An Ethnography of Minutiae

By Pedro Duarte Bento, 2021

'Allentown, An Ethnography of Minutiae' 
110 pages, text and 47 black-and-white pictures
Softcover, 9.8x8.2 in / 25x21 cm
Pedro Duarte Bento, 2021

It was more or less at the same time I was at school learning how to shoot with large-format cameras that I found it in a street market in Brooklyn. It was a small batch of 4x5 in. black-and-white film sheets, full of dust and heavily scratched, mixed with dozens of old photos and other negatives inside a cardboard box. I remember that I took some film sheets from the bundle and pointed them towards the sun: a road in a residential area; a corporate group posing; a storefront. Three different images with apparently two things in common: time and place. The vendor didn’t have any information of what that batch could be or where it came from. It was just another forgotten, lost group of negatives in a random box.

I purchased the entire batch of forty-one film sheets, scanned them one by one at school and studied the images carefully. They were typical mid-century large-format tabloid-style pictures, some with overexposed foreground, some slightly out-of-focus. They were probably taken by a local photographer equipped with a Graflex portable hand camera —flash bulb in a bowl-shaped reflector included. Around a half-dozen images had some references that could indicate the provenience of the film sheets. For instance, one of an outdoors advertisement board had a welcoming sign to Lehigh Valley, ‘the home of Neuweiler Beer & Ale’; other of an wall exhibition niche decorated with props and flag to celebrate ‘Law Day USA, Allentown, Pennsylvania, May 1st, 1960’. In a third example, of an unidentified bank branch, a 3% interest rate promotion poster was partially visible in one wall. Had a date on it: October 1st, 1959. After a quick investigation it was possible to identify the bank branch as the First National Bank of Allentown.

Having a time and a place as reference, a peculiar scenario started to take shape. Images of family gatherings, office parties, department stores, neighbourhood street-views, modernist decorated interiors. Regardless of its precise location —Allentown, Pennsylvania, 90 miles away from New York City—one thing became clear: the spectrum of the American Dream myth was there, amassed in those pictures from the 1950s to 1960s.

I had moved in to New York for the first time three years before, in 2007, and since week one I was shooting residential areas in the outer rings of the city with my medium-format camera, particularly interested in single houses and parking lots. Reading authors such as John Cheever, Richard Yates and Raymond Carver initiated my education on the American Dream. Their short-stories gave me context on different types of social stratum, from small town America to the suburbs. Provided me the subtitles for what I was watching in my own outskirts excursions, helping me, as a southern European, to understand it a little better — even knowing that more than fifty years after their writings had passed.

All of them had a crude, pessimistic view of the social relations and everyday life at the suburbs. The subjects, atmospheres and characters in their short-stories weren’t part of the glorification of the American Dream anymore but rather its eulogy. They witnessed its decay. Aligned the disappointment of the masses with the end of individual illusions. I was doing my photographs under that spell. Looking for the real deal through the banality and despair of it. These film sheets from a lost archive, however, were telling a different story. They expressed family cohesion, community strength, career success. In one word, happiness. Were these the accurate portraits of a bygone reality, contradicting the fictional tales of the disenchanted trio of authors? Or were they a filtered narrative where everyone is wearing a mask?

The photographs that form the base of this visual essay are true to themselves. Original and contextual, they represent scenes that really occurred as well as the people participating in them. But looking at all the photographs from the batch, I realized I wasn’t interested in their full framework or initial compositions as much as I was in some parts of each one of them. I became really captivated about their opportunity to provide ‘ethnographic evidence’ as a valid form of documentation. Of course the initial, complete, non-edited content of each photograph was seductive, especially the ones showing events full of people, giving the reader an explosive array of facial expressions and empathy.

But what if the second life I was bringing in to these old photographs was to convey a different narrative? A narrative concentrated in the unnoticed, in the unassuming, in the banal? Ostentatiously ignoring the main protagonists recorded by the original photographer —people or locations—, I was now focused instead in their backgrounds, in the trivial objects part of their quotidian lives, bringing forth new details. For this reason, all the images of this visual essay are small crops from the original film sheets, seeking for the ethnographic evidence of those times. An evidence of minutiae.

A relevant reference for the body-of-work presented in this book is George Perec’s 1978 novel ‘La Vie mode d'emploi’ (Life, a User's Manual). Perec creates a vast, complex puzzle (intended) of characters, historic allusions and literary appropriations, weaving them all together in a Parisian building over decades. Furthermore, the French author meticulously describes every decor and object in the dozens of rooms, compartments, of the building itself.

Pedro Duarte Bento
Lisbon, February 2021
— Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1959-1961



002-01. A painted sign in the wall reads ‘Lights Out 11p.m.’. Above it, an electricity cord fasten to the brick wall with metal clamps feeds a wall clock. Below the lights-out notice, stands a double door with one of the leaves open towards the exterior of the room. The door has an A&B Franks heart-shaped sticker in it. A stack of Lehigh Valley Milk wooden cases with a Marlboro round tray on top lean against the door. A counter accommodates stacks of salt shakers, white porcelain tea cups and saucers. A middle aged woman, dressed in a pearl-tone blouse, stands up while listening to someone else at a table. Her hairstyle is medium. Beyond the door, there’s a young man with a clean cut haircut, dressed in a short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt. The wall clock has the hour hand pointing at number eight and the minute hand at number fifteen. Its glass face is backlit, making a Neuweiler Beer & Ale logo painted on it to slightly glow. Neuweiler Brewery was built in Allentown during the first years of the 1910s. Louis Neuweiler, the owner, hired Philadelphia architects Peukert and Wunder, specialists in breweries and industrial buildings, to design the complex.

007-01. A two-lane macadam road goes through a residential area. Power cables cross it above. Cars aren’t visible anywhere, moving or parked. People neither. Fallen leaves stack along the curb. The concrete sidewalk has inlayed grass carpets but not a single tree planted. Front lawns without fences provide the houses a setback from the street. In one of them, a Victorian-style lamp pole stands next to the edge of the property. The detached houses are all different from each other. In size and shape. Some are simpler. A ground floor only, front or side gabled roofs and white-painted clapboard wall-covering. Others have upper floors and attics, overhang hipped roofs, dorms, mansards, front porches, sun rooms and bay windows; brick walls and chimneys. It is said that the oldest house in Allentown dates back to 1770. It was built by James Allen, son of Allentown founder William Allen. A double-storey house, side gabled roof, brick double chimney at each gable end. Three dormer-windows for the garret, a wooden detailed cornice. The entire house is stone cladded. Millwork of the window frames and porch is painted white. From 1867 to 1905 served as home of Muhlenberg College. A Liberal Arts college named after Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the German Lutheran missionary sent to North America upon request by Pennsylvania colonists. He founded his own church in Trappe, PA. A two-storey house built between 1743-1745 with local redstone, a Dutch gambrel roof, a stone-clad enclosed porch and wrought-iron weathervanes. During the years of the Revolutionary War was used as field hospital for the Continental Army. 


(a peculiar territory)
By Pedro Duarte Bento, 2021


'Território Singular'
104 pages, text and 55 color and black-and-white pictures
Softcover, 10.6x8.2 in / 27x21 cm
Pedro Duarte Bento, 2021

Around the middle of the 20th century, Lisbon started to suffer from what became known as the problem of dwelling. Thousands of people flocked to it from rural and undeveloped areas of the country. As the city became saturated, the outskirts were the only option that the largest percentage of these newcomers could afford to live in. Vast strips of land in Lisbon's neighbor municipalities, previously of semi-rural identity, became rapidly transformed in dense urban residential zones along with industrial sectors. This phenomenon, common to multiple European cities at different times in history, created a peculiar territory in the Portuguese case. Without the proper basic planning during the initial decades, the urban growth of these peripheries was organic, informal and chaotic, — a stark contrast from their contemporary, more controlled and planned areas of the city. The disorderly results reflect an inexistent strategy regarding hierarchy and scale of buildings and streets. Furthermore, the problem of a complex topographic condition was never solved. Initially, it was within this unregulated (sometimes clandestine) urban context that most of the houses were built. Although supported by some flimsy traditional standards, the inputs of new forms of construction techniques and the use of equally new industrial, inexpensive available materials prevailed —the broad use of mixed colors from leftover paint and the makeshift arrangements are still visible. Away from the former rural routines, new ways of living prevailed too; and culture changed. This originated a particular, hybrid atmosphere of mixed references —in the mannerisms, buildings and uses of land. Nowadays, most of the areas lost some of the societal strength of the original communities, once characterized by groups of relatives and fellow migrants from the countryside. This “palimpsest territory” is a collateral damage of a rapid, unexpected mass migration occurred (or initiated) more than fifty years ago. The different parishes along it, from poorer neighborhoods to middle class clusters, were a surrogate of the origin of its dwellers, adapted as much as possible to a new metropolitan suburban life. I’m documenting it here at two different levels of scale and interest: from the general morphology of the landscape to the detailed individualization processes. Territory and domesticity.




(work in progress)
Pedro Duarte Bento

'Painted Landscapes'
Text and black-and-white pictures
Softcover, 11.4x8.2 in / 29x21 cm
Pedro Duarte Bento

― "I'd like to think that when I take a picture and finally have it printed before me, it's not its end but rather a beginning for new interpretations and appropriations. 'Painted Landscapes' is a decade-long work-in-progress following that idea. I've been using a mix of landscape imagery from my own photography archive (but also from old art books) to use them as a basis for a performative intervention exploring a different medium: black paint. Bringing in this haptic action gives me the opportunity to hide, reduce or highlight something in a very intuitive way. Most of the times that something eventually becomes something else." 

By Pedro Duarte Bento, 2021


'Four Works 2019'
80 pages, text and color and black-and-white pictures
Softcover, 11.4x8.2 in / 29x21 cm
Pedro Duarte Bento, 2021