It’s odd: when you meet artists, photographers or critics, the conversation rarely turns to art, photography or criticism. It’s as if we’re hesitant to dip our toes into the swamp we wade through every day, sometimes for far too long. And now we have to talk about Spanish photography, about its incomprehensible present, full of shadows, and obviously about a future that won’t be as we’d like, as our past and present are weak and full of shortcomings and hang-ups.
However, I should probably tell you right away that I find it difficult to stick to a script, and even more difficult to separate photos from art, and art from life. And art from the market, and life from the social and economic structure of a country like ours, not because I don’t believe that art or photography (which are pretty much the same thing) aren’t life itself, but because I know that economy, politics and social structure define the possibilities of art and of artists.
Writing instead of talking means you can think more before you speak – or write – and not fall victim to clichés, and allows you to take a good look at a landscape that you only rarely get a comprehensive view of. However, to write about photography in Spain is to speak of something that doesn’t exist, to speak of something that is never talked about enough. How does the song go? “What could have been but never was”, or maybe it did happen and they never told us. We’ve never been able get the complete picture of Spanish photography. Since there are so many gaps, so many absences in this family portrait, it’s worth the effort, before we look forward, to take a look back so we don’t forget anyone, so we can assess those artists who were born before their time, all those artists who never realised they were great artists.
Spanish photography’s problem has nothing to do with photography
I have always believed that Spain is a country of, above all, painters (and even more of writers), which is why photography is such a natural language for our artists: light and dark are the very origin of painting and photography. The narrative, the characters, customs and dreams: everything that defines photography. Spanish photography’s problem has nothing to do with photography. We’ve had good photographers, and continue to have them now, most of them unknown and unseen, others with a higher media profile but less interesting. As we all know, all that glitters is not gold. As Marshall Berman puts it in All that is solid melts into air, “We men have a great admiration for that which rises quickly, but we forget that what rises the quickest is dust, feathers and trash”.
Photography’s great problem is the same problem all of us have here every day: our country is less developed than our neighbours, poorer in every regard. We came out of the world wars with a fascist government. We lost and, together with Portugal, ours is a European country that developed under fascism. And this has been the deciding factor in our upbringing and our social and cultural structure. And, of course, in the social and economic. In how we ourselves are today. Our photography has developed along the same lines as everything else. There’s been no market, publications or collecting. Photographers have had to take photographs as a hobby, in their free time, or for the press, a true breeding ground for talent that has mostly gone to waste. Our photographers are businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, engineers and so on, who have delved into the dazzling darkness of photography in their spare time.
Spain still has no special publications dedicated to its artists, and I’m not talking here of those few well-known names who are everywhere, but of those many, many who deserve it and who may also never have had a serious, important exhibition. But the time for a “revival” or rediscovery of photographers, forgotten or not, of the photojournalists of yesteryear, is long past. The young – and not so young – are demanding to take their place, and they need to grow. They need oxygen to survive. This new generation made up of teachers, publicists, cinematographers, fashion photographers, who, in their free time… well, you get the picture. They have no monographs dedicated to them either, or articles by critics analysing their work. Indeed, many of them have no “body of work” until they are retired, when they are told that the results of their weekend pastime are, now, works of art. Things are – very slowly – getting better but, even now, publishing a book by a Spanish photographer means taking one step closer to the brink of financial ruin.
Given the absence of a market, the lack of sales, and no interest in photography from museums, the latest generation of photographers have resorted to the photobook, a classic genre, from the time when one spoke of the characteristics of an image in the time of its technological reproducibility. A great step forward, undoubtedly. Oddly enough, these photobooks are paid for by the photographers themselves, even though they are not artist’s books but rather runs of a thousand copies or so printed at large printing houses and published by professional publishers. They’re paid for by the photographer because publishers won’t risk their money on something they think won’t sell, not here in Spain, at least. The country in which photographers prefer a book over an exhibition and, what’s more, a book that they themselves pay for instead of a publisher.
Often, when I’m sent catalogues from exhibitions in other countries, or even promotional material on these and many others, it occurs to me how strange it is that we are familiar with so many American, German and French photographers, and so few Spanish ones. And how unthinkable it is that our photographers, comparable in age, quality and interest to these foreign ones, could aspire to such exhibitions and such publications. And it is impossible for someone like me, only German or American, to ever know who Gabriel Cualladó is, or Francesc Catalá-Roca, or Paco Gómez, Manel Esclusa, Amparo Garrido, Pere Formiguera, Gonzalo Juanes, Carlos Cánovas, José Guerrero or Xavier Ribas, to mention just a few names, and so many others who are still putting it out there today. And all the older ones, like Nicolás de Lekuona, who would die so young and remain forever unknown.
Today, some no longer do so just in their free time, but rather as a profession: they are artists, just like their painter, sculptor and performer counterparts… except they’ve got no exhibition spaces or critics, and museums don’t keep a slot open for them in their programming.
I remember when Spain created its National Photography Prize in 1994, back when Javier Solana was Minister of Culture. In my youthful innocence, I asked him why a separate award had been created for photographers, why they were not regarded as visual artists like sculptors or painters. Solana made things quite clear: “If we had to choose to give a single prize to either a painter or a photographer, the photographer might never win. This way, though, we guarantee a higher profile and some exposure, putting photographers and other artists on a similar footing”. The winner of that first prize was Gabriel Cualladó, owner of a haulage company here in Spain, who began to collect “images” by tearing out the pages of any leading photography magazine he could get his hands on and who would become, over the years, a great collector of Spanish photography, and one of the great unsung pioneers of today’s photography. For him, photographs were images: the work, its appreciation and assessment would come later.
However, I think it’s not unfair of me to say that neither do all young Spanish photographers know who Cualladó is, nor do they appreciate his work. But they do appreciate that of any American street photographer.
Because another problem at the heart of Spanish photography today – and maybe one we can talk more about later on – is the scant interest shown in our photographic history and our classic photographers, who are disdained in comparison with international artists using photography today. Plus, the inability to recognise that faint, subtle line that separates the work of a photographer from that of an artist who occasionally uses photography. And, as a result, whether photography provides enough space for executing the projects and creative dreams of contemporary artists choosing the photographic image today, now that actual cameras are seen as strange contraptions.
I’m afraid that, as always, we’ll be late to any great change or any little digital revolution. Lost in the maze of our own footsteps leading to the past, to understand, learn and above all see what others did before – here, not there. Once again disparaging where we’ve come from, what we’re a part of, those lost footsteps that are ours, sometimes brilliant and sometimes mere copies of the prints left by other feet, which won’t take us very far, as they lack the strength that has to take us from inside ourselves, from knowledge and experience to any other place, to all possible places.
We’re not going to talk about guilt, but I do think that we need to talk about responsibility. About the ignorance of so many photography “experts” who ignore what they can’t understand, due to fads (or backlashes against them), those who only got where they are because of their connections, and so on. We need to talk about the disrespect and ignorance of so many of those in charge of museums and cultural policies, who never regard our photography as good enough for their collections. Over the 30 years of existence of Spain’s leading museums, like the Reina Sofia, the MACBA, the IVAM, the CAAM, etc., how many Spanish photographers’ works have been hung on their walls? I’ve been asked to curate foreign photographers and, when I’ve told them that the production costs alone of a German artist would cover an entire generation of Spanish photographers’ collective exhibition or a number of individual ones a year, the answer is that they’re just not interested.
There’s so much to talk about, although I’m sure you look more to the future than back at the past (which, for me, are just the two ends of a single line), and you’re almost certainly interested in more specific, more topical matters. There’s so much to talk about when we talk – or write – about photography that any matter, any idea you come up with will surely give us much food for thought.
I just wanted to start at the very beginning and remind myself that all photography is contemporary, and that it is the artistic language that has evolved most quickly.
I look forward to hearing – reading – your words and your ideas. I really want to understand and share those things about which we almost never talk.
It’s a pleasure to have this dialogue with you. You’ve provided a great overview of the situation, and I’m in almost complete agreement with you. Your approach is overarching and tackles the state of the issue, so I think it provides a great starting point. For my part, I shall – if I may – talk in this first missive of some particular aspects and a specific period of time, shifting from a more general to a more focused standpoint. Thus, I’d like to point you towards the last decade, to provide a framework for analysis that coincides with the paradigm shift that occurred after the 2008 crisis.
Also – and it’s important to bear this in mind – the photography of the 21st century has little or nothing to do with that of the previous one: it’s moved on from bearing faithful witness to becoming a complex, polysemic and extremely pliable semantic sign. It would be no overstatement to say that our country has changed more in the last fifty years than in the four preceding centuries. We are living in a time of change towards a model that differs substantially from the previous one. We are seeing a move from the logos society, in which thought was associated with the written word, to the imago society, which turns around and rests upon the image. There has been a metamorphosis from a textual to a visual world. We stand at a time of transformation towards a new way of understanding the image that has little to do with the narrative/documentary sense of black and white photography that was predominant in the 20th century: the time of capturing the instant.
Visuality has imposed itself upon the 21st century, but what role is played by image creators within such a context?
These days, carefully pondering images, researching their uses and studying their ontology, syntax, semiotics, hybridisations or derivations has become a real prerequisite. Visuality has imposed itself upon the 21st century, but what role is played by image creators within such a context? How did we get here? In less than a decade, we’ve seen a shift from palpable objects to the screen. Nowadays, everything is interface and never-ending scrolling and swiping. Tangible reality is replaced by an online surrogate lacking corporeality. The “network culture” absorbs everything that strays into its path with the voracity of a black hole. In this new, ubiquitous world, the physicality of “the photographic” and the value of the display have emerged to reveal aesthetic possibilities that had previously not even occurred to us.
There’s no doubt that, as you note, one of the shortcomings of photography in our country is that, more often than not, we are late to the party and behind the curve, meaning that when we do something about it, we fall victim to clichés and the commonplace due simply, I believe, to unfamiliarity or a lack of perspective.
In a world heading towards incorporeality, physical things are becoming increasingly valuable.
You mentioned the Sixties, a great time for some Spanish photographers, and I’d like to add something to this that I find surprising: Carlos Pérez Siquier was one of the pioneers of colour photography in Europe. As early as 1960 – and even before that – he began a photo essay on La Chanca (Almería’s gypsy quarter) in colour, one that has few international rivals, with no equivalent work of photography existing at such a level at the time. But is there any demand for it from the other side of the Pyrenees? Are the curators of Europe’s museums even aware of it? Obviously not, and this is probably the case for most of those in Spain, too. There lies one of our frequent problems: the undervaluing of what is ours and the veneration of what comes from abroad, a peculiarity that became deeply rooted in the years of Franco’s dictatorship, a complex that we are only now beginning to overcome, now that the young have cast off some of the burdens of our recent past, due (amongst other reasons) to borders no longer having the importance they once boasted: people no longer live either here or there, but move according to their needs or circumstances from one country to another, without attaching too much importance to the fact. As you say, there’s no longer any use in establishing fixed categories to differentiate what has traditionally been referred to as “photography”: its scope has widened to encompass a considerably greater expanse, which we might more properly call the “visual arts”.
Let me move on to note some characteristic features of the Spanish ecosystem, by extension applicable to any creative endeavour: a lack of basic structures, a short-term mentality, centralism (mistakenly equating a part with the whole, i.e. the capital with Spain), the lack of a visual culture, little desire for or thoroughness in research, a tendency for self-serving conformism, few private collections, excessive dependence upon the public sector, a penny-pinching mindset, contempt for the past and an excess of cronyism and mediocrity. I could go on, but I don’t want to overstress these shortcomings because I believe that, luckily, these peculiarities of ours are becoming less and less important in this globalised world. Individual territories’ idiosyncrasies are fading and we need to assess the approaches of the past more flexibly and less literally. There is a kind of “designation of origin” for photographers, who come from a specific place that defines their personality and outlook. The light of the south of Spain is nothing like that of the country’s north, and growing up in Santander is very different from doing so in Huelva. However, for the latest generation of photographers, the majority of whom were born in the eighties and nineties, this is no longer such a decisive factor. What’s more, they prefer to avoid labelling or typecasting.
Similarly, Laia Abril is in greater demand internationally than at home, basing herself in Treviso from 2009 and 2014, and before and after that in New York. Israel Ariño is more appreciated in France than in Spain, where he is little known, and only then for his publications. Cristina de Middel moves between Brazil and Mexico. Jon Gorospe lives in Oslo and Ira Lombardía in Syracuse, New York. Pablo Lerma recently moved from New York to Amsterdam, the same trip taken by Carlos Irijalba a few years ago. Alejandro Guijarro built his career in the UK and has now returned to Madrid. Ian Waelder hops between Frankfurt and Palma and Andrés Galeano, Berlin and Barcelona. Norberto Fernández Soriano has just relocated to Antwerp, and previously spent four years in Bristol. Carla Andrade is based in London, without losing contact with her native Galicia. Alvaro Deprit has settled in Rome and Bubi Canal in New York. For newcomers, the diaspora has become a lifestyle: María Tinaut moves between Brooklyn and Valencia; Pedro Barbáchano between Montreal, Cairo and Madrid. Helena Goñi, who always returns to Vizcaya and will shortly leave for New York after a lengthy stay in Paris, has a special link with Canada, where she has spent long periods of time.
It’s not all adversity: we are increasingly connected with the rest of the world, albeit far from the epicentres of power and with only a degree of impact. They’re beginning to take note of us, and we are progressing step by step, particularly in the last five years or so. As you rightly note, Spain has some magnificent photographers and some first-class raw materials: the problem is the people who make the real decisions… who are not the same as the former. Looking inwards, there are no proper medium or long-term policies for promoting photography, and we have neither the networks nor the strength to establish a solid framework. Looking outwards, there are few prestigious Spanish curators or researchers holding positions of responsibility in important places, and none of them are called upon to manage biennials or large-scale projects of any kind. Marta Gili, who was Director of Paris’s Jeu de Paume until 2018, could be the exception that proves this rule. We lack good theoreticians, with only the essays of Joan Fontcuberta having any impact beyond our borders. There’s a pressing need to establish natural connections, to create true, fluid, spontaneous forms of exchange. Charlotte Cotton’s benchmark book Photography is Magic (2015) only features one Spaniard, Miguel Ángel Tornero. Quite a symptomatic example of how far we are from where things are happening. Before the whole Lehman Brothers crisis, this seemed like the land milk and honey, a mirage where profligacy was the norm. When there was plenty, no thought was given to tomorrow, which meant that things then had to be played by ear, adapting quickly to the recession. What’s more, this fictitious inflation forced young photographers to raise their prices and produce on a large scale, an unrealistic increase that has hurt them in their attempts to grow. It really wasn’t the way forward.
Despite everything, I do believe that recent years have seen more common sense and measure in that which we call Spanish photography, if such a thing exists. Without blowing our own trumpet too much, we can already point out some green shoots peeking their heads above the wasteland, and I’m optimistic for the decade that has just begun. Highlights would include Joan Fontcuberta winning the 2013 Hasselblad Prize and two Spanish women photographers joining Magnum as associates: Cristina de Middel in 2019 and Lua Ribeira in 2020. Paris’s Maison Européenne de la Photographie has dedicated two exhibitions to two members of Spain’s latest generation: Nicolás Combarro in 2018 and Coco Capitán in 2019, and Amsterdam’s FOAM did the same for Laia Abril in 2020. Also, 2015 saw the opening of the University of Navarra Museum in Pamplona, where Valentín Vallhonrat and Rafael Levenfeldt are quietly carrying out splendid work. Its photographic archives contain, in addition to the Ortiz Echagüe endowment, some 14,000 prints and 100,000 negatives, from the 19th century to the present. Private entities supporting photography are gradually appearing or consolidating their position, implementing approaches to work that look to the future and create international links. In 2017, Almería’s Pérez Siquier Museum was opened by the Fundación de Arte Ibáñez-Cosentino, the foundation that now curates its archive, revealing a huge amount of unpublished material. Shortly afterwards, the Cristina García Rodero Museum opened in Puertollano, the photographer’s home town. Additionally, the Community of Madrid has stood out in these times for its efforts in support of Spanish photography, balancing exhibitions and books by longstanding photographers (such as Paco Gómez, Francisco Ontañón, Gabriel Cualladó and Enrique Meneses) with those in the middle of their career (Ricardo Cases, David Jiménez, Tanit Plana, Matías Costa, etc. Also worth pointing out is the ongoing work by Jesús Micó in Cadiz in support of emerging photographers, particularly with the Cuadernos de la Kursala. The period has seen quite a boom in Spanish photobooks and the emergence of a number of quality independent publishing houses (Ediciones Anómalas, Dalpine, Phree, Fuego Books, etc.). Note how Óscar Monzón’s Karma won the 2013 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award, an honour that in 2018 fell to Laia Abril and her On Abortion and in 2020 to Gloria Oyarzabal with Woman Go No’Gree.
To conclude, I’d like to highlight how, thankfully, women’s empowerment in recent years in Spain has caused a significantly increased presence of feminine sensibility in photographic matters, a positive change that can help turn the spotlight on those who previously remained in the shade or had less chance of standing out.
 The youth of today communicate, think and understand the world through images. Ideas are now directly linked to images, and everything is visual. The laptop or mobile screen is nowadays more important than reality itself, and that’s a problem: we’re finding it difficult to differentiate between what we’ve experienced and what we’ve seen, and this changes our imagination and our perception of experience. Let’s not forget that we become the kind of people we are through all this baggage of experience: we are what we have lived, not what we’ve seen. Relationships between today’s kids are deeply affected by what they see. For many of them, having a video chat from their bedroom with someone in another country is simply chatting, talking with a friend. It’s something commonplace that they do on a daily basis, forming a core part of their lives, just like the Internet and their smartphones.
 Many new visual works are increasingly conceptual, but do not reject what came before or ignore photography’s marvellous past. Rather, they represent a natural addition to what already exists, broadening its scope, forming part of a common heritage that not only places at the same level disciplines such painting, filmmaking, literature, sculpture, installation and performance art and fashion, but also requires referencing this entire context to be able to interpret these new works that go beyond the confines of traditional photography.
 Remedios Zafra coined the term “network culture” in reference to societies—such as our current one—that equate what is most valuable with what is most viewed. In fact, hunkered over our laptop or mobile, far from reality, we don’t really see anything on our screens. “What previously required of us some effort in doing the necessary research to understand, contextualise and understand something can now be called up with a tap of the finger, and is even interpreted and précised with a series of numbers so we can more easily position it”, states the thinker herself in Ojos y Capital (Eyes and Capital, Edición Consonni, Bilbao, 2015). Whilst an eloquent majority of multitasking young people waste their time on YouTube or dancing to the beats of the DJs who pop up on Instagram or TikTok, to move in the opposite direction and stop to think about images represents a radical act of rebellion against the dominant socio-cultural model for this millennial generation. Even more so in an overloaded context such as that of today, with a predominance of a kind of visual entertainment in which the image has ever less to say, exhausted in the very instant it is unveiled.
 Photography can be at once object and representation, medium and content, and communicates in an infinite variety of ways, all of them valid. The vernacular has appeared forcefully, as has a concern for how best to approach physical displays and support for the book-object, perhaps the medium in which the image can best realise its syntactic potential. In a world heading towards incorporeality, physical things are becoming increasingly valuable.
 The only undisputed beacon of light amongst this darkness on an international level is Joan Fontcuberta.
 The party went on for about a decade, from shortly after 2000 until 2010.
 Note in this regard the Fundación Mapfre (Madrid and Barcelona) and Bombas Gens (Valencia), a centre opened in 2017 that puts a special emphasis on photography, as is also the case with the CaixaForum (Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, Zaragoza, Palma, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona). And, obviously, there’s Foto Colectania (Barcelona).
 The Sala Canal de Isabel II art gallery has consistently dedicated space to Spanish photography over the last decade, and let’s hope they continue to do so. The Community of Madrid Ministry of Culture has also stood out for, in addition to the exhibitions, its support and promotion for lesser-known publishers and photographers, via initiatives such as the Fotocanal contest for the best photography book of the year, which started in 2016.
Correspondence is an online project that aims to reflect upon the relevance that photography has had in contemporary society and the visual culture of our times. The program will be extended throughout the year following three conversations that will be published weekly. Read more
In collaboration with
Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir, Urs Stahel, Hester Keijser, Joan Fontcuberta, Geoffrey Batchen. Read more
Nathan Jurgenson, Fred Ritchin, Marta Gili, George Didi-Huberman. Read more
Valentín Roma, Mercedes Cebrián, David Campany, Anastasia Samoylova. Read more
Remedios Zafra, María Ruido, Borja Casani, Andrea Valdés. Read more
Carles Guerra, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. Read more
Rosa Olivares, Sema D’Acosta. Read more
Rosa Olivares, Sema D’Acosta, Carles Guerra, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Borja Casani, Andrea Valdés, Remedios Zafra, María Ruido, Valentín Roma, Mercedes Cebrián, David Campany, Anastasia Samoylova, Nathan Jurgenson, Fred Ritchin, Marta Gili, George Didi-Huberman, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir, Urs Stahel, Hester Keijser, Joan Fontcuberta, Geoffrey Batchen. Read more