Shooting from the knee

Joan Colom photographed the seedier side of Barcelona

A photograph taken in Barcelona's Raval district by Joan Colom in around 1960.
A photograph taken in Barcelona's Raval district by Joan Colom in around 1960.

Photographer Joan Colom (1921-) liked to go everywhere unnoticed. For years he walked the streets of Raval, one of Barcelona's dodgiest neighborhoods, among the prostitutes and their clients, with his camera below his knee so as not to draw the attention of the people he photographed. He did it in the 1950s and 60s, in the middle of the Franco era, and he did it again in the 1990s, when the city was in the grip of Olympic fever.

Colom ended up collecting around 9,000 photographs, 7,300 negatives mounted on transparencies and 300 contact sheets. It could have been many more, because once he had selected the best negative he threw the rest of the roll in the trash. In 2012 he handed all of it over to the Catalonia National Art Museum (MNAC), which is now paying tribute with the show I work the street. Joan Colom, photographs 1957-2010.

Featuring over 500 works, it surveys the now 92-year-old's entire output, leaving it clear how one of the least-known photographers of the so-called Nueva Vanguardia movement came to be considered an artist capable of renewing the photographic language of Spain in the second half of the 1950s, above all with "the spontaneity of his portraits," according to the show's curators Jorge Ribalta and David Balsells.

Kicking off with his first images from 1957, it continues with his famous and iconic series La calle (The street), from 1958 onwards, which can be seen in its entirety. Its stars are elegant prostitutes, dressed in above-the-knee pencil skirts, stilettos, stitched sweaters and cardigans, all to emphasize their pronounced curves. There, too, are the sailors, criminals and the first tourists, not to mention the police and the passers-by on La Rambla and the adjacent streets.

Colom's final work, carried out following 30 years of inactivity after one of the prostitutes he photographed, Eloísa Sánchez, recognized herself on one of his images and reported him, makes up three-quarters of the archive. The characters are the same, but now they are in color. "I didn't know that I was doing social photography," Colom has said on several occasions. "I was looking for images that excited me, though I wasn't always sure of having got them until I developed the negatives. I, like the prostitutes, worked the street."

Yo hago la calle. Joan Colom, fotografías 1957-2012 . Until May 25 at Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional, Parc de Montjuïc, Barcelona. www.mnac.cat

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