Centelles realizes his American dream

New York, the Mecca of photography for the Catalan photojournalist, hosts an exhibition which includes some of his least-known and most harrowing images from Spain's Civil War

There was no time to take cover. The sirens did not go off and on November 2, 1937 the Italian aviation at Franco's service dumped around 13,600 kilograms of explosives over the city of Lleida, in the region of Catalonia. Most of the men were away at the Aragon front, so the bombs dropped mainly on women, children and the elderly. Soon after, at the city cemetery, the photojournalist Agustí Centelles took what were probably the toughest pictures of his entire career, such as the one of a mother kneeling before the corpse of her little boy, surrounded by a line of abandoned bodies. This and 39 other photographs have traveled to the United States for the exhibition Centelles in_edit_¡oh!, which opens Wednesday at New York University (NYU).

The show was organized by the Documentary Center for Historical Memory in Salamanca, an agency of Spain's Culture Ministry, which bought the Centelles archive, made up of 10,000 photographs, for 700,000 euros in 2009. "The New York exhibition was the most important deal we reached in connection with the sale of the archive," says Octavi Centelles, one of the photographer's sons. "To show in New York had been a dream of my father's, because it is the Mecca of photography. [...] He had participated in a collective exhibition in New York, but never had a solo show."

Centelles' sons will also take the opportunity, while in New York, to offer Sotheby's the copies they still keep of their father's work.

The exhibition comes with an exhaustive 324-page catalogue, practically a PhD dissertation on the work of the man who has been called the Spanish Robert Capa, with articles by historians, documentalists and a review of the foreign magazines that published his Civil War work, including Newsweek. The catalogue also includes interviews with the author and excerpts from his diaries: "I wanted to hunt down the story... I rebelled against the tyranny of magnesium, all photographs looking the same... I was looking for something else, to follow the story, like a detective."

That is why Centelles bought a Leica for 900 pesetas in 1934, which he paid for in instalments (back then he was paid 10 cents per published photograph). With this Leica he captured the Civil War and life in the concentration camp of Bram (Aude, France). These latter images are the only existing visual documents of daily life inside a concentration camp, because Centelles was "an intern, not a reporter there on a visit for a documentary," explains the Centelles expert Antón Gasca. "Centelles lived, ate, slept and got sick at the camp." Bram is also, incidentally, where he was visited by Robert Capa in person.

That camp was the end of Centelles' career as a reporter. In January 1950, a Special Tribunal for the Repression of Masonry and Communism sentenced him to 12 years and a day of "minor reclusion" and he was barred from practicing his trade. He was eventually pardoned and only had to show up at the police station once a month until 1956. Although he never worked as a photojournalist again, he hid his best work inside condensed milk cans in a suitcase and spirited them to an attic in Carcassone, where they remained during the entirety of Franco's dictatorship.

"He had in his power graphic information that could have been very useful to the Franco regime during the repression. Centelles could have negotiated, but he didn't," Gasca says. Centelles once explained that he hid the pictures in that attic "so they would not end up in the enemy's hands, so they could not take their revenge, and through each of the people in the photographs, annihilate the last defenders of the Republic and of Catalonia."

"What he never envisioned is that for 33 more years, after Catalonia recovered power as a semi-autonomous region in 1979, he would continue to be ignored by the corresponding authorities," said Gasca.

Thousands of Centelles photographs have never seen the light yet. Only around 400 of 10,000 have been displayed. The photographer's family is convinced that if they had not sold the archive to the Culture Ministry - Catalan authorities are now claiming it back - Centelles' work would not get the exposure it deserves. "If it had stayed in Catalonia," says Octavi, "my father's pictures would never have traveled outside Catalonia."

Left, evacuating the Aragonese front (1937) and a militiaman's farewell (1936).
Left, evacuating the Aragonese front (1937) and a militiaman's farewell (1936).MCU-CDMH-AGUSTÍ CENTELLES

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