Francesc Català-Roca

Spanish culture grew lethargic after the civil war. Economic hardship, the absence of great figures such as Buñuel, García Lorca, and Dalí, among others, who were either in exile or dead, and an oppressive social environment constituted a fertile terrain for cultural mediocrity. That’s why the fresh and energetic contribution of Francesc Català-Roca (1922–98) was so unusual; his direct way of making images had few immediate precedents in the country’s culture. He was the first of a brilliant generation of photographers that emerged in the ’50s. Until recently denied any real public recognition, they are now considered one of the most important creative phenomena in recent Spanish culture. Gabriel Cualladó, Ramón Massats, Francisco Ontañón, Joan Colom, and Carlos Pérez Siquier were among Català-Roca’s creative peers, and, like him, they embraced the documentary and neorealist photography of the time, evidenced as well in W. Eugene Smith’s and Inge Morath’s reportage on Spain in the early ’50s.

Son of Pere Català i Pic, a Catalan photographer associated with the Republicans and author of a well-known image of a peasant’s shoe stepping on a swastika, Català-Roca set up his professional studio at a very young age. While his beginnings were far from glorious—he started out doing portraits of cadavers—he soon demonstrated a facility for constructing visually pleasing images that evoked stories, somewhat in the manner of Cartier-Bresson. In 1954 he was commissioned to illustrate books by Luis Romero and Juan Antonio Cabezas on Barcelona and Madrid, respectively. While not directly related to one another, these two commissions allowed him to show his vision of these cities or, more accurately, what they provoked in a creator sensitive to their signals.

This exhibition, “Barcelona-Madrid: Años cincuenta” (Barcelona-Madrid: The ’50s), explored the long-standing relationship of contrast between these two capitals. Always tempted to see itself in a French mirror, the Catalan capital is showily cosmopolitan and open to new ideas; its rival is a conservative, administrative city. Thus Català-Roca’s images of Barcelona (much more numerous, thanks to the photographer’s direct connection with the city) reflect a sophisticated metropolis on its way to modernity, while those of Madrid place it in a postwar era characterized by poverty and backwardness. In both cases, a precise and distant eye dissects the given facts and attests to something as elusive as Spanish reality at the time. Català-Roca does this not only by placing his camera in the busiest city streets but also by exploring others where more obscure aspects of life emerge: Barcelona’s Barrio Chino, for example, or the shantytowns on the hills surrounding the city. At times—and this would happen repeatedly throughout his career—Català-Roca was tempted by a certain formalism, but he did not mix this with his documentary work; it was a separate project. It must not be forgotten, after all, that a new school of “subjective photography” had also begun to take hold in the ’50s—Otto Steinert would soon have great influence on the Spanish scene—and that, through his father, the artist had had direct contact with the vanguard photography of the early decades of the century.

Pablo Llorca

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.