Joan Colom (1921–2017)

Spanish photographer Joan Colom, best known for capturing the urban lives of marginalized people in his hometown of Barcelona, died on Sunday at the age of ninety-six, reports El Mundo.

Born in 1921, Colom was a self-trained photographer who worked as an accountant until his retirement in 1986. In 1957, he joined the Photographic Association of Catalonia, where he quickly learned the technical skills that helped him advance his career. He was heavily influenced by photographers Oriol Maspons, Xavier Miserachs, and Ramón Masats, and in 1960, he cofounded the avant-garde artist group El Mussol.

Concerned with remaining discreet and breaking with the aesthetic traditions of his predecessors, Colom began photographing without aiming the camera—a practice that culminated in a series of photographs of the residents of Barcelona, mainly around the Raval neighborhood, a red-light district that is known today as “Barrio Chino.” After around five hundred of his black-and-white photographs were showcased in his first exhibition, “El Carrer” (The Street), which debuted in 1961 at the Sala Aixelá, Colom became a leading figure among the Spanish photographers of his generation. Reflecting on his work, Colom said, “I didn’t know I was doing social photography at that time. I just took photographs and went after pictures I found exciting. I’ve sometimes used the term to describe my work, but to me it just means I don’t do landscapes or still lifes. I work the street. I try, through my photographs, to be a kind of notary of an age.”

In the 1960s, Colom’s work attracted the attention of the writer Camilo José Cela, a prominent Spanish literary figure and 1989 Nobel Prize winner. They collaborated on the book Izas, Rabizas y Colipoterras, published by Editiorial Lumen in 1964 as part of a new series of works titled “Palabra e Imagem,” for which writers partnered with photographers. However, the book was condemned by critics who were offended by Colom’s stark portraits of prostitutes alongside Cela’s ribald text. The controversy surrounding the work prompted one of the women depicted in a photograph to file a lawsuit against the artist. Even though her complaint was dismissed, Colom stopped photographing for several years.

Among the many honors Colom received throughout his life are the 2002 National Prize of Photography, the Gold Medal for Cultural Merit of the Barcelona City Council in 2003, the National Prize of Visual Arts in 2004, and the Creu de Sant Jordi in 2006. In 2012, the photographer donated his archive to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the national museum of Catalan visual art located in Barcelona.