an hour while Muniz did the sketch.  When he finished, the guards were so impressed that they asked Muniz to autograph the portrait.  Muniz realized that he just might have made it. "If you can tell a group of guards armed with machine guns that you are an artist," he says. "I guess you can tell anyone."

     Muniz says that during one of his shows in Sao Paolo, his father wanted to know what the works of art actually meant.  Muniz said that people were buying them.  his father refused to believe him. "That man over there just bought one for $4,000," Muniz said. His father chased the man out of the gallery and asked him if that were true. Then he came back into the gallery with a broad smile.  The next day he had told everyone in the bar where he worked that his son was a success.  His father had tears in his eyes.   Muniz says that his father had always been something of a huckster, and Muniz realizes now that there is a certain trickery in art and that they have a great deal in common. "In the last few years," he says,"my father and I have bonded a great deal." 

       As for what he should call himself. "When I photograph, I am a photographer," Muniz says. "When I draw I am a draftsman. An artist is what I am always becoming. You could say that I am an artist who works with photography."

--NEW YORK, 2001