In the beginning was the image, and the image was truth. Those were the days! Now there is no truth, only ‘truths’ negotiated between individual self-perception and social archetype, or self-perception of archetype… or something along those lines. Where that leaves the documentary photograph is one of the considerations of an excellent exhibition at Barcelona’s Caixa Forum*.
19* Fotopres gives breathing space to 10 documentary photography projects by mainly Spanish individuals and collectives. All proposals were selected for funding by la Caixa Foundation, which included mentoring by an established photographer from the agency Magnum Photos. The show lasts until October 17th, so if you’re around in September check the agenda for a series of guided tours and talks planned with some of its protagonists (in Spanish/Catalan).
How a professional shot can stand out in the proliferation of photographs taken by amateurs with sophisticated cameras or just smartphones, if such a shot can still make an impact on the viewer, and whether it can then actually improve in some way the lives of its subject matter are all uncertainties that trouble the genre, placing it on the hotplate along with what, back in the 1960s, the theorist Harold Rosenberg famously called ‘anxious objects’. Rosenberg referred generally to art that introspectively and overtly causes you to question its validity as art, its validity as truth.
Hooray for Fotopres! Which, in its two-decade evolution, has increasingly dealt as much with the medium itself as with its relationship with the other arts with the commercial world and with the viewer. What we see here is that the format of the image and its display is related to its subject matter as well as a project’s overall theme. The relationships built between the members of a collective, between photographer(s) and mentor, and between photographer, subject matter and viewer, evoke a sense of shared responsibility both in the making and discovery of meaning in the work as well as in the proposition and taking of action. Three of my personal favourites are:
Aquellos que esperan (Those who wait) is an on-going project by Borja Larrondo, Pablo López Learte and Diego Sánchez, who worked here under the guidance of the British photographer Peter Marlow. Whole chunks of an edgy Madrid barrio – basically a shantytown – called Orcasur have been imported into the show. Imported, yet distorted in a visual entanglement of large maps, small screens, posed photographic portraits, even a bunch of banal food products and a rotating rack of unlikely postcards. Red wool networks across walls and just above head height, as if to make coherence of chaos or, perhaps, to reveal the senselessness of the meanings made it that it forms a kind of web of entrapment, evoking the utter boredom of empty lives. Yet the DIY display is also celebratory, a homage to the Orcasur inhabitants’ skill in creating their own built environment and running their own small society – one plagued by problems, yet that survives nonetheless.
The relationship between individual and society is explored to emotive yet ironic effect in This is Spain, in which seven members of the NoPhoto collective travelled individually to the more touristy areas of Spain to document the effects of the recession in light of concepts such as ‘identity’ and ‘stereotype’ – themselves clichés. Images were uploaded, edited and selected communally online, and have been compiled in a sorry little tourist guide with a battered pink cover. Under the advice of German photographer Thomas Dworzak, NoPhoto displays images in tumbling strips of regional picture postcards that gently subvert the genre through unexpected subject matter: a vicious hound bolts across a scorched landscape in central Spain, a couple of Basque punters stare at their empty glasses in a pub in Euskadi (Basque country), a sports stadium crumbles in an abandoned part of Levante (the region around Valencia). One image from each series has been blown up large and is displayed in a group to collectively and resonantly reveal a nation betrayed yet ever dignified.
The images of Gerardo Custance have a strange detachment and mesmeric quality that exudes way beyond their small format. Under the mentoring of Taiwanese photographer Chien-Chi Chang, in the series Spirale we gaze in frozen fascination into seemingly infinite landscapes, geometrically arranged in circles, squares and lines, in which people sometimes wander or clump in little groups. There’s something Piranesi-like about some of them, as if they are intricate dream sites, yet there’s little comfort in this modern vision, this order and control of nature. Perhaps they point to the incongruity between what we think we desire and how our creations manifest themselves: bland, innocuous, impersonal.
An awakening …
Mine is an unfair choice. The sheer diversity of this show makes it difficult to fully appreciate in one visit. But don’t worry about it! Whatever way you browse something will catch you… Be it the accomplished work of Seville-based collective El Cíclope Mecánico that expose the scattered, complex history of Spain’s relationship with northern Morocco in the project El Frente. Or, should you venture into the dark room, the throbbing, meditative Ama Lur by Jon Cazenave, who travelled in the Pyrenees for six months and here aestheticises photographically the origins of life in his sensual images of rock-formations. Such work pushes the boundaries of what documentary photography is, away from something taught, to something already in us: evoked, like a form of awakening.
Until 17th October 2015
Caixa Forum – Barcelona
*Caixa Forum’s website is sometimes only in Spanish and Catalan – and confusing in all languages. Click here to download this exhibition leaflet in Spanish. Please check with the centre about tours and stuff in English.