When he died early at the age of 52 in 1986, Pedro Luis Raota was already a celebrated photographer, both in his native Argentina and outside. The “Ansel Adams of Argentina”, he was dubbed, and his photos routinely won awards on international competitions. He cofounded and then served as the first director of The Instituto Superior de Arte Fotográfico and was also controversially a favored photographer of the Argentine military junta which loved his photos which sentimentalized and lionized the country’s working class poor.
Born in Chaco, one of the poorest provinces of Argentina, Raota himself had humble origins making passport pictures in rural areas. His first major success came when he was 32 years old when he won the first Prize in a photographic contest organized by Mundo Hispánico, a magazine in Madrid with his work on lives of the gaucho and their descendants. His lens focused on the dark wrinkles of the gaucho families, marking their hard lives, and unbridled horses of the Pampa Húmeda. (The gaucho — the nomadic horsemen who defined the Argentine and Uruguayan pampas from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century — enjoyed heroic status similar to that of the cowboys in the United States).
Like Adams, Raota was a master of the darkroom; his images are always dramatic, with an exaggerated use of chiaroscuro. His original signed prints, each one hand printed by himself on Chlorobromide paper, are extremely rare and command high prices. It was widely rumored that Raota was engaged by the junta to produce propaganda, but the details were murky. When the Argentine junta collapsed, many people who wished to hide their close relationship with the regime destroyed many junta-era documents, complicating any investigation into the matter.
What was undeniable was that Raota’s photographic books were distributed in many countries though embassies throughout the junta years in a PR campaign. Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales, the national oil company, also used Raota’s photos in its calendars and promotional materials during the junta years. His photos represented a sanitized Argentina, wished and willed by the junta: an Argentina of romance, loyalty and community, depicted in period or regional costumes; a nation and a people untroubled by wars or economic ruination; wholesome, rural, pristine, conservative.
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