Review of PHotoEspaña 2014, Madrid

Review of PHotoEspaña 2014, Madrid

What has, for the last 16 years, been an ambitious programme of photography exhibitions throughout Madrid has shifted course. Diverging from its tradition of engaging one international curator to organize different thematic programming as was the case for the last three years, this year PHotoEspaña’s “Official” programme presents exclusively Spanish photography, organised “in house” with participating venues. This creative strategy was, at least in part, a response to the challenge that all arts organisations are facing, and particularly in austerity-challenged Spain, with significant declines in private and public funding. The silver lining, is that for the first time Spanish photography, from the medium’s earliest days to the present, is finally receiving full attention.

Almost all of photography’s historical periods are covered across the different exhibits. The Biblioteca Nacional de España draws from its own collection of early photographic materials, such as daguerreotypes, and albumen prints. Elsewhere, Spanish photographers show both alignment with, and unique interpretations of, historical trends, such as Pictorialism, Naturalism, and the modernist approaches that developed elsewhere throughout the 19th and 20th century.

Joan Vilatoba’s tonally rich carbon prints show sensitive attention to light. But his overwrought, melodramatic allegorical scenes suggest an earlier Romanticism, hardly coinciding with radical approaches occurring elsewhere at the time. On the other hand, Espacio Fundación Telefónica’s extensive display of prints from Antoni Arissa’s oeuvre, introduces an artist who stands on his own amongst his contemporaries. The Barcelona-based photographer’s soft, atmospheric and idealized agrarian scenes, are his own interpretations of Pictorialist trends. It’s easy to track the modernist transition in his more urban, industrial subjects and avant-garde tropes; his radical and geometric perspectives are Spanish evocations of Alexander Rodchenko and André Kertész.

Particular attention is awarded to Spanish photographers engaged in the post war black and white documentary tradition. Among these is La Palangana, a Madrid collective of 10 photographers who, in the early 1960s, laid the ground for later Spanish Neorealism. Their forays into village life outside of Spain’s urban centres illustrate the rich cultural diversity of what Madrid calls “Spain”.

A real discovery is the photomontage artist, Josef Renau. The exiled communist under Franco’s rule turned a searing eye, not on the Nazi regime as did his precursor, John Heartfield, but on a subsequent emerging superpower – the USA. Renau’s prescient critiques, so familiar today, are all there: his incisive colour montages slam militarism, racism, cold war imperialism, sexist commercialism, and that government’s alliance with corporate power.

The heart of PHotoEspaña is usually found at Circulo del Belles Arts, and remains so this year. Best in show is Joan Fontcuberta’s Fotografía 2.0. Pulling together some of the most interesting Spanish photographic artists working today, Fontcuberta makes serious investigation into our much discussed, but little understood, digital revolution – the contradictions inherent in our new visual landscape, via iPhone and Google. The works move away from the idealising claims for the internet as a democratic force, and instead show its troubling underside, as a new facility for surveillance and social control. Many of the artists use these new digital forms, “post-photographically”, to critique dialectically these problems.

Darius Koehli’s Jail and Mugshots (2013) critiques the Arizona prison officials who posted mug shots and webcam footage of suspected criminals in custody on the internet as a strategy for the deterrence of crime. A video collage of the mug shots, organized by offence – theft, drug offences, etc., is presented here alongside a collage of webcam images of arrested individuals in holding cells. The video overlays the disturbed faces in quick succession, creating a Galton-esque composite of distress. The problem, explicit here and elsewhere in the exhibition, is that, despite the critical value of such works, they perpetuate the imbalances of power between those who make, look at and are subjects of photographs.

A similar dilemma is expressed by Reinaldo Loureiro who accessed photographic images of illegal African immigrants found by border police at Melilla. Overlaying a large colour photograph of a man found hiding inside car panels, a monitor screen flips through images of other unfortunates captured by camera, guards and gallery viewers alike (Farhana, 2010, ongoing).

Humans are not alone in our subjection to image capture – this anthropocene age gives visual access to the natural world as well. Saddening is Albert Gusi’s post-photography collection of 33 digital colour images taken by a camera designed to track the bear population that was reintroduced into the Spanish Pyrenees. The rejected images, since no bears elected to participate, show the startled expressions and flash-obliterated eyes of what might otherwise have been considered “wild” animals, such as deer and hares, ensnared in an omniverous camera gaze (Intruders, 2014).

An intelligent turning of surveillance cameras on the invisibly powerful is Daniel Mayrit’s piece, You Haven’t Seen Their Faces (2014). Made in response to the London police’s solicitation of the public for help in identifying individuals captured by surveillance cameras during the 2011 riots, one hundred headshots of London’s most powerful (responsible for the very crisis that triggered the riot) were manipulated to appear as low quality surveillance imagery.

Part of the fun of the PHotoEspaña experience is locating its venues around Madrid, such as the developing cultural center, Matadore. Sara Ramos ‘s installation, Penumbra (2014), playfully returns us to the primary precepts and processes of photography – the construction (literally) of visual illusion.

In addition, contributing to the total 109 PHotoEspana exhibitions other categories, such as Festival Off and OpenPHoto, that engaged private galleries and public institutions both in and outside of Madrid. Mondo Galeria presented an impressive selection from Man Ray’s oeuvre that included many of his most well-known pieces and Elba Benitez’ gallery provided a rare opportunity to experience a recent video and photography installation by Chantal Ackerman, Maniac Shadows (2013). Outside of Madrid, and again, to mention only a few, Philip Lorca di Corcia’s work was shown in Alcobendas and Pierre Gonnord’s exhibition in Almeria included his powerful portraits of Sevillian gypsies.

During these difficult times in Spanish history, in economic, nationalist and imagistic terms, PHotoEspaña is to be credited with keeping vital conversations alive.

PHotoEspaña, Madrid, 2014, until 27 July (13 exhibitions continue throughout August and September).

Jill Glessing

1. Antoni Arissa, Perchero y sombrero, 1930-1936. Archivo Arissa, Fundación Telefónica.