The girl strangles the boy with her bare hands and stares into the camera. Her murderous eyes penetrate right through the photographer as her victim’s tongue hangs out of the side of his mouth. All framed by the darkness and shadows of the forest.
This could be a still from one of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s films. A sparkling German expressionist, a symphony of horror with the angst-ridden face of Nosferatu about to come into the frame of the image. And yet, it is a photograph taken by my granny when she was a 14-year old girl and had just received a Vest Pocket Kodak for her Saint’s Day. It was the lightest camera on the market and the favourite of the allied soldiers during that summer of 1917 in the trenches.
Her name was Anita Figueras. She was born and died in Sabadell (1903-1985). During her teenage years she would use this camera and an aesthetic intuition surprising in someone so young to capture images from the bourgeois world that surrounded her: swimming in the sea at Biarritz, flights in a light aircraft over Alicante or motor racing at the Terramar racetrack near Sitges. But not only that. With the cooperation of her young friends she would also capture the disconcerting side of existence: delirious images combined with dark and absurd humour – also surprising in someone so young.
This first murder we can call Where in hell will I find you? Because it is the photographic negative of the mythical image Where in heaven will I find you? that the pictorialist photographer Joan Vilatobà had taken ten years previously. Vilatobà was a close friend of the young girl’s father, a splendid painter.
In another photograph (she chose the scene and the position of the camera) it is my granny who kills another girl with an imaginary knife and a look of extreme pleasure. And then there is the scene where she allows herself to be pushed by two boys over the edge of a waterfall – height imagined. Or when she captures herself holding the camera in front of the darkness of a mirror. Or when she makes a portrait of a friend on the beach – I think it was Joan Oliver – with a peg in his hair: possibly the first punk photograph in history.
And in another photograph, this time stereoscopic, she describes the pain of modernity: somebody run over by a motor car. When you look at the image in three dimensions, the victim looks about to be decapitated by the tyre of the car.
These photographs are prior and contemporary to the first years of the ‘Colla de Sabadell’ group which, with unknowing Dadaism, turned absurd, dark and corrosive humour into an essential capital of twentieth century Catalan literature. My granny ended up photographing Joan Oliver and his brothers in unnatural positions: lined up with their backs to the camera carrying brooms and watering cans or messing around on the beach.
The Sabadell bourgeoisie practiced black humor in privacy.
The guide tells us that between the First World War and the Civil War, the ‘Colla’ used this humour against the conservative and self-complacent city of Sabadell. But like any reductionist view of class, that is not quite how it was. The only thing they did was to make a public and sublime show of that dark, absurd and corrosive humour, so typical of Sabadell, which all the residents, whether factory owners or workers, consumed in private. The humour that the city practiced and that my granny photographed: racing car wheels crushing necks, pre-punk hairstyles and painful strangulations.
The most dark and ironic of all is that nowadays this great stamp of the city has also been strangled by its own inhabitants.