They were obstinately self-taught, incorrigible individualists, hunters of anonymous gestures, and masters of light. The Spanish photographers who learned the trade during the tough postwar period, and those who worked in the waning years of the transition to democracy, have a great story to tell, and a trove of classic images.
La voz de la imagen. Historia de los fotógrafos españoles (or, The voice of the image. A history of Spanish photographers) is an oral and visual project that aims to tell the story of photography through the words of its leading figures, and the material put together for it is all available to the public through an online archive at www.lavozdelaimagen.com.
The project is the brainchild of historian and scholar Publio López Mondéjar and filmmaker José Luis López Linares, with support from the Culture Ministry.
López Mondéjar explains it all began eight years ago, when he and his partner sat down with the elderly Virxilio Vieitez inside his home in the Galician village of Soutelo de Montes, and listened to the story of his life. Vieitez's father had died when he was young and he was raised by the women of the house. At 16 he ran away from home and ended up on the Costa Brava, where he discovered photography. He eventually returned to Galicia after learning the trade and making a living taking passport, wedding and baptism photos. "I was a blue-collar worker and a businessman," he tells the camera. "I always worked with my own ideas." The elderly photographer's voluminous archive is now considered one of the jewels in the crown of Spanish documentary photography.
"Vieitez told us something that really made an impression," López Linares explains. "He never took a single picture out of pleasure. It was then that we realized that they were all going to die, that we were going to miss out on their stories, that future generations would be left without this tale of exceptional men. We would also be left without knowing what it was like being in their shoes, how they worked, for whom, what made them do it, how they resolved their technical problems, and what context of freedom or repression they worked in."
La voz de la imagen has been conceived as a free-access website where new material will be added. For now, there are six interviews available, with a further four to be uploaded in the coming weeks. "In all we have around 15," notes López Mondéjar. Each interview is 15 minutes long, with the photographer their sole star.
"We believe that these documentaries are an extremely valuable tool for teaching and disseminating our contemporary culture," reads the website. "We are not only showing the history of Spanish photography to the general public; through the inestimable testimony of the photographers themselves, we are also bringing them close to the social, working, political and economic realities of Spain at the time."
Memories, anecdotes, unwritten laws of a young profession, stories about towns and cities, about Madrid, Barcelona and Paris. The history of Spanish photography is a surprising blend of attraction for time-honored traditions but also for signs of a new era. It was a time when the roads were shared by religious processions and by Fiat 600s, which became a symbol of modernity.
"We were not aware that we were capturing the portrait of an era, we just wanted to take pictures," says Ramón Masats, 82, who admits he hates his famous shot of a priest. One day, he confesses, he just got tired. "I was very happy taking pictures, until one day it was over. I got lazy and lost motivation."
Eugeni Forcano's instinct for the streets is apparent in his moving La mirada insondable (The impenetrable look), and in his photo of a child crying disconsolately at Barcelona's La Monumental. But hearing him speak belies a strange innocence, which contrasts with his sharp mustache. "I took my first photograph with my mother's wooden camera - nobody showed me anything," explains Forcano, sitting in his baroque home filled with dolls and antiques.
Another great documentary photographer, Ricard Terré, who died in 2009, compared his own gestures with those of a matador: "It's like the bullfighter, who does not recreate the bull's movement but takes advantage of it." Terré's most iconic image is of a cross-eyed girl dressed for her First Communion. "I was advised not to show it, but it was never my intention to create a scandal, not even with my toughest pictures. To me that image was full of tenderness."
"Why do we take pictures?" wonders Leopoldo Pomés, a pioneer of a kind of photography filled with beauty and sophistication. "Like García Márquez says, so that we may be loved, so that we may be noticed."
Piedad Isla, one of the few women who worked in this trade at the time, and who has since passed away, explained in her interview that “there were laws prohibiting women from doing many things, but none of them said that a woman could not be a photographer. So I decided to be one.” She became famous in the mountains of Palencia because she was always zooming around on her Vespa scooter, wearing a helmet. “When I showed up at the villages it was almost a party, and there were so few causes for celebration that indeed, it was a party.”