The past comes alive at PhotoEspaña

The 13th staging of the annual photography festival is currently taking place in venues across Madrid, Lisbon and Cuenca…

Protests against the swingeing cuts planned by the Spanish government took place during the opening week of PhotoEspaña last month, and served as a sombre reminder that such arts events can no longer be taken for granted in our stringent times. The annual photography festival is now in its 13th year and, to the external eye at least, it seems to be bearing up well against the recession ravages. While perhaps marginally smaller than in previous years, the 2010 festival lacks nothing in quality, bringing an excellent array of artists and photographers to exhibition spaces across Madrid, and also Lisbon and the smaller Spanish city of Cuenca.

Time expanded
The festival, the third and final one to be organised by outgoing curator general Sérgio Mah, has the theme of ‘time’ – a woolly subject matter that seems to have been disregarded in a number of the exhibitions. It is central to one of the shows that Mah himself has brought to Madrid, however: a retrospective of the work of Harold Edgerton. An electronic engineer by trade, Edgerton, like Eadweard Muybridge before him, used photography for the purposes of documenting degrees of movement and action usually invisible to the human eye. Most famously he captured a milk drop as it landed in a puddle, forming a coronet; several versions of this appear in the show, alongside countless other fascinating works, including a bullet blasting through an apple, and the degrees of movement in a tennis player’s swing.

The exhibition also includes examples of the equipment he used and his notebooks, giving an insight into the rigour of his work. Unlike Muybridge, who worked as a landscape and architecture photographer prior to his experiments with movement, Edgerton viewed his photographic work purely as science. Despite this, his work is also perfectly suited to its display in an art context.

Vintage photography excels elsewhere too. The work of László Moholy-Nagy is the subject of a retrospective that demonstrates his versatility, with design works shown alongside paintings, photography and film. His experiments with photograms and collage are particularly compelling, with the latter clearly proving influential on later generations of artists. Another retrospective, this time of the work of documentary and street photographer Helen Levitt, who died last year, reveals fascinating New York street scenes from the 1930s to the early 1990s.

Manhattan is also the subject matter of a sprawling and exhausting exhibition at Museo Reina Sofía. The focus here shifts away from the people of New York to the city itself, bringing together conceptual artworks created in the 1970s in the abandoned buildings of Lower Manhattan, architectural imagery of streets eerily empty of people, and film pieces exploring the New York borough’s many guises. As individual pieces, much of the work in Mixed Use, Manhattan is excellent, though the sheer size of the show runs the risk of making the Big Apple appear repetitive and over-examined, rather than inspiring and alive.

Religious fervour
Of the contemporary photography on show at PhotoEspaña, an exhibition by Isabel Muñoz is the most striking, and the most potentially divisive to viewers. Muñoz is known for her photography of dancers, which has informed one of the series displayed, a number of films and photographs of worshipers in Turkey performing the Whirling Dervish dance. Muñoz also presents a more gruesome set of images: shots from a Sufi sect in Iraq who undertake extreme physical tests to show their devotion to God. These include hammering nails into the skulls of believers and slicing their chests with daggers. She displays these scenes in huge, glossy images that adopt the quality of iconic religious paintings, and intensify the drama of the scenes.

The exhibition is expertly displayed in the gallery, which is contained within a disused water tower, with the viewer given the sense that they are rising to the heavens as they move upwards in the space. Upon reaching the uppermost room, Whirling Dervish dancers are projected life-size across the walls.

By contrast, the exhibition of Juergen Teller’s work at Comunidad de Madrid feels loose and low-key. Work stretching back to the early 90s is on show, with plenty of art and fashion stars – from Araki to David Hockney to a startlingly naked Vivienne Westwood – making an appearance. Teller’s enduring influence on fashion and editorial photography is strongly apparent, though his work feels trapped within a certain era, with even his new works prompting nostalgia for the heydays of magazines such as The Face and i-D, both of which championed Teller’s style.

Interestingly, it is his advertising work for Marc Jacobs that feels the most unconventional now, with Teller’s witty and relaxed shots providing a breath of fresh air amongst the pomposity of most fashion campaigns.

Other highlights of the Madrid arm of the festival include the return of the Descubrimientos programme, which exhibits the work of ten emerging Latin American photographers, and an intriguing film work by Fernando Sánchez Castillo which depicts blind people interacting with various statues of Franco that once appeared across the city, but are now housed in anonymous storage facilities. Over in Lisbon, there is a display of work by US photographer Collier Schorr, while Cuenca once again hosts OpenPhoto, a group of exhibitions proposed by embassies and foreign cultural institutes.
It is constantly impressive that cultural organisation La Fábrica, the group behind PhotoEspaña, is able to pull together such diverse, interesting and challenging exhibitions every year – an undertaking undoubtedly harder than ever in the current financial climate. The festival is a true celebration of photography in all its forms – from historical to documentary to art – and each year proves that the medium that is so often claimed to be dead, remains as vital as ever.

Until July 25; phe.es

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