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Any attempt to condense life in a major city into sequences of words is doomed to reflect the writer's bias and prejudice. I have spent forty years trying to flesh out my personal portrait of Buenos Aires, both in writing and in photographs, ever since I first sailed into the basin of the River Plate on a brief visit as a college student in 1957.
This is a book of photographs that reflects the vision of a European with a highly developed sensitivity who captures, in a city hidden in the shadows of its past, a slightly out-of-focus rerun of Europe in one of the most remote corners of the globe. Photographer Reto Guntli succumbs to the shopworn charm of the city and makes no effort to disguise the flaws. His photographs record many of the facets of Buenos Aires's magnificent past, often bathed in the aura of a nostalgia that pervades both the city and its inhabitants. He takes advantage of the city's special light, which at dawn and dusk attenuates the jarring midday glare. The resolution is a clever one. Buenos Aires is not Rio de Janeiro. There is an intrinsic drabness to it that is tempered by the golden rays of the setting sun.
During its relatively brief history, Buenos Aires has intrigued foreign visitors--especially the British, who were so involved in the country's economic development. There is a rich bibliography in the English language dating back two hundred years that catalogs the incredible growth of the city and the changing views of those who came to see the "greatest city south of the equator," the "Paris" or "Athens of America," the "Babylon of the South," or the "white man's city of South America," as different writers have labeled it.
The textbrings back the glory of the city's golden age, without the wrinkles and warts so apparent in the untouched photograph of today. The city has so many idiosyncrasies: more psychoanalysts than New York; record tobacco consumption (at the beginning of the century, for example, the Bank of the Argentine Nation spent $100,000 in one year on cigars for the institution's directors), with two tobacco companies ranking among the nation's top ten in terms of sales, along with oil companies, automobile manufacturers, and steel mills; more hotel beds for rent by the hour than in any other major city; world leader in meat and fourth or fifth in wine consumption; and any number of other unexpected record-breaking eccentricities.
Foreign chroniclers have often been overenthusiastic or overcritical in their judgments about the city and its inhabitants. Argentine observers can be accused of the same debility. While the photos give a singular vision of the city, the text gathers a multiplicity of opinions, offering an overview of what went on at the sites of many of the pictures during the country's heyday.
A city is more than the sum of the anecdotes that can pinpoint its idiosyncrasies; its soul cannot be captured on color film, no matter what the natives of more primitive societies believe. It takes effort and intuition to go soul-searching. It also takes perception and patience to maintain the necessary neutrality and avoid accepting what are passed off as tried-and-true cliches.
The photographs and text in this book reflect a fragment of the city--two observers' visions, each complementing the other to give the reader a more profound feel for Buenos Aires, a city that for its first century of existence seemed doomed to be a forgotten backwater at the far edge of Europe's collective imagination, and yet in its third century--turning the tables on the past--vied with New York as the Promised Land for millions of Europe's destitute. Today it is no longer a forgotten wilderness, nor is it the paradise it seemed back in 1910, when John Foster Fraser could title a book The Amazing Argentine, a New Land of Enterprise.