Valentín Roma has been the director of La Virreina Centre de la Imatge since October 2016. Since then, the centre has ceased to be a space dedicated mainly to photography. His proposal to interpret the “image” from a broader point of view was criticised in the media and caused a certain malaise among photographers who saw his decision as a threat to one of the few exhibition spaces in the city in favour of other cultural sectors. “Creative” photography in Catalonia (1973-1982) must have pacified those featuring in the exhibition and who are actually more or less the same cultural activists that have been photographic militants for over forty years.
The exhibition includes more than five hundred photographs by Manel Armengol, Lluís Bover, Lluís Casals, Toni Catany, Enric de Santos, Manel Esclusa, Maria Espeus, Jordi Esteva, Joan Fontcuberta, Pere Formiguera, Ferran Freixa, Jordi Garcia, Juan José Gómez Molina, Jordi Guillumet, Tony Keeler, Manolo Laguillo, Bigas Luna, Eduard Olivella, Marta Povo, Pep Rigol, Humberto Rivas, Miquel Sala, America Sánchez, Jordi Sarrà, Marta Sentís, Manuel Serra and Manel Úbeda accompanied by more than three hundred documents selected by Cristina Zelich and Pep Rigol, who are, respectively, the curator and collaborator of the exhibition. This show places us in the ten-year period of the so-called “creative” Catalan photography, which ran from the opening of the Spectrum gallery – the first in Spain to specialise in photography – which opened in 1973 to the first Primavera Fotogràfica in 1982.
This exhibition in the Virreina has as its reference the show entitled Centre Internacional de Fotografia de Barcelona (1978-1983) which took place at the MACBA in 2012 and was curated by Jorge Ribalta and Cristina Zelich. That exhibition highlighted the importance of the Centre Internacional de Fotografia de Barcelona (CIFB) and Spectrum gallery for the history of photographic culture in the 1970s and early 80s.
The exhibition La fotografia “creativa” a Catalunya (1973-1982) is structured chronologically and presented in different fields. At the beginning, as one of the main strands is the magazine Nueva Lente, published in Madrid from 1971, and how its influence on the photographers of the time contributed to a new photographic discourse. Spectrum gallery – a pioneering space in Barcelona, opened in 1973 by Albert Guspi, the Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia at the Joan Miró Foundation in 1980 and the first Primavera Fotogràfica a Barcelona in the spring of 1982 also form part of the introduction to the exhibition.
Throughout the visit there are other areas distributed in sixteen rooms. The biggest is the “Galleries and spaces dedicated to photography” which occupies eight of the rooms and especially highlights Spectrum, Aixelà, Fotomania, Forvm and educational centres such as the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya (IEFC) founded by Miquel Galmes in 1972 and the Centre Internacional de la Fotografia de Barcelona (CIFB) directed by Albert Guspi from 1978 to 1983. Three other rooms are dedicated to “Artistic spaces and photography” and include the Joan Miró Foundation, Eude gallery and the Sala Vinçon, among others. And finally, the rest of the rooms, showing “Les Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia de 1980 i el Col·lectiu Català de Fotografia”, “La Primavera Fotogràfica de 1982”, and “La difusió de la fotografia creativa catalana”.
Under the clear influence of the events of May 1968 in France, a few years later, toward the end of the Spanish dictatorship, a new generation of photographers emerged reclaiming photography as an art in its own right and demanding its inclusion in museums and public art centres, as well as in the educational curriculum, private galleries, reviews and the publishing circuit.
At that time, Catalan photographers were looking to Europe and, in particular, to France. Our neighbour was experiencing everything that had to do with world culture. For example Les Rencontres internationales de la photographie in Arles, a festival established in 1970 by the photographer Lucien Clergue, writer Michel Tournier and historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette and held every summer in that beautiful Provençal town. The proximity to France meant that many of the Catalan photographers were able to attend the event, giving them contacts and exchanges with galleries and specialist foreign magazines. The young artists could also meet some of the international photographers such as Robert Doisneau, André Kertész, Franco Fontana, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Hockney and Lucien Clergue, himself.
The magazine Nueva Lente opposed pictorialism and the neorealist photography which was current in photographic circles, in a move to leave aside the more documentary angle of photography to open doors to experimentation and creative freedom. The magazine launched a special edition in August 1974 under the title “Fifth Generation”. The idea was to show the work of the young photographers who had been born at the beginning of the 1950s, and that gave rise to the Fifth Generation who wanted to change everything and internationalise their photographic work.
Meanwhile in France Beaumont Newhall, a photographic historian wrote in his book 50 ans d’historie de la photographie, number 3 of the collection “Les Cahiers de la photographie” published in Paris in 1981: “It gives me great satisfaction to see that in these last few years there has been unprecedented interest in the history of photography as an art form. After years of indifference the museums are actively bringing together in the present photographic collections, publishers are launching one special edition after another on photographers who until now have been virtually unknown, the art market is offering artistic photographs for sale and there are more exhibitions than we have ever seen”. Here, up until the nineties the panorama for photography was grim. Joan Fontcuberta commented on it in the Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia, in the catalogue for the exhibition La fotografia “creativa” a Catalunya (1973-1982) saying: “The Congress of Catalan Culture lamentably overlooked photography, neglecting its role as a cultural fact, as the shaper of the conscience and sensitivity of man (sic) in our time”.
At that time the public institutions paid no attention to photography, whether from a technical, artistic or socio-historical perspective. There were a few isolated initiatives which tried to structure and organise the incipient history of photography, but that was all. Significant examples are the works published by Josep Maria Casademont, “La fotografia”, in L’Art Català Contemporani d’Edicions Proa (1972) and “Per a una història de la fotografia a Catalunya”, in issue 27 of Qüestions d’art: la revista catalana d’art actual editat per Galeria AS (1973). Josep Maria Casademont, the editor of magazines Imagen y Sonido and Eikonos, ran the Sala Aixelà from 1958 to 1974. This exhibition space, which set itself apart from amateur photography groups, was situated in the shopping centre of the same name close to Plaça Catalunya and became one of the principle means of diffusing photographic production in the 1960s. Although it was not linked to the new photographic movement it did exhibit and promote the work of some of the members of the Fifth Generation.
At the beginning of the 1980s two major works were published which would become a reference for all later studies and publications on photography. The first is the Historia de la Fotografía by Marie Loup Sougez published in 1981, where chapter 9 is dedicated entirely to Spanish photography. The second is the La Historia de la Fotografía en España desde sus orígenes hasta 1900 by American historian Lee Fontanella and published in Spanish by El Viso in 1982.
During the Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia there was strong criticism of the cultural policies of the country and the universities compared with the help and resources afforded to Fontanella for her research into nineteenth century photographic history in Spain. There was even talk of cultural colonialism.
As the exhibition in the Virreina showed, photography in Catalonia had a before and an after the Jornades Catalanes de Fotografia conference held at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona in 1980.
The talks given during the conference were prepared by four teams of people from different areas of photography (photographers, gallery owners, teachers, critics, etc.). The texts were published in a dossier of the same name the following year and their content highlighted the precarious situation of photography in Catalonia and provided a warning to the institutions of the need for an action policy for the recovery, conservation, diffusion and study of the photographic heritage. In one of the talks there was a proposal to create a photography museum in Catalonia which would coordinate a network of photographic archives around the country. In the closing speech, the authorities underlined the salvation of the photographic heritage in announcing the creation of the National archive of Catalonia, which would manage the Photographic Archive.
We then had to wait until 1995 for the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) included photography as part of the cultural heritage of Catalonia. That year a Department of Photography was set up in the Museum with the aim of bringing together a collection that was representative of the history of photography in Catalonia. It would also be another 35 years after the Jornades before the Department of Culture of the Government of Catalonia, the Generalitat, presented the National Plan for Photography in December 2014. The plan established instruments for the protection, preservation and description of Catalan photographic heritage. The plan, which is currently operating, forecasts the creation of a National Photography Centre which will be the space for exhibition and conservation of the National Photography Collection and will depend on the MNAC.
The collective work in the process of artistic legitimation and institutional recognition of photography culminated in 1982 with the Primavera Fotogràfica a Barcelona.
This photography festival was sponsored by the Generalitat and included 35 exhibitions and a number of related activities. The event aimed to recover the photographic memory and to that end included an anthological exhibition of photographs by Pereferrer, Tomàs Monserrat, Pla Janini, Zerkowitz and Merletti, curated by Pep Rigol and Cristina Zelich. In second festival, which was held in 1984, it was recognised as the Primavera Fotogràfica de Catalunya biennale, and after many successful years it came to an unexpected end in 2004.
In La fotografia “creativa” a Catalunya (1973-1982) I would point out that the photographs by “artists” are treated, paradoxically, as documents. In other words, the historiographic weight is very evident in all the photographs and I think that two visits, or different readings, are necessary to fully appreciated this splendid exhibition.
Perhaps the exhibition does not give enough importance to the centres for learning photography, since these have been a huge platform for the diffusion of the new photography, and at the same time they provided economic support for the young photographers that taught in them. Many of them would continue to teach throughout their professional lives, sometimes as a complementary job, but one which permitted and still permits them to continue as photographic artists. The centres of reference are the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya (1972), the Centre Internacional de la Fotografia de Barcelona (1978-1983), IDEP Escola superior d’Imatge i Disseny (1981) and the GrisArt Escola Internacional de Fotografia (1985).
Despite the enormous push the Fifth Generation gave photography many of their initial objectives have not been achieved. You only have to see the tiny numbers of people working with images in the public centres that hold and manage the documents. Subsequent generations of photographers have not taken up the baton and it has not been easy for them either since the “Fifth” acted as a sort of generational lid, as has happened in other fields. The proof is that the photographers of the 1970s continue in the front line when it comes to showing us their own history.
La fotografia “creativa” a Catalunya (1973-1982) has been extended until 14 October 2018. It is accompanied by a catalogue which exhaustively documents the whole period. The publication was presented at the Virreina on 19 September.