For the second year running, the organizers of PHotoEspaña – the International Festival of Photography and Visual Culture, which takes place annually in Madrid – framed their programme of exhibitions and events within the parameters of a geographic region. Last year, it was Spain; for the 2015 edition, the honour went to Latin America. If attempting to achieve thematic cohesion using the boundaries of a single country was difficult, focusing on a region that includes the entire South American continent and part of North America was no easier. However, PHotoEspaña 2015 was not simply about photographs of Latin America per se, but rather the development of photography within this geographical area. This broadish remit allowed for the politics and local histories specific to a particular region to be explored, while leaving ample space for photographers to examine more universal ideas about personal identity. Perhaps because of the region’s tumultuous history, it should come as no surprise that it was along the axis of ‘the document’ that PHotoEspaña 2015 achieved its most marked sense of cohesion.
With new director María García Yelo at the helm, this 18th instalment of the festival featured 101 exhibitions spread over 70 venues, located in and around Madrid, including many major institutions and national art centres, as well as smaller commercial galleries and non-traditional spaces such as shops and hotels. Out of the 395 artists represented, about half of the photographers were contemporary. The other half included such early-to-mid-20th-century modernists as Lola Alvarez Bravo, Manuel Carrillo and Tina Modotti. There is something wonderfully incongruous about seeing rural villages documented with the same formalist precision that is more often associated with the steel and iron of industrialized America. These outstanding photographs have generally enjoyed fewer accolades than similar works by North Americans such as Paul Strand and Edward Weston, so it was refreshing to see these less-celebrated works take top billing here.
The exhibition of Modotti’s prints at the flagship store of Spanish fashion house, Loewe, marked the first time a solo exhibition of the artist’s works has been held in Spain. Recognized more often for her political activism (and her association with Weston), Modotti’s photographic career was a short one, lasting only six years (she died in 1942 at the age of 46), and so this gathering together of 50 vintage gelatin-silver and platinum prints was even more remarkable. The decision to show images of the hardship and poverty of Mexican street and village life in the shop of a luxury brand was a baffling one but, that aside, these prints demonstrated the unexpected harmony that can result when an eye attuned to line and shape merges with a soul attuned to human reality.
On the contemporary side, documentation often took a decidedly more personal turn. Ana Casas Broda’s exhibition at Círculo de Bellas Artes, ‘Kinderwunsch’ (a German word meaning the desire to have children), traced the Spanish/Mexican artist’s struggle to conceive and give birth, as well as her experience of motherhood. Graphic depictions of the brutal effects of pregnancy upon her body are contrasted with joyful images of Broda playing with her young sons, but this was no typical pictorial diary of pregnancy and childbirth. ‘Kinderwunsch’ was a multi-sensory experience in which a wide range of photographic formats was fused with words and sound. The single, variously sized, framed colour prints, murals and video installations were accompanied by texts which recalled memories from the artist’s childhood, while the sound of a child playing and the pulsing heartbeat from a sonogram reverberated continuously throughout the gallery.
From the desire to be a parent to the pain of losing one: in ‘Moises’, at the Centro de Arte Alcobendas, Argentinian photographer Mariela Sancari – who was the winner of the PHotoEspaña Discoveries award in 2014 – used portraiture to re-imagine what her father, Moises, who committed suicide when she was 14, might look like now. By creating studio portraits of men who might resemble her father, Sancari effectively records a fantasy – using a documentary medium to capture something that doesn’t exist outside her own imagination. The images, oddly cropped and fragmented, were presented in series (five in total, the largest consisting of 16 unframed prints) so as to articulate the fractured and repetitive nature of memory. As in ‘Kinderwunsch’, ‘Moises’ is less focused on the specifics of Latin American identity than on the details of how we define ourselves.
These kinds of personal documents were more prevalent in PHotoEspaña’s solo shows, but it was in the group shows where, with the benefit of multiple viewpoints, the social and cultural identities specific to the Latin American region were explored more fully. These themes were evident in two key exhibitions: ‘Latin Fire’ and ‘Develar y detonar’ (Reveal and Detonate), both held in Madrid’s CentroCentro Cibeles. In ‘Latin Fire’, 180 works by over 60 artists representing eight countries, attempted to locate the common tie that binds together an otherwise disparate regional population. That tie is fire, the passion which – although perhaps sourced in the politically charged atmosphere of revolutions and social unrest – still manages to seep into every other crevice of Latin life and culture. Funerals, weddings, trials, rallies and countercultural gatherings were documented in traditional photography, heliography, photocopies and Polaroids. ‘Los pasos perdidos’ (The Lost Steps, 1996) by Peruvian photographer Milagros de la Torre was a particular highlight. This series of 15 gelatin-silver prints is striking not only for its subject matter – objects submitted as evidence in felony trials – but also for the reverent manner in which it treats its subject. Switchblades and bloodied shirts were removed from their original contexts and photographed as individual vignettes, bearing more resemblance to 19th-century daguerreotype portraits than to photographic evidence. The second exhibition, ‘Develar y detonar’, focused on Mexico, and although several generations of photographers were represented, it was the current picture of the country that interested the exhibition’s curators. Stylistically, this show ran the gamut – from landscapes and street photography to portraits and abstracts – and, thematically, it complimented ‘Latin Fire’s focus on the political with its own emphasis on the roles spirituality and the body play in defining Latin American identity. Highlights included, Andrés Carretero’s polyptych mural, ‘De la serie Rubias’ (Blonde Series, 2011) and Guardianes de la montaña (Guardians of the Mountain, 2014) by Diego Moreno. In the former, a single, wall-sized work comprised of 30 framed portraits of archetypal blonde women examines what it means to be blonde in a country where it is not indigenous. The importance of religion to Mexican culture was addressed in the latter. Moreno’s humorous series of large, framed inkjets depicts impossibly round creatures wearing brightly patterned dresses and monster masks who casually sit in the garden or watch TV on the sofa. These ‘los panzudos’ (paunchy ones) are, in local lore, believed to be the physical manifestation of sin – the bigger the person’s sins, the bigger and more grotesque their attire becomes.
If there was any fear that PHotoEspaña was losing sight of its theme with the expansive range of styles, formats, historical periods and nationalities on show, the notion of the document was ever-present. This reiterated the idea that has existed since Modotti, Strand and Weston journeyed to the continent in the early 20th century: that Latin America is a place for photography and for photographers; a place where the instinct to document – what is real, what isn’t or what might be – will always be both relevant and welcomed.