Hits and misses. The state of photography in Barcelona

Una exposició a La Virreina. © Vicente Zambrano

Barcelona’s cultural scene cannot be understood without photography. The link stretches way back and has reached the 21st century with renewed vigour. The city can boast of being a major showcase for exhibitions promoted by public and private institutions. The associations are endowed with a remarkable vitality, and the breeding ground of creators is of a very high calibre. But consolidating the sector is still a challenge.

The situation of photography is far from being normalised, agree the agents driving it forward, mobilised since the seventies to assert specific cultural policies for this discipline. There was a sheer feeling of abandonment until almost the late 1990s. The passing of the National Photography Plan in 2014 may be considered to herald the first major sign of the shift in consciousness and a first attempt to straighten out and strengthen civil initiatives, which were badly hit by the crisis of 2008. But the crowning project to tackle the deep-rooted shortcomings does not yet have a clear horizon: the museum, centre or house of Catalan photography.

As much as today’s Barcelona – heir to a longstanding tradition – boasts photographic strength, the body of local photographers is extremely fragile and scrapes by in precarious circumstances. There is a large billboard of exhibitions, especially with demand for internationally-acclaimed artists that attract huge audiences, but it conceals the harsh professional reality of many local authors, both new talent and long-established artists. The bleakest photo was the one portraying Manel Armengol, the photographer behind the creation of our visual imaginary of the Transition to Democracy, evicted from his flat in the Eixample neighbourhood with his entire photo archive. That happened in 2016 and it is a clear indication that we are practically starting from scratch.

The challenges are manifold and largely widespread in a world of crisis and transformation. The new technological paradigm and the digital revolution have disrupted conventional photography practices and have opened up another dimension of thinking around photography in which Barcelona has experts with a great deal to say. And they want to have their say, if the city is able to make a more resolute commitment to research, reflection and debate.

We talk about the lights and shadows, and the hits and misses of the state of photography in Catalonia, with this polyphony of voices.

Retrat de Pepe Font de Mora © César Ordóñez Pepe Font de Mora © César Ordóñez

Pepe Font de Mora. Director of the Fundación Foto Colectania   

Foto Colectania (established in 2002) is edging towards its twentieth anniversary and the fifth anniversary of the move to its home on Passeig Picasso (there since 2017), a location that has allowed it to be a more ambitious space. “We are a private entity, but our vocation is a very public one: we want to be of use to society,” asserts Pepe Font de Mora. And he adds that, in these times of visual saturation, “we need keys to challenge the image, which in the new digital age has taken on more complexity. We have to build a critical mind around the image”. “A 21st-century photography centre cannot be limited to executing exhibitions. At Foto Colectania we have invested in a programme of reflection and education, both for specialist and non-specialist audiences, to whom we wish to be more accessible, especially young people.” Font de Mora is “enthusiastic” about tackling the challenges, but at the same time concerned over the “dreadfully devalued” professional world of photography. “These are hard times and the future is uncertain. When you see that even long-standing, recognised figures have to move heaven and earth to get ahead, you can’t help but be pessimistic. The only thing that saves you is to think that, like so many other areas of culture, we are resilient,” he highlights.

Retrat de Marta Dahó © Maya Goded Marta Dahó © Maya Goded

Marta Dahó. Exhibition curator 

Marta Dahó advocates “rethinking the models of action” in order to be able to deal with the accumulated shortcomings, which have left a mark “on the authors, whose survival is tremendously fragile; in photography collections that are at risk of being lost; and in institutions, whose resources are running out”. The challenges call for “new ways of doing things” in which precedence must be given to “the interrelation and collaborative spirit with the network of associations, imperative in the present context and immediate future of major transformations and crises, characterised by social, cultural and economic woes”. For this exhibition curator, the idea of photography as a strict means of production must be overcome and it must be understood as “a tool for becoming familiar with the image”. “Photography is a much broader culture that has unfortunately been neglected. And we have a serious problem: the absence of regulated studies in Spain, hence the major lack of research. Opportunities and grants for research must be awarded.” Dahó puts debate and reflection at the heart of photographic culture, eschewing the platitudes of dominant and simplistic thinking. “For example, there is a lot of talk about the excess of images, but not about learning how to read and interpret what is made invisible.”

Retrat de Nadia Arroyo © David Campos Nadia Arroyo © David Campos

Nadia Arroyo. Director of the culture department at the Fundación Mapfre 

Barcelona’s photographic circuit has grown in what has been a complicated year with the opening of the Fundación Mapfre’s KBr centre. “Barcelona has a vast photography tradition, in terms of authors, collections, institutions... When we opened our Barcelona seat in 2015, at the Casa Garriga Nogués, we lent it preferential treatment in the programming because we sensed the possibilities. Once confirmed, we made the leap with a project entirely dedicated to photography,” Nadia Arroyo points out.

The new facility, located in a modest but welcoming building attached to the insurance company’s tower in Vila Olímpica aims to blend in with the local scene. “Our frame of mind is to network, to work together.” Thus, in parallel with the major international exhibitions held by the classic and contemporary points of reference, the KBr has several working strategies with this policy extended to the Barcelona and Catalan context. “On the one hand, we will disseminate archives in a series of exhibitions that promise to reveal hidden treasures. On the other hand, we will invite experts from the city to undertake their curatorial interpretation of the Fundación Mapfre’s photography collection. And the auditorium will also be a platform for collaboration with various initiatives,” explains Arroyo. The centre opened in October 2020, overcoming the many obstacles that the coronavirus crisis has posed to cultural activity. “It was a risky venture. But we are really surprised by the positive reception we are having.”

Retrat de Sílvia Omedes © Imma Cortés Sílvia Omedes © Imma Cortés

Sílvia Omedes. Director of the Photographic Social Vision Foundation

“Barcelona is privileged to have private initiatives that highlight the importance of photography”, underlines Sílvia Omedes, at the helm of Photographic Social Vision, a foundation that next year will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its commitment to documentary photography. Omedes defends the synergies between the public and private spheres as the way to strengthen the sector and avoid eternal dead ends. “We are in need of more critical support. We have great ideas and talent coming out of our ears, but they are not known here or elsewhere.” As for international exposure, she thinks there is a need “to start from scratch. Our authors are not represented in major collections“. There are ideas and talent, but an audience too: “There is a palpable interest in photography and it bring all kinds of audiences together.”

“We have the tool to give impetus to the world of photography: the National Photography Plan. We need to celebrate the census that has been carried out of the archives and the new purchasing policy, which includes living authors. But there are pending issues, such as the promotion of private collecting: photography is not yet fully understood as an artistic heritage.“ And, of course, the future museum. “Paris, Amsterdam, New York, but also little Arles, have one. Barcelona mustn’t give up.“

Retrat de Jordi Guillumet © Mònica Rosselló Jordi Guillumet © Mònica Rosselló

Jordi Guillumet. Photographer

The sale of the archive of Agustí Centelles to the Ministry of Culture in 2009 set the alarm bells ringing and marked a turning point in the neglect of photographic heritage. Five years later, the Generalitat Government of Catalonia passed the National Photography Plan, which set out the demands the sector had been pursuing for decades. “We have fought hard to have this roadmap, but we lack funding for its implementation,” claims Jordi Guillumet, one of the members of the plan’s promotion committee. Very slowly, work has been carried out. “The procurement programme is significant, endorsed by a committee of independent experts, which has increased public photography collections over the past five years.”

The next step must be to refloat the plan for the centre, attached to the MNAC, he advocates. “It is an enduring idea, one that we already called for at the Catalan Photography Conference in 1980. We need a space to foster and give impetus to dissemination, training and research and to centralise the documentation that is now scattered. All too often we are in awe of foreign authors, who have a system that drives them, and we do not value our talent, which is outstanding but enjoys no support to develop and thrive.”

Retrat de Pepe Serra © Juanma Ramos Pepe Serra © Juanma Ramos

Pepe Serra. Director of the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) 

“Catalan photography is undoubtedly at the forefront of the international arena. Our institutions safeguard exceptionally rich collections, but we haven’t lent them enough visibility because we have a dearth of public space,“ claims Pepe Serra. The creation of the photography department at the country’s leading art museum in 1996 marked a crucial step in beginning to remedy this longstanding undervaluation, considering that the world’s major museums have been appreciating the artistic value of photography for decades. The delay aside, the path that has been progressively carved out from scratch has not at all been easy, as it has been undermined by economic obstacles and a lack of sensitivity to build a representative collection.

Serra took over the management of the MNAC in 2011 with a new focus on photography in both the permanent and temporary exhibitions. He has also strengthened affinities with activist voices in the sector and has become involved in one of his long-established aspirations, torpedoed time and again by a lack of political will: the National Photography Centre. “The idea is to allocate this much-needed project a space of between 800 and 1,000 square metres in the Victòria Eugènia pavilion at the Fira de Montjuïc exhibition centre (the great hope for the museum’s future expansion, now postponed by the pandemic crisis). The structure of the MNAC will put itself at its disposal, without interfering with the contents, governed by a commissioner. We don’t want to control it but to house it and respect its autonomy,“ Serra points out.

Retrat de Albert Gusi ©Míriam Casanovas Albert Gusi ©Míriam Casanovas

Albert Gusi. Photographer. Director of the Grisart International School of Photography and the Panoràmic Festival 

A large number of photography schools have recently opened in Barcelona. “There has indeed been a boom. Barcelona attracts foreign students, on account of the city itself and because the quality of education, both public and private, is very high”, underlines Albert Gusi. The vitality of the photography scene is “a treasure” that must be safeguarded, he declares. “It’s an ecosystem that feeds back into itself. Schools as well as specialised publishing houses and festivals have flourished. And the billboard of exhibitions is very complete: in a kilometre and a half, from the Palau Robert to Foto Colectania, with La Pedrera, the CCCB, La Virreina and Arts Santa Mònica, and many more spaces in between, exquisite proposals are being programmed”.

For this multifaceted creator, there is still a leap to be made, and he believes that the very body of photographers should do it. “We need to be more porous, to emerge from our endogamous world and cross-breed with other creative disciplines. We have a very powerful global tool and we must harness it, forming an alliance with new languages​”. He does not see the need for our own specific centre: “In fact, there already is one, La Virreina. What we need is to believe in it and further strengthen what we already have, with greater coordination, for instance”.

Retrat de Núria Aidelman © A Bao A Qu Núria Aidelman © A Bao A Qu

Núria Aidelman. Co-director of the A Bao A Qu association 

Artistic creation and teaching have turned their back on each other for too long. Recent municipal policies have shattered this strange and extremely detrimental separation, and this has opened up opportunities for grassroots entities to work on their interdependence. This has constituted the commitment of A Bao A Qu since its outset in 2004. And since 2012 it has been promoting the specific Photography in Progress programme that it is executing in both schools and cultural institutions. “Photography is a transformative tool that offers ways to relate to the world and to oneself”, upholds Núria Aidelman. Children, young people and the population at large immediately connect with this educational proposal that extends beyond mere entertainment because it is considered “a life experience”. Initially, they learn to see photographs at a “leisurely” pace, contrary to the one imposed by the bulimic condition of today’s image world. And they also learn to take photographs without being held hostage by clichés and stereotypes. “They connect with their environment through photography. And, in this process of discovery, they encounter a Barcelona they had never seen before. They have a greater appreciation for it and this is the first step to foster their commitment to photography and to the instigation of change,” explains Aidelman.

Retrat de Valentín Roma © Josep Losada Valentín Roma © Josep Losada

Valentín Roma. Director of the Virreina Centre de la Imatge 

La Virreina has become a key location on the map of Barcelona’s photography. “Although we are an image centre in a broadened sense that encompasses all kinds of media (cinema, painting, literature, etc.), photography is the lynchpin of our programming”, Valentín Roma points out. For the last four years, Roma has given the institution on La Rambla a boost much celebrated by the sector and by a diverse audience that even in these times of pandemic lockdown is enthusiastically following its exhibitions.

Roma, like his predecessor Carles Guerra, has paved the way for rewriting a history of photography that had gone unnoticed. “The driving force behind everything we do is research”, and this nurtures different lines of projects: “The review of historiographical moments (movements, groups, etc.), the recovery of figures missing from the canon, the photographic representations of subordinate classes, the anthologies of central photographers of urban documentation....” Soon to be added to this multiplicity of interests that, Roma insists, are located on the margins of the hegemonic accounts of photography, is an editorial collection dedicated to authors whose work has already been exhibited or will be in La Virreina. Roma does not consider his work at La Virreina to be a substitute for the hypothetical National Photography Centre. “I came here with my own plan and we still have lots of projects to execute”, he concludes.

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