Vanguardista Amid Proles

Vanguardista Amid Proles

The rediscovered work of a photographer who angered Franco

From 1958 to 1961, Joan Colom surreptitiously photographed the lively social sphere of Barcelona’s red light district, known as the Raval. Colom exhibited this series to great acclaim at a gallery in Barcelona as well as throughout Spain. Then in 1964, he made the fateful decision to publish it in book form, collaborating with novelist Camilo Jose Cela.

“Izas, Rabizas Y Colipoterras” flaunted a theatrical, black humor infused with Goya-esque wisdom about matters of the flesh. Its charged images were accompanied by a provocative, idiomatic text written in Catalonian dialect. The dictatorial Franco regime took such offense to the book that Colom stopped photographing, possibly in fear for his life.

Fortunately, Franco was too late to suppress “Izas” entirely. Publisher Editorial Lumen had registered it in Spain’s Depósito Legal, the equivalent of the U.S. Library of Congress. Colom’s work was rediscovered around 2003 and is currently enjoying a revival in Europe.

Colom himself is alive and well today at the age of 84. Catalonian scholar Josep Maria Casademont perceives Colom’s project in the Raval as part of a new creative trend that arose during the years just after World War II, one that combined aspects of photojournalism and documentary photography.

The selection of Colom’s vintage prints currently on view at Laurence Miller Gallery is limited but delectable. Featuring grain as thick as gunpowder, his scenes of street life and nightlife in the Raval can be raucous or breathlessly still. In one image, a woman emerges from the darkness, glancing off to the side at something, someone. As she touches her fingertips to the languorously curved neckline of her top, two bright lights glow under her arms and cinch her waist. She minces forward in a tight skirt and pumps, confident and beautiful. An observant professional, she may have been playing to the man directly in front of her, who was not quite hiding a camera. Indeed, they were both working. Colom’s fantasy about the inner life of this person is as much the subject of the photograph as the enigmatic figure herself.

Taking the profane as a route to the sublime, the shifting positions that Colom navigated as photographer, voyeur, and participant were echoed in Cela’s text. With fine sardonic humor, Cela muses about life in the Raval, making rich use of various literary genres and voices. There is a host, or barker, who mimics women chanting to prospective clients from their brothel doorways; a philosopher, who speaks about the safety of the void, where dead men enjoy a great sense of security.

Cela conjures several other characters, including a grammatician who toils over precise terms for women who fornicate for pleasure, for gain, or both. A concluding section envisions a witch gliding over the rooftops on a broomstick, laughing herself to death; she has something in common with the enlightened few who understand the true meaning of the scene below. And those people, the narrator adds, like the devil, are “cultured indeed.”

In the U.S., Colom’s work may bring to mind innovators of street photography such as Walker Evans and Robert Frank. However, Colom’s intense involvement in the drama of the Raval and his affection for its people give his work a special piquancy. He was not a neutral observer, and the Raval was no ordinary public environment. Thinking along these lines, some historians have compared Colom’s images of Barcelona to Brassai’s 1930s photographs of Paris nightlife. Both artists portray psychic states of arousal, negotiations of sex in public places, and urban veterans of so-called alternative lifestyles.

At the same time, Colom was a contemporary of Diane Arbus and Peter Hujar, whose work took a similar interest in the social underground of a much later era. The issues Colom raises are multifaceted and relevant today; Colom, his work, and his daring book remain a fascinating testament to the lasting power of Catalan’s cultural independence as well.

The author would like to thank Ivan Gaete for his interpretation of Catalonian text found in “Izas, Rabizas, Y Colipoterras.”