The exhibition Camera and City. Urban Life in Photography and Film at the CaixaForum Barcelona brings together 244 pieces by 80 artists, mainly photographs but also films, made between 1910 and 2010.
They were selected by Florian Ebner, Head of the Department of Photography at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, from this museum’s splendid collection, and the exhibition has been complemented by numerous pieces by Catalan creators, selected by Marta Dahó. Together they form a kind of visual essay or reflection through still and moving images, photographic and cinematographic or videographic.
In this major exhibition, the city is seen as a changing stage with actors, citizens who made or make history, or who endured or endure it. This is a reflection of historical, sociological, anthropological-cultural, urbanistic and also artistic and aesthetic scope. It covers one hundred years of urban life, marked by the diverse and even opposed utopias of capitalist and communist modernity, and by their historical results, often disappointing, sometimes dystopian, the consequence of reactions, deviations, degenerations and betrayals. That period – characterised by rapid construction, destruction and transformation – is observed and portrayed through photography and film, two mediums of documentary and visual expression that can be considered the most significant and intimate of the twentieth century and our time.
Only a collection like the Pompidou’s could be used to mount such an ambitious project. As for the result, visitors to this exhibition can choose to see the glass half full or half empty. I see it full of splendid photographs, significant, suggestive, well-connected and more than interesting images necessary for understanding the present and past. Those very familiar with the Centre Pompidou’s photography collection could rightly criticise the absence of many notable works, but this possible criticism makes no sense if we bear in mind that Camera and City is only the first of two photographic exhibitions planned by the Centre Pompidou and CaixaForum. Its marked focus on the socio-political is because this initiative will soon be complemented by another major exhibition focused on the adventure of experimentation with photographic and cinematographic languages. Ethics and aesthetics are complementary, and it would be wonderful for that second exhibition to explore the specificities, analogies and differences of these two mediums in depth. The still image and the moving image can become a complementary whole.
Camera and City is divided into ten sections that are both conceptual and chronological, preceded by an introductory section comprising three works that set the general tone: a film by Paul Strand and Charles Sheele about the booming New York of 1921 contrasts with a poor blind woman in that same and unequal era portrayed by Strand and with a much later dilapidated and spectral urban landscape, photographed by Martí Llorens in pre-Olympic Barcelona (1987).
“The Vertical City” is the first section, characterised by images that show the pride in construction and technology and faith in modernity, electricity and engineering. The Eiffel Tower is the European emblem, a kind of monument to modern ambition, in photos by André Kertész (1925) or Germaine Krull (c. 1930). The section “The City’s New Actors: From the Curious to the Proletarian” includes Soviet versions of modern utopia: near the Odessa steps revisited by Alexandr Rodchenko in 1930 – which almost resembles a still from the dreamlike The Angel (1982), by Patrick Bokanowski –, a propaganda film made by Mikhail Kaufman (Dziga Vertov’s brother) is screened, where the revolution appears like spring after a past presented as a long cold winter. In 1929 there were already clear indications – those military parades! – of the future mass extermination of dissidents, but the film is as virtuous, and superficial, as those by the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
“The Militant City: Spain in the 1930s” is the most Spanish and most Catalan section. It notably includes photos by Pérez de Rozas, above all Collecting for the Victims of Fascism (1936), featuring some hopeful women and with shining attitudes that remind me of a beautiful text by María Zambrano about the proclamation of the Republic in Spain. Or also the backlit Collecting Mattresses for the Refugees, as well as photos of the struggle in the street, by Agustí Centelles.
In “The Humanist and Existential City” there are pictures of reconciliation with life after the war. For example, the party in the city outskirts photographed by Doisneau in Twenty Years of Josette (1945), Edouard Boubat’s landscape First Snow. Jardin du Luxembourg (1955), Izis’ fire-eater (1957) or the cinematographic wonder in colour Broadway by Light (1948), by William Klein. There are counterpoints like the sequence of photos from an album by Joan Colom, featuring a much in demand prostitute with rampant breasts, or the film by the same artist, shot in the Raval neighbourhood, then known as “barrio chino”.
A photo by Diane Arbus, Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962, is one of the most powerful and representative in the section “The Critical City”. This is followed by “The Rebellious City”, with photographs from the 1960s and 1970s, many of them by photojournalists from the Magnum agency founded in 1947. Notable are Gilles Caron’s photos of the street fights in May 68 in Paris and those by Manel Armengol in Barcelona, where we can see that the anti-democratic and anti-Catalan nationalist truncheons of 1976 closely resemble the supposedly democratic Spanish truncheons of 2017-2019.
In the last four sections the level of this splendid exhibition descends, probably because here the adventure of modernity is often replaced by the shams of postmodernity and by the aesthetic of the indiscriminate archive. Looking at the selection in the section “Staging the City” one might think that photography is a medium that adapts to fiction far less effectively than cinema. But perhaps this would not be so evident if this exhibition had included certain photographs by Sophie Calle or Andreas Gursky, for example.
“The Horizontal City” shows the reverse of the construction boom: the city outskirts, the open ground, the demolition. It includes Martí Llorens’ outstanding triptych Final Demolition of a Railway Building on Avinguda d’Icària, 6-8, 1989. This piece is part of the growing and little-known National Photography Collection, and personally I’m very happy to find it here, as I suggested its acquisition when I was consultant on this collection, between 2015 and 2017.
In the section “The Reflective City” I notice an absence: the film In the City (1976-1977), a collective reflection in the form of a suite of shorts, comprising many of the main Catalan and Spanish conceptual artists and experimental filmmakers of those years (Eugeni Bonet, Eugènia Balcells, Eulàlia Grau, Miralda, Francesc Torres and Iván Zulueta, among others). In “The Global and Virtual City” I also hanker after more powerful pieces, such as something by Harun Farocki. And the second half of the exhibition would have been better if it had included other more creative tones, for example a section on the lived city or the subjective cities, where there would have been room for photographers like Saul Leiter, Manel Esclusa or Humberto Rivas, among others. In contrast, there are other notable absences in this exhibition that are fully justified. The two major film benchmarks about the city that are Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927), by Walther Ruttmann, and Man with a Movie Camera (1929), by Dziga Vertov, are not there because they were considered already familiar works. And it is also true that cinema was not conceived to been seen standing in a big exhibition, and less so a feature film.
In any case, Camera and City is a recommendable and bold exhibition in its conception, distinguished by its will to go beyond the usual approaches of the “street photography” genre. However, a good imaginative and specifically international photographic selection of this genre could also be very rewarding.
The exhibition Camera and City. Urban Life in Photography and Film will be on show at the CaixaForum Barcelona until 8 March 2020.