Free and enthusiastic
By María Santoyo
Mapping an overview of contemporary Spanish photography seemed a daunting task right from the start. Merely looking at the terms of the proposal aroused well-founded doubts. What do we mean by photography? When does contemporaneity begin? And, finally, can a body of creative work have sufficient idiosyncrasy to be circumscribed to a specific geopolitical territory (in this case, Spain)?
Strictly speaking, as an art historian I could have admitted the powerlessness of my discipline against prevailing preconceptions and established the start of the contemporary era as the dawn of photography itself, in the second third of the nineteenth century. But, obviously, synthesizing the complete history of 185 years of Spanish photography in a brief article would only make my task even more onerous and pretentious (another doubt: are we talking about photography made in Spain, or photography created by my compatriots both within and beyond its geographical limits, regardless of their place of residence?).
This book presents recent projects produced by five acclaimed photographers —two women and three men— in the capital of the United States. They were all born in Spain between 1976 and 1984, at the height of the democratic transition after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco. They are now aged between forty and fifty, considered to be in “mid-career”: they have established themselves, their work is seen and recognized, even on the international stage, but they are still inhibited by the continued vitality of the previous generation, and the priority afforded it by institutions. They are creators from my own age group —the generation of enthusiasm (we’ll come back to that).
On this basis, I could narrow my proposal down to a significant political and social time frame: I could attempt a photographic overview of the first generation born in democracy. This framework is important, especially for those readers with the good fortune to live in countries whose democracy has not been infringed over the course of time. It also highlights the ontological link between this political system and the medium of photography, whose official birth was marked by the presentation of the daguerreotype in the French Chamber of Deputies on July 3, 1839, and, subsequently, on August 19 in the Academy of Science in Paris by the republican politician (and mathematician, physicist, and astronomer) François Aragó. In his speech presenting the new invention, the following sentence stands out: “The artist is sure to find valuable assistance in the new procedure, and art itself will be democratized thanks to the daguerreotype.”
Aragó’s interest in nationalizing an invention such as Louis Daguerre’s —which, for the first time, successfully fixed an image captured by a camera obscura on a durable support— went well beyond purely technical concerns. François Aragó was a staunch defender of the dissemination of scientific knowledge as a pre-condition for the establishment of a free, representative, and egalitarian state. French republicanism stood on the platform of public instruction and education for the masses. Aragó was also heavily influenced by the writings of the socialist theorist Henri de Saint-Simon, who advocated state intervention in industrial policy, and the ideas of Henry Brougham, a leading figure in the British liberal movement and founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, devoted to the publication of books for the working class that would forestall violent protest. Based on these principles in keeping with the progressive thinking of the times, Aragó recognized the potential of a machine capable of disseminating images. Accordingly, he sought to pass the ownership of the daguerreotype to the French people (in return for a life annuity for Daguerre), in order to democratize art — in other words, to offer an accessible means to disseminate knowledge and representation to classes that had been previously unrepresented or had lacked the resources or training for their own self-representation. In short, photography was born as the first artistic mass medium, on account of its technical capacities, its obvious commercial potential, and its ideological fit with the tenets of enlightened republicanism.
Few histories of photography closely examine this crucial aspect when they deal with the origins of the medium, which are generally described in vague terms from an exclusively technical standpoint, with barely a mention of the political and cultural context in which photography developed and was propagated, in both France and England. Particularly worthy of note in this respect is the research of Jorge Ribalta, who defines photography as “an art of public affairs” that satisfies the “need to represent the anonymous disenfranchised citizenry, the demos, in the era of mass communication.” Rebecca Mutell and Martí Llorens, for their part, have also taken on the enormous challenge of translating and critically reviewing the primary sources associated with the birth of photography, allowing us to better understand the indissoluble relationship between the photographic act and democratic culture, as well as the intrinsic relationship between photography and popular culture (another matter that we shall return to later on). For all these reasons, it seemed appropriate to establish a framework that would bring together Spain’s first democratic generation and history’s first democratic art.
The next step toward being able to provide a brief text with an overview that can anyway only be subjective and fragmentary (just like photography itself ) was to turn to my own theoretical reference points, and the breakthroughs they constituted: recent exhibitions and publications that have tackled the same subject with a rigor and depth to which we are indebted. Carmelo Vega’s manual, Fotografía en España (1839–2015). Historia, tendencias, estéticas, has proved an indispensable source for me. In it, Vega mentions two exhibitions from the late 1980s which, “from a global perspective, shook off historical ties with the fifties and sixties to situate the start of contemporary photography in the early 1970s”: the show curated by Joan Fontcuberta for the Musée Cantini in Marseille in 1988, entitled Création photographique en Espagne, 1968–1988. De Nueva Lente à Photo Vision, and the exhibition presented in 1991 in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, under the curatorship of Manuel Santos, Cuatro direcciones. Fotografía contemporánea española. 1970–1990.
We must also mention an anthology that established new references and focused for the first time on the generation that concerns us here: the book 100 fotógrafos españoles, edited by Rosa Olivares and published by Exit Publications in 2005. It featured many of the figures born between 1975 and 1989 that now hold the torch for Spanish photography: Rubén Acosta, Paula Anta, Juan Baraja, Mikel Bastida, Ángel de la Rubia, Cristina de Middel, Jorge Fuembuena, Julio Galeote, Paula Cortázar, José Guerrero, Ali Hannon, Anna Huix, Jesús Madriñán, Juan Carlos Martínez, Ignacio Navas, Vanessa Pastor, Aleix Plademunt, Alberto Salván, Miguel Ángel Tornero, and Antonio M. Xoubanova.
In 2014, the 16th PHotoESPAÑA festival devoted to Spanish photography not only coincided with another essential book, the Diccionario de fotógrafos españoles co- published by La Fábrica and Acción Cultural Española and edited by Oliva María Rubio, but also threw the spotlight on other key creators from the democratic generation not listed above: Julián Barón, Ricardo Cases, Jon Cazenave, Nicolás Combarro, Iñaki Domingo, Alberto Feijoo, Olmo González, Érika Goyarrola, Roger Guaus, Albert Gusi, Roc Herms, David Hornillos, Alejandro Marote, Rosell Meseguer, Óscar Monzón, Noelia Pérez, Tanit Plana, Ixone Sádaba, Txema Salvans, Carlos Sanva, Jon Uriarte, Juan Valbuena, and Fosi Vegue.
The year 2015 also witnessed important overviews such as the book Contemporáneos. Treinta fotógrafos de hoy, again published by La Fábrica, but I would particularly like to dwell on an even more recent project that I consider a landmark: the work undertaken by the researcher, teacher, and critic Jesús Micó under the banner of [Un cierto panorama] — reciente fotografía de autor en España.
This exhibition (and its accompanying catalog), presented in the Sala Canal de Isabel II in Madrid in 2017, reflected Micó’s wide-ranging knowledge of contemporary work, acquired in the hard slog of photography schools and the inevitable juries and viewings that have become veritable promotional platforms for contemporary creators. These platforms were complemented, above all, by one of the most significant exhibition-publishing initiatives for emerging photographers currently in existence, promoted by the Universidad de Cádiz and run by Jesús Micó since 2007: the Cuadernos de La Kursala. Micó himself has explained the reasoning behind this project: “I decided to steer La Kursala toward the impulse of promising new auteurs, auteurs whose program was, in my opinion, much more stimulating and fresh (as well as necessary) than that of renowned auteurs, as this type of young photography seemed to be fairly neglected by ‘the system’ (…) Our strategy of extra-local promotion could only succeed through publications. If the people in the central nucleus of power in contemporary Spanish art were not going to visit our gallery (and the same is true of a large audience), then it was up to us to travel regularly toward them, every two months, by putting in their hands (humbly but insistently) some very personal volumes in the form of photobooks that would break with the traditional concept (and function) of an exhibition catalog. Our collection, Los Cuadernos de la Kursala, would be our only passport into the current Spanish art system, to reach an advanced audience.” And he was right. Many of the Cuadernos became collectors’ items and went on to form part of the archives of the Centro de Documentación in the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía.
Micó presented many of the photographers that came to light through the Cuadernos in his [Un cierto panorama] and provided a much more balanced selection in terms of gender. Although I have not brought up this issue so far, it is one of the thorniest in the recent politics of photography. Many female creators of my generation who have been producing excellent work for at least two decades have been sidelined and denied the same attention from cultural institutions and industries as their male colleagues. I will therefore list the women’s names that appeared in the roll call: Bego Antón, Patricia Bofill, Irene Cruz, María José García Piaggio, Elisa González Miralles, Mara León, Mar Martín, Marta Martínez Corada, María Moldes, Bernardita Morello, Antonia Moreno, Miren Pastor, and Mar Sáez.
The above lists do not pretend to be exhaustive as, obviously, dozens of outstanding auteurs from the current scene are missing. They even lack names of artists whom I admire and are close to me personally — I know they will be able to forgive me. It simply seemed useful to me to highlight some recent curatorial work and publishing projects that have promoted and made visible the creation of the democratic generation under discussion, in order to demonstrate its extraordinary diversity and richness.
We still haven’t inquired about the distinguishing features of this generation —if indeed there are any. In fact, it is barely possible to discern any formal, conceptual, or esthetic trends that definitively bind together its representatives, but there are certain common identitary traits that we can try to understand in their educational, economic, and systemic context. Those of us who were born in the Spain of the late seventies and eighties, in the Spain that was going to be unrecognizable to even “the mother who gave birth to it” —in the euphoric words of Alfonso Guerra when the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) won the general elections for the first time— are united by one essential circumstance: we had free access to higher education, and we could climb the social ladder constructed by the efforts of our parents (although we have later become the first generation to live worse than our progenitors in financial terms). Those of us who entered the faculties of Art History, Fine Arts, Audiovisual Communications, and other humanistic subjects were set apart by the fact that we probably did so under the (maybe condescending) auspices of our parents, prompted by the cultural stimulus they had given us — albeit with the forewarning: “Wouldn’t you prefer to study something useful?… Law, Architecture, Business?”
We are the generation that, in a favorable economic climate that seemed to guarantee access to qualified employment via a university, opted for something useless. The privilege of devoting years of training to a vocation —even in a field as complex as the cultural sector— was decisive. This all-out vocationalism defined our endeavors, but it proved to be a double-edged sword. It ended up crystalizing into the enthusiasm pinpointed with unmatched lucidity by Remedios Zafra in her essay El entusiasmo: Precariedad y trabajo creativo en la era digital. These creators started to penetrate the artistic system at an early stage in their careers and found opportunities of some substance —only to be hit by the Spanish economic crisis of 2008–2014, which drastically reduced the financial value of their work. This systemic impoverishment was further aggravated by the fact that none of our generation’s creators or movers and shakers in the art world stopped working, despite the plummeting levels of funding and investment and the absence of any legal framework for patronage. They resorted to ever more precarious models of self-financing, and in many cases they even worked for nothing to avoid losing opportunities or visibility.
In the case of photographers, the economic crisis was compounded by another deep crisis within the very profession of photography itself, which was threatened with extinction as a result of its digital transformation. When the photographers of the democratic generation began their training, they were working in analog: there were still dark rooms, color labs, press and photo agencies, publishers, magazines and newspapers that published photos and photostories, and even photography studios on the street that offered customers a face-to-face service. There were also galleries with clients who were collectors with a certain degree of solvency that enabled photographers to sell their works with a certain frequency and thus earn money from their creative output.
During their training process, however, these photographers had to adapt to digital technology and thus developed something of a transference relationship with the new medium (in the sense that many of them adapted traditional analogical notions such as light, shade, composition, etc. to a technology obviously capable of transcending them; others maintained their analogical praxis but still had to learn how to digitize negatives and use tools for digital postproduction and printing).
By the time they finished their training, everything had changed: no dark rooms, no labs, no studios on the street, no agencies, no magazines, barely any collectors (generally young professionals whose own purchasing power had been undermined by the crisis), and barely any work, not even in the sector disparagingly dismissed as BBC (Bodas [weddings], Bautizos [baptisms], Comuniones [communions]), which had also succumbed to the accessibility of digital photography.
This may seem all doom and gloom but now comes the positive side of the double-edged sword of our enthusiasm: the adaptability and entrepreneurial capacities that enabled us, against all the odds, to continue nurturing Spain’s cultural life and continue representing, right up to today, a vision crucial to any understanding of the country, both within and beyond its borders. And enabled us to even continue making a living from it, somehow or other, although I would say just to continue living, period. We are a hugely creative, connected, and dynamic generation. The work shown in this book and the names listed above demonstrate all the recalcitrance of the cultural act. The culture generation is unstoppable and inescapable, it will always be fundamental and it will always spring up, just as Nature sprung up in the cracks between paving stones during the pandemic.
What were the democratic generation’s weapons of resistance against the dissolution of the previous professional structures? There were three, in my opinion: collectivization, internationalization, and narrative reconversion.
In the first instance, I mean not only collectives and cooperatives — the private photography schools, publishing houses, and self-managed festivals that emerged in the early years of the twenty-first century — but also the creation of a veritable cultural network of alliances, influences, and references that exploded with the so-called “phenomenon of the Spanish photobook.” Cristina de Middel recalls: “In the end, all those group outings to festivals were bearing fruit, and for a few years it almost became a tradition that there would be Spanish work among the finalists in Paris and New York. The British Journal of Photography, the oldest photography magazine in the world, even went as far as calling us ‘The Invincible Armada’. I don’t know whether that was to wish us luck from England or to use an amusing name that stirred up good memories for them. Ever since then, the presence of Spanish photographers and analysts in magazines of reference have become commonplace.”
This phenomenon, driven by major figures such as the aforementioned Jesús Micó, as well as Horacio Fernández, an internationally recognized historian of photobooks, and independent publishers of our generation such as Juan Valbuena (Phree) and Sonia Berger (Dalpine), can also be explained by two more prosaic matters. Given the lack of job prospects faced by the newly graduated members of my generation, the possibilities for financing their creative projects were whittled down to two paths: competitions (national and international, public and private) for prizes, subsidies, grants, and support for the production, dissemination, or promotion of their projects; and self-financing (very common in the publishing of photobooks). However, the self- part has almost never referred to one person’s pocket: crowdfunding has been one of the star turns of the last few years. In other words, the network has itself ensured the existence of a creative scene by drawing on its own flexibility and imagination to obtain the necessary financial backing. Well before the boom in start-ups, creators and cultural intermediaries became digital entrepreneurs, with pretty good results, all things considered.
Internationalization is another phenomenon essential to any understanding of the creative outreach of this generation of enthusiasts. This book is itself proof of that. Those of us who were born after 1975 are the cohort of the Erasmus program (and Fulbright scholarships when things went really well), of Interrail and cheap flights that allowed us to travel to the cultural epicenters of our era: fairs, festivals, international meetings, etc. But we are also, above all, the cohort of online browsing (especially when the crisis was at its height —not to mention the pandemic) in search of references, opportunities, and the big wide world. Contemporary Spanish creation has ceased to be quintessentially Spanish by offering less exoticized narratives that cross borders.
And it is precisely through narrative that Spanish photographers have succeeded in contributing lasting, relevant and significant work, despite turning their backs on the big subjects tackled by previous generations, and despite dodging the decisive moment. They have all turned their gaze on the poetry of the everyday, the close at hand, from a deeply humanistic viewpoint, even when no human beings appear in their photos. Spanish photography has moved on from the phase of the Great Photo (a single image seeking to provoke an immediate impact or shock) to the story, the project, the sequence, the visual narrative. Among them, these auteurs have created, via a free, integrated, and unprejudiced subjectivity, a veritable neo-documentary (ergo, fictional) repository that speaks about us, about them, about things that matter.
There are four great narrative pivots of visual creation (of artistic creation in general, I would venture to say): the self, the other, space, and time. The self embraces topics such as identity, gender, transmutation, spirituality, positioning. The other refers to matters such as bonding, systems, power, denunciation, and absence. Space alludes to territory, frontiers, structures, landscape, atmosphere… And time leads us to the representation of memory, legacies, evolution, history, and the future. Projects usually combine several of these concerns, without covering all of them, but they always appeal to what we need to tell and what they tell us to give us meaning, beyond individuality.
To finish off my rendering of a profile that unites this first democratic generation of Spanish photography, I must also turn to the popular culture in which we have grown up, as it has had an influence that is not always admitted but is always relevant in art, particularly visual art, which is always indebted to the collective imagination of its context. It is difficult to define in a few words, but perhaps I can point to the boom on digital platforms in nostalgic content related to our childhood and youth, because, whether we like it or not, we are also the generation of television…
From La bola de cristal to Northern Exposure; from MTV videoclips to the death of Kurt Cobain; from the films of Spielberg, Scott, Scorsese, Coppola, Bertolucci, Almodóvar, and Lynch to the first blogs and social networks like Myspace and Flickr; from top models to the first series with queer content; from the ‘82 World Cup to Iniesta’s goal; from the Olympic Games in Barcelona and the Expo in Seville in 1992 to the bursting of the housing bubble; from El Bulli to Masterchef, from the terror of ETA to the attacks of March 11, 2004; from Locomía to Rosalía… Who are we? What images represent us? What does Spain mean? What is photography at this moment in time? Our generation provides as many answers as it does auteurs. It is worth losing yourself in it.