Agustí Centelles

Centro Cultural Conde Duque

The Spanish Civil War was a major event for photography. The widespread use of newly invented lightweight cameras meant that war in general, and especially the Spanish one, was covered daily on the front pages of newspapers around the world by figures such as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Gerda Taro, Joris Ivens, Tina Modotti, Hans Namuth, and many others. Naturally, many of the photographers covering the war were Spanish, and of those, Agustí Centelles is the one most closely associated with it. This exhibition, organized by the Institut de Cultura de Barcelona and the Area de las Artes de Ayuntamiento de Madrid, was one of the most exhaustive to date on his work.

Centelles’s prestige is relatively newfound, because until 1975 almost all of his negatives were thought to be lost. After Franco’s death, the photographer recovered a suitcase that had been hidden for more than forty years in a house in France, containing some 7,000 negatives, and a body of work mostly unknown even to specialists came to light. Centelles had spent the intervening decades working as an industrial and advertising photographer, because the kind of photojournalism he had practiced was impossible under the dictatorship. The last section of this exhibition contained many high-quality images from this period, but the real interest of Centelles’s work lies elsewhere. Few documented as extensively as he the successive events of the Republic in the turbulent ’30s, during the Civil War, and during the Republicans’ exile in France, where thousands, including Centelles, were held in internment camps.

Centelles’s images are remarkable not only for their visual force but also for their exhaustiveness in chronicling events key to understanding contemporary history. He almost always worked in Barcelona, which is where his professional training began, and this show contains some outstanding portraits of celebrated figures of the day (Pablo Casals, Margarita Xirgu, and others) as well as images of the agitated social and political life of the time and of the war, which he covered from Barcelona and from the Aragon front during the counterattack against the Fascist army. Some of his images became icons, like Cementerio de Lérida, 3 de noviembre de 1937, which shows a woman crying over her dead husband during the bombing of Lleida. There are also surprises, like Cuartel Lenin, Barcelona, enero de 1937, a photograph of a militia brigade in which one can readily identify the figure of George Orwell.

In speaking of Centelles’s photographs, one must point to what is perhaps his most famous image: Assault Guards in Diputació Street. Barcelona. 19 July, 1936, which shows a group of soldiers shooting from behind a dead horse—a photograph that, like Capa’s renowned photograph Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936, has long aroused suspicion of being staged. This exhibition confirmed that suspicion by showing the contact strip from which the final work was taken. It also demonstrates the brilliance of Centelles’s editing: The chosen image is at once the best composed and the most convincing.

Pablo Llorca

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.