As often happens with good books and films, the exhibition by Gabriel Cualladó at the Catalunya La Pedrera Foundation stays with you for some time after your visit.

Gabriel Cualladó (1925-2003), an essential figure in the evolution of Spanish photography in the second part of the twentieth century but little seen in Barcelona until now, said that he wanted to show what was not perceptible. The joy of discovering what is invisible in his hypnotic images that stays with is that sensation that something has escaped behind the gaze of a portrait model or an urban or rural landscape.

Gabriel Cualladó, Autoretrat amb samarreta. Madrid, 1958 © Hereus de Gabriel Cualladó.

Only great artists manage to make their works exude such intense mystery. Cualladó, who always described himself as an amateur photographer to allow himself creative freedom (and also the fact that he made his living from a transport company, which is far from artistic) never directly manipulates the scenes, which are always very close to his personal surroundings, but almost acts as if he were painting a blank canvas, but using photography.

Gabriel Cualladó, Enterrament. Pont de Toledo, Madrid, 1957 © Hereus de Gabriel Cualladó.

It is not that Cualladó has anything pictorialist about him. Not at all. But this Valencian photographer, working intensively in the laboratory, redesigns the scene and uses hard lighting to give the works the feel of a Baroque painting in black and white. Fragments of complete darkness and light, especially in the upper part of the image, are a kind of emblem in the work  of Cualladó, but also his unconventional framings, especially in some series like the streets of Paris which he undertook as a commission by the French Tourist Boards alongside eleven other Spanish photographers. The images contain passers-by fragmented or displaces on one side. In his urban images, whether Madrid or Barcelona, the worn pavements and walls which the portrait models walk along or lean against seem infinite. In photographs such as the image of a municipal police officer Guàrdia urbà (1957), the sky occupies almost three quarters of the image, while a figure on a distant rooftop appears to dominate the scene in a kind of surrealist landscape.

Gabriel Cualladó, Cambrer al casament d’en Penella. Madrid, 1966 © Hereus de Gabriel Cualladó.

And then there is the strength of the gazes of the people who sat for portraits by Cualladó! Shy, surprised, or simply unaware. Or the portrait of the little Maria José on the day of her first communion, with her head resting on a small table, either through tiredness or excitement. Sometimes, however, your attention is drawn to a crushed gladioli which has ended up next to the bride during her wedding ceremony. Cualladó is a master of capturing the beauty of melancholy.

As the curator of the exhibition, Antonio Tabernero, rightly says, Cualladó’s work is more about who looks at it than who makes it. It is completely ours.

The exhibition Essential Cualladó can be visited at La Pedrera, in Barcelona, until 30 June.