Washington is well worth a photo

By Miguel Albero

The great Robert Walser wrote, surely after one of his famous walks, that nature does not go abroad. Neither does Washington —it’s still there; it hasn’t even applied for a passport. And foreigners, unlike Americans, don’t come to visit it either, or at least not as much as they visit its cousin, New York, which has given rise to so many images that there is an inevitable sense of déjà vu when you eventually see it, even for the first time. This is not the case with Washington: although we do indeed have images of its monuments fixed in our mind, this is not true of its streets and neighborhoods. It is thus a pleasantly surprising city to visit, let alone live in and become a part of.

And we have brought to Washington five Spanish photographers —Juan Baraja, Paula Anta, Jesús Madriñán, Rosell Meseguer and Nicolás Combarro— who have two things in common but are different in almost every other respect. First, they have all previously received grants from the Spanish Royal Academy in Rome. The Tempietto de Bramante within it (encrusted in a cloister like a meteorite that had to be preserved by enclosing it) finally links up with the Capitol, for which it served as a model. This recognition is one common element, then, and it is not fortuitous, because we’ve chosen five former grant holders to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Academy, Spain’s most prominent overseas cultural institution, and because we knew that it would provide candidates with a proven track record. Second, these photographers belong to the same generation — a generation that has already proved outstanding, with a significant body of work to its credit, and therefore ideally placed to participate in the program of the Cultural Office of the Spanish Embassy in Washington to present Spanish creative artists in the USA. And that is where the commonality ends, because, as a perusal of the following pages will reveal, these five creators differ in their ways of looking at the world, and also in their techniques and even their formats. However, although they use their cameras for different ends, they are all fully aware that the very act of taking a photo involves making moral decisions.

DC.es is the fruit of their visit: five Spanish photographers’ views of this city with so much symbolic weight yet so much life, so many monuments yet so much nature, and with so much diversity, so many people from elsewhere, just like the photographers themselves. They were given clear instructions: a stay of ten days, ten photos, total freedom (obviously), and an exhibition and this book at the end. An indispensable local partner was the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design, a legendary institution that now forms part of George Washington University. Its students took portraits of our photographers, and its classrooms played host to talks and workshops they gave.

After providing this incomparable picture-postcard setting, selecting the photographers, and establishing a framework for the project —keeping this in the forefront on the 150th anniversary of the Academia in Rome, during Spain’s presidency of the EU, as well as offering a gift to Washington, D.C.— the result is what you are holding in your hands: different ways of looking at the city from five highly talented and resourceful Spanish creators. These views could not be more distinct, but at the same time they couldn’t be more Washingtonian. A creator sees a commission as a stimulus, as an invitation to steer their obsessions and perspectives in a particular direction, and as an incentive to concentrate their talent on one subject.

Florida Avenue is the project undertaken by Juan Baraja, who was the first to arrive in D.C. “There is another world but it is this one” is a declaration attributed to Paul Eluard, as well as a slogan for a perfume ad. “There are other Americas but they’re on Florida Avenue,” observes Juan Baraja with this fantastic series, this project that is both multifaceted and single-minded, both diverse and compact. His journey down Florida Avenue seems like an exploration of the entire country, a classic road trip, as if, just as Walt Whitman contained multitudes, the avenue holds within it the nuances and frontiers of this country that is really a continent. A country which, as we can see in some of the photos, is still under construction, which embraces the urban and the rural, the elegant and the sleazy, the commercial and the residential. Antonio Muñoz Molina calls Juan Baraja the “photographer of the right angle” and says that his work recalls Diane Arbus’s statement: “There are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” Here, he applies that right angle to a street that is diagonal and also curved, winding in and out so that, on a stroll through D.C., you come across it when you least expect to. And when Juan Baraja pays attention, when he casts his gaze on something, that something stands still and is ennobled, frozen and exalted.

Paula Anta focuses on roots in Uproot, a project that delves into uprooting in its narrowest sense and branches out, with all her characteristic elegance and subtlety, into another two tributaries: Thermal and Hoist. These (literally) submerge into the Potomac, that typically Washingtonian river on which airplanes sometimes land in the absence of a runway. Anta’s work has a magical quality, with those thermal blankets that embrace nature as if to shelter it from all evil. Nature is almost always Paula Anta’s starting point — nature that asks us questions and, above all, speaks to us about ourselves; nature that is almost as present as asphalt in Washington, probably the capital city most well- endowed with nature, where woods stand in for parks. As Sérgio Mah has observed with respect to Paula Anta, “her photographic output can be understood as a wide-raging inquiry into the possibilities of appropriating, tracing, and transfiguring aspects of nature through visions and gestures that expose the perceptive and symbolic dynamics that we repeatedly unleash in the face of the materials inherent in the natural.” And, in this inquiry, Paula Anta has given us a splendid but also critical exercise in style, a Washington that exists but would remain undiscovered if it were not for her.

Jesús Madriñán is a photographer of yesterday and tomorrow —yesterday because he uses a plate camera and negatives (somebody once called him the “blindfold photographer”), and tomorrow because his photographs have a timeless, classical quality, perhaps because, as he himself has stated, “my work is halfway between documentary photography and staged photography, because the lighting technique that I use belongs to the world of the studio, the world of the classical studio portrait.” Like most of his work, Washington Store, his wonderful series for DC.es, explores identity, focusing in this case on the LGBTIQA+ collective. As always, it is imbued with a spirit of adventure, starting with a call via social media to meet in a warehouse (with good reason). The resulting group of people were photographed both individually and collectively, in portraits that interrogate the viewer, but their questions transmit serenity and nobility, tenderness and curiosity, because, ultimately, Madriñan’s gaze is characterized by these elements: infinite curiosity, a classical viewpoint that distils serenity and nobility, and an inevitable tenderness that grants his subjects a life of their own.

Architecture has always been a source of inspiration for Nicolás Combarro. According to Santiago Olmo, “he must be considered an artist who uses photography, who acts in visual terms and thinks in photographic ones.” His vision of a city like Washington, laden with symbolism linked to power, homes in on things that are hidden and go unnoticed at first sight. In an era intent on reviewing the past, art serves to formulate these questions and, in this case, reflect on representation. Nicolás Combarro does this by pointing his lens at places unaccustomed to such attention — the rear of the statues and monuments that inhabit this city replete with statues and monuments. By looking at them from behind (the title of his series, Background, could hardly be more appropriate), he delves into the history of not only the figures they represent but also the very monuments themselves, in a critical but stylish manner. As Combarro explains, “this project seeks to question and learn, always in positive terms, based on different forms of representation or their absence, which is another important issue to tackle.” The rear view may have a physical presence in photographs but it is really, more than anything else, conceptual. When the architect Doménech i Montaner was asked why he devoted as much care to the back of the Palau de la Música in Barcelona as the front, he replied: “God sees it.” Here, Combarro focuses his attention on the rear of these monuments, directing our gaze away from the figure being represented on to other things, on to their origins and their raison d’être.

The last to arrive was Rosell Meseguer, complete with her chemical equipment, brimming with enthusiasm, to offer us her City of Power. City of trees, a project which, as the subtitle explains, proposes an herbarium for Washington. Because, as mentioned above, this city symbolizing power is also a city of trees, conceived as such by its founders. Rosell Meseguer uses photography as an instrument, and her work is redolent of the approach of an entomologist in its passion for discovering, classifying, and condensing. And, from her highly impressive dictionary Quadra Minerale to her recipe book Luna Cornata, she has approached, with all the ambition of a scientist, the task of grasping something and then endowing it with a magical yet tangible aura —in this case, the local flora. She studied them beforehand, collected samples when she arrived, and finally turned them into a splendid series of pieces involving techniques as varied as cyanotypes, analog photography, and sketchbooks. As Francisco Carpio perceptively points out, “unlike other artists, Rosell does not confine herself to casting a pure, strictly documentary and testimonial gaze on emulsified photographic paper but also tries to reflect a more subjective emotional temperature, more marked by man’s visible or invisible traces.” The traces here are taken from the plant kingdom, providing another way of appreciating Washington, of comprehending it, one could say, more comprehensively.

The body of work presented herein is indeed very diverse, and indeed very Washingtonian, a gift from our creators to this city, and to all of us as well. We wanted to include in this book a text on contemporary Spanish photography, in which these five photographers are inevitably immersed, not because they represent it but because they have inevitably contributed to its configuration. María Santoyo has risen with aplomb to the almost impossible task of sketching this subject in only a few pages, and her text can undoubtedly serve as a guide for any newcomer to our photography and as a welcome polaroid reflecting something that is still alive and, therefore, constantly changing. Free and enthusiastic is, moreover, a wonderful title, and a very apposite description of the five photographers in this project, and her enthusiasm in taking on our proposal deserves nothing but thanks and praise. The fact that the result has been published as a book rather than a catalog reflects the desire to bring our creators to a wider audience, and the involvement of a publishing house with the prestige and international outreach of La Fábrica undoubtedly enables us to fulfill this desire. And at this point it is appropriate to thank somebody who is no longer with us, Alberto Anaut, whose stature as a marvelous project administrator will only grow with time, and whose absence leaves all of us who collaborated with him as orphans. May this book serve as an everlasting memorial to him.

Like all the projects undertaken by this office, this has been a collective undertaking in which everybody has contributed their experience, and of course their enthusiasm, patience, and even wisdom. Apart from the civil servant who penned this article, Paula Sánchez Lahoz, Ana Fernández Quiñones, and Anna Sant Vall are also responsible for this collective work. We hope that it serves to enable our creators to gain recognition in the United States, because that, and nothing less, is our mission.