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The observer of cities

In 2,400 photos, Frederick Hoehne reveals a keen eye for plants, landscapes and cities in the early twentieth century

Instituto de Botânica [Botanical Institute] CollectionsOpen science: practical botany lesson in 1939; Hoehne is the tallest manInstituto de Botânica [Botanical Institute] Collections

Frederico Carlos Hoehne was given his first orchid by his father at the age of eight, when they were living on a small farm in the town of Juiz de Fora, in Minas Gerais state. He built several orchidariums in São Paulo and named one of his daughters, Laelia, after an orchid.

Though he loved orchids, his view of the world was far broader. The 2,400 photographs in the collection of the São Paulo Botany Institute (IBt), which is now beginning to be shown to the public, reveals the magnitude of his view of things, and of his anxieties, regarding the plants, landscapes, cities, people and situations encountered by him during his expeditions through the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Santa Catarina and Paraná.

The worries emerge from the comments written on the envelopes in which he kept the photographs’ negatives, on glass plates, generally measuring 13 by 18 centimeters. In a photo of the São Paulo central market, taken in 1919, he wrote: “Great profusion of roots, herbs and medicinal fruit are on show for sale in these houses devoid of any scruples or hygiene, without power, etc.” One of the envelopes contains the negative of a park that no longer exists in the area of Vila Mariana, in São Paulo city, and this observation: “Two fine capaibeira trees in the Saúde woods, which has been turned over for housing developments, rather than being used as a São Paulo park.” “Hoehne was a critic of the city’s urbanization policy,” notes Luiz Barretto, the architect in charge of the IBt documentation sector, who is coordinating the organization of this collection of images. Like Hoehne, Barretto takes advantage of what he sees to think about the city: “If woodlands still existed on that site, there would certainly be less flooding in the area of the Ricardo Jafet Avenue.”

In 2007, Barretto began opening the hundreds of envelopes that had been kept in two old cupboards with photographic negatives on glass, some of which was cracked,  that had been hibernating there after some anonymous attempts at organizing them. He thought that he might be able to organize all of this because he too was a photographer and had studied photograph restoration and historical document conservation. Now, the observations on the photos written on their envelopes are in a computer and the negatives have been organized in small plastic boxes – each one protected with an alkaline paper envelope that opens up in a cross shape, eliminating direct manual contact with the glass. Almost half of the collection has been treated and cleaned and 700 images have been digitized. Hoehne took most of the pictures, but there are also photographs by other naturalists and photographers.

The oldest photo, from 1918, shows the Oswaldo Cruz Horticultural Garden, which Hoehne was in charge of at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, after having been the head gardener of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro and taken part in the expeditions of Marshal Cândido Rondon through the hinterlands of Mato Grosso state. In São Paulo, he helped to set up the horticultural garden of the Paulista Museum and the state orchidarium, which is part of the São Paulo Botanical Gardens, another one of his works. Tall and lean, with a thin face, he gained prestige thanks to his achievements and his constant work. He was awarded the title of doctor honoris causa by the University of Göttingen in 1929 and was the first director of the São Paulo Botanical Institute, but he failed to sit down behind a desk and still took part in many expeditions. When he left the Botanical Institute, 10 years later, in 1952 – seven years before his death at the age of 77 – he had collected approximately 10 thousand species of plants and written 600 articles directed at botanists and the general public.

“Hoehne was a conservationist when people were barely thinking about this, from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. This is now considered commonplace, but back then, when the chief concern was the country’s economic growth, this subject was rarely addressed,” comments Fabio de Barros, a researcher at the IBt orchidarium. “Hoehne was also a divulger of science when this wasn’t valued much, at least in Brazil. He wrote tens of articles published in non-scientific newspapers and magazines, in addition to books, besides holding courses at the Botanical Garden for the public at large.” Finally, Barros emphasizes Hoehne’s concern about the possibilities of making practical and artistic use of the Brazilian plants. Reading Hoehne, he found, on several occasions, proposals to use the images of leaves and flowers in stained glass windows, tiles and flooring.

The photos enrich the history of certain places in São Paulo. One of them helps one to understand better how Estrada das Lágrimas [the Road of Tears], near the beginning of the Anchieta highway, got its name: because of a fig tree that became known as the tree of tears, where women bid their husbands farewell when the men left for long journeys into the São Paulo hinterlands.