Upon visiting the Madrid arm of this year’s PHotoEspaña, it seems hard to believe that the photography festival is an annual event. Photography appears to have colonised the city, with 32 ‘official’ exhibitions taking place, alongside countless ‘Festival Off’ exhibitions – shows that are promoted as part of the festival but not curated by the organisers – in smaller galleries. And it doesn’t end there – in addition to Madrid, the festival is taking place in Cuenca in Spain for the second consecutive year, and has also crossed over the border into Portugal for the first time.
Consequently there is a lot to take in. As well as spanning most of Madrid, PHotoEspaña spans the full spectrum of possible interpretations of photography, including documentary, landscape, art, and historical works. The curators are refreshingly unconcerned with restricting themselves to still photography, and branch out regularly into video, and even into sculpture. To give all this variety a bit of definition, the works are loosely corralled around the theme of ‘Place’, although this already nebulous term is open to wide interpretation here.
Vagueness can have its advantages in exhibitions of this size though, and PHotoEspaña offers such a rich and varied menu that all tastes are likely to be satisfied, with pleasant surprises lying around every corner. Several internationally renowned contemporary artists have solo shows in Madrid, including Roni Horn, who exhibits a series of works shot in Iceland, and Javier Vallhonrat, who displays a collection of conceptual images in a stunning gallery space inside a converted water tower. Also impressive is a series of colour-saturated landscape shots from Florian Maier-Aichen, on show at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
German artist Thomas Demand exhibits works from a number of different series in the Fundación Telefónica, and demonstrates once again his skill at evoking a creeping unease with the most banal imagery. Demand’s work is multi-layered – working with usually pre-existing photographs of empty offices and homes, he meticulously recreates the images in paper before photographing the reconstructions and then destroying the cardboard models. The chill in his work comes from the subject matter; while the spaces he reflects may seem mundane they are in fact loaded with historical significance. Here they include works based on a Taverna in Germany where the murder of a five-year-old boy is alleged to have taken place, and the Emergency Operations Center in Palm Beach, Florida, where the 2000 presidential race recounts took place.
More conventional documentary photography shows also abound. Spanish photographer Cristina García Rodero exhibits an epic series of photographs taken of Venezuelan worshippers of the goddess María Lionza. They reveal an intimate portrait of the dramatic rituals and ceremonies that play out at the Sorte Mountain, a place of pilgrimage for the believers. Similarly striking, yet somewhat more commercial, are Finnish photographer Harri Pälviranta’s shots of men fighting in the street on nights out fuelled by alcohol. Despite the disturbing subject matter, Pälviranta’s shots, which focus closely on individual, usually bloodied figures against a black background, feel as if they could be stills from movies or even advertising.
A number of fascinating historical photography exhibitions are on display. An exhibition of Bill Brandt, titled The Home, reveals a rarely seen series of photographs taken in working class homes in Birmingham and London from the late 1930s to the end of the 1940s. They provide an intimate and amusing insight to English family life of the time, while avoiding any overt political or moralistic tone. Amongst the works are a number of vintage prints, developed by Brandt himself, whose dark and atmospheric shades reveal the influence of friends Man Ray and Brassaï on his work.
Across town is a larger survey of the work of W. Eugene Smith, including several photographic essays Smith made for Life magazine, which are displayed alongside the original magazine layouts. Smith photographed over 50 projects for Life between just 1946 and 1954, but if this seems an impressive work ethic, it is nothing compared to the 10,000 photographs he took over two years for his epic independent project, Pittsburgh, of which several are also shown here.
An even rarer treat, if that is the right word, comes in an exhibition of extremely affecting works by Henryk Ross, shown at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. Ross photographed life in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, the second largest ghetto in Poland during the Nazi invasion of the country in World War II. Officially there to document the workers for the ghetto’s Statistics Department, Ross’ images reveal the deportations and executions, alongside achingly poignant domestic shots that might appear humdrum but for their terrible context. In order to preserve the photographs, Lodz buried them in the grounds of the ghetto, recovering them only after he had moved to Israel in 1950. The damage to the negatives from the burial is strongly evident in the prints, causing their perilous journey to become part of the images themselves.
Recovery from all the historical gloom can be found in Compromised Places, Topography and Actuality, a large group show of works on the theme of topography. Lofty title aside, the exhibition contains some stunning imagery by artists including Walter Niedermayr, Beate Gütschow and Turner Prize-winner Simon Starling. Particularly intriguing are Taryn Simon’s images from her series An American History of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, a collection of photographs of places and objects that are curious and creepy in equal measure. Each of her works, impressive in their own right, comes accompanied with a detailed caption explaining its background. The collection of curiosities that Simon unveils is an eclectic one, including a malformed white tiger in the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and Foundation in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and a Braille edition of Playboy.
If, after visiting all the shows, you were still hungry for some more photography, this year’s PHotoEspaña festival also included numerous talks and ‘masterclasses’ with photography greats such as Nadav Kander, Paul Graham and Jodi Bieber. In addition, it supports a number of awards. Its top prize, the PHotoEspaña Baume & Mercier Award was given this year to Martin Parr, a worthy if not wholly exciting winner. More interesting was the work of the Room Mate Best Revelation Award winner (awarded to a Spanish artist under the age of 35), Germán Gómez, who won for his unusual project Condenados, which explores the human body.
As a summation of the state of photography, PHotoEspaña suggests that it is a medium in rude health. There is a bewildering amount of imagery on display across its three locations – arguably too much for one person to take in – yet this serves to demonstrate the complexity and range that photography now encompasses. Debates will no doubt reign about whether so much art belongs in a photography festival, but such quibbling about definitions seems petty when the work is as interesting and challenging as this.