Portraiture is one of our most ancient and enduring art forms. The earliest surviving portraits stretch back to ancient Egypt, and the fascination with documenting our own image has been a feature of art and photography ever since. Today it is easier than ever to record ourselves, and share the resulting imagery with others. As with portraiture throughout history, these depictions may not present the whole truth: Facebook and other social media sites are littered with photographs designed to articulate a certain projection of ourselves, one that is largely sunny, with little room for darkness or even shades of grey.
It is this complexity at the heart of portraiture that makes it so fascinating, and thus a rich subject matter for a photography festival. As Gerardo Mosquera, the main curator of this year’s PhotoEspaña event in Madrid explains, the face is “a place of exchange”. A portrait communicates messages about the sitter, but also reveals much about the attitudes of the artist or photographer, and in turn of the viewer. The exhibitions at the centre of PhotoEspaña aim to explore this triangular relationship.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous form of portraiture in the modern age is the documentation of celebrities. Images of the famous (and infamous) litter our media, provoking fascination and revulsion in equal measure. For many, the paparazzi, the source of most of these pics, represent the lowest form of photographer, obsessed with money rather than art. And yet, as the two exhibitions at PhotoEspaña by ‘paparazzo extraordinaire’ Ron Galella demonstrate, their images are difficult to resist.
Galella’s most celebrated pictures are from the 70s and 80s, a golden age of celebrity, prior to the obsessive control of PR consultants and the face-melting effects of plastic surgery on stars. And Galella shot them all: Brando, Streisand, Presley, Onassis, Redford, Burton and Taylor. He captured them looking happy, and he paved the way for today’s paparazzi by also snatching images of them drunk, scared and angry. His photographs are captivating as historical documents, not least due to our knowledge of how the lives of those snapped were to unfold, so often tragically. Their presence in a gallery environment inevitably provokes debate, and is likely to unsettle traditionalists. Yet, Galella’s work reveals much about our uneasy relationship with fame; we happily study the famous as if they were family and friends, but equally we despise them, and revel in their transgressions.
A different world
The Círculo de Bellas Artes is displaying its expansive Galella show on its top floor, but offers a counterpoint to its glossiness in the basement. Here can be found a series of work by Columbian photographer Fernell Franco, which documents the lives of a number of prostitutes in the city of Cali. The images are also shot at roughly the same time as Galella’s, the early 70s, but capture an entirely different world. Unbearably young girls are posed provocatively on dingy mattresses, gazing out at the viewer, while less contrived shots show the girls bathing and laughing, seemingly oblivious to the photographer’s presence. The contrast is unsettling, giving the impression of Franco both as impartial observer but also pimp.
PhotoEspaña has established a reputation for excellent shows of archival work, and this year historical photography dominates the festival. Alongside Galella and Franco are shows of work by Jacques Henri Lartigue and Ecuadorian photographer Carlos Endara, whose series of early 20th century studio portraits of the residents of Panama, both rich and poor, are fascinating. Fundación Telefónica is hosting an exhibition that brings together Cindy Sherman’s compelling Bus Riders series with portraits by Thomas Ruff, and the photographs of Mexican photographer Frank Montero. Though he was born in the mid-19th century, Montero’s series reflects ideas of identity inherent within Sherman’s work as he stages dramatised images of himself acting out various (presumably fake) occupations and situations.
The proletarian eye
If you were to see only one historical show from PhotoEspaña this year though, it should be Museo Reina Sofía’s enormous survey of the Worker-Photography Movement from 1926-39. The exhibition traces the long development of the movement, from the early, amateur shots of everyday working life that were solicited by German communist magazine AIZ (Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung) to images of the Popular Front and later the Spanish Civil War by photographic luminaries such as Robert Capa, Chim and Gerda Taro. The grinding poverty captured in many of the images is interspersed with choreographed propaganda shots of triumphant workers, smiling as they toil, illustrating the two primary discourses of proletarian documentary photography of the time. With over 1,000 images, many also shown within the original publications they first appeared in, it is difficult to imagine a more detailed and concise exploration of this important period of photography.
Contemporary art is represented at this year’s festival by several group exhibitions that showcase a wide variety of artists from all over the world. The principal of these is Face Contact, curated by Gerardo Mosquera and showing at Teatro Fernán Gómez Centro de Arte. It is ambitious in scale, with 31 artists shown. The works are linked by the theme of the contemporary portrait, and there are many interesting pieces here – especially a series of coming-of-age photographs of Cuban teenage girls – but with little textual guidance and a huge variation of styles, the show is ultimately perplexing.
This is the first of a three-year curatorial stint at PhotoEspaña by Mosquera, and he arrives at the festival with Spain in the midst of a recession, complete with enormous cuts to the arts. In this difficult situation, he has done well to choose a theme that will no doubt prove popular amongst gallery-goers and sponsors alike. The festival is slimmer this year, though contains much to entertain and excite newcomers to the world of photography, plus enough rare and thought-provoking treats to please those well-versed in the medium.
PhotoEspaña is on until July 24; phe.es