September 7: Some photographs excite avarice amongst collectors, invoke awe and provoke envy in other photographers; this should prompt us to look at their origins more closely.
The work of José Ortiz-Echagüe (*1886) who died this date in 1980 in Madrid is certainly seductive. His moody, virtuoso Fresson direct-carbon prints have earned him international attention. Over his sixty-year engagement with the medium he issued multiple editions of his four books depicting the people, landscape, religion, customs, and architecture of Spain, and even photogravures torn from them (yes, regrettably) attract €600+ at auction, while his original prints fetch €4,000- €8,000.
His spectacular 1940 photograph of hooded and costumed penitents on pilgrimage is the stuff that elicits gasps from the most seasoned film photographers at the salons in which he exhibited, and these days will draw them even from those for whom software makes the production of such atmosphere more easily attainable.
The composition-in-depth of this tall print is stunning and its apparent exposure in high-mountain misty dawn light apparently so dim as to require the protagonists to hold lit candles, inspires reverence. You might say the effect is William Mortensen (1897-1965) meets August Sander (1876–1964)!
Ortiz-Echagüe was trained as an engineer, but acquired his first camera at twelve. Five years later publication of his atmospheric image of peasants at a church service Sermon in the Village, of 1903 (left) brought him his first public acclaim. He continued to win awards internationally from the late 1910s into the 1950s.
Born in Guadalajara, and growing up in Logrono, he studied military engineering and from 1909 was stationed in Morocco as an aviator in the Spanish army, then worked as an engineer in France and Argentina before establishing CASA (Aeronautical Constructions S.A.), Spain’s leading manufacturer of aeronautical equipment in 1923. In 1950 he became the head of auto manufacturer SEAT, Spain’s largest.
He remained an amateur in photography, practicing it in his spare time. The critic Antonio Ollé Pinel said of him in 1944 that he was;
in love with his country, [and] sang praises (through photographic images) to the beauty of its places and of the character of its people, managing with all his work … to show the world the richness and variety of aspects that the country can offer to the sensitive observation of an artist.
He worked in a systematic way through the most picturesque towns of Spain guided by a “documentary” eagerness to rescue the essences of those types and costumes that were about to be lost; “Typical costumes are condemned to disappear very fast” he urged, “only photography, with its facility for reproducing objects, can catch them before they disappear completely”. For him their variety and richness was a representation of the mystic character of ‘eternal Spain’, a project he realized in España: tipos y trajes (“Spain: People and Costumes”) in 1933, even though by that time the costumes were exotic museum pieces rather than wearing apparel as Ortega y Gasset writes in in his prologue to the first edition:
The cloth, less confident in its destiny, steps forward like a tenor to sing its romantic aria, so that we attend to its destiny These extemporaneous costumes, approaching those who contemplate Ortiz Echagüe’s photographs, are like some exotic animals, which in the zoo, behind the bars, approach the visitor with the hope that they will throw something. People who would dress habitually in such garments no longer exist or are almost nonexistent. Where by chance they still endure, it is but a matter of time before they will disappear.
Like the folk costumes he photographed, his art practice, established so early, evolved little and it was his custom to publish and submit to competitions photographs taken in previous years, or in re-arrangments of his fundamental series in successive editions of his books published in the period straddling the Civil War (1936–9): España: tipos y trajes (Spain: People and Costumes; 1933), España: pueblos y paisajes (Spain: Villages and Landscapes; 1938), and España mística (Mystic Spain; 1943).
In less than a decade he had gathered enough material for a successful exhibition in Berlin on the back of which Wasmurh publishing house released his first photographic book entitled Spanische Köpfe, Bilder von Kastilien, Aragonien und Andalusien (Spanish heads, Images of Castile, Aragon and Andalusia) which year later was translated into Spanish by Espasa-Calpe publishers as “Types and costumes of Spain” to be reissued it a dozen times until 1971.
None of the editions is the same as the other, the images change and vary in number and sequence, a work always under construction eventually including late experiments with colour after the eighth edition, but always retaining its archaic quality.
Clearly he regarded his work as fine art, and in this he was greatly influenced by painting, especially that of his brother Antonio whom the family had sent to Paris to pursue his painting career and whom José accompanied on his journeys through Spain looking for models.
Through his brother Antonio he absorbed at first-hand contemporary Spanish painting, especially that inspired by the idea of España blanca (White Spain); “the two Españas” was the dichotomy between the austere, grave, and Catholic España negra works embodying the pagan; and the vital, optimistic works of España blanca that had its greatest exponent in the Luminism of painter Joaquín Sorolla (1863- 1923) whom he met in Paris in 1913.
This paradigm is apparent in the 1916 photograph (right) that opens his España: tipos y trajes in which Ortiz Echagüe emphasises nationalism as an unmistakable expression of its scenographic composition, posing the three stereotypical figures in a rich tenebrous tonality. Though he is generally considered a pictorialist photographer, he always vehemently denied the association:
Finally, I must declare that I totally abhor all intervention that tends to pictorial imitations and that I do not wish to be classified among those who in the Anglo-Saxon world are called pictorialists: I have always wished that in my works no trace of manual intervention would appear, since if they often require a long work of retouching and refinement, this should be done with all respect to the photographic background.
It is hard from this admission to comprehend what he understood as Pictorialism to be, if not exactly the sort of aesthetic he practiced! The carbon print, quite outdated when he was practicing it, is essentially a subtractive process. Development is by abrasion: the paper is placed on a zinc plate under water thickened with sawdust, soaking away and wiping back tones that are to made lighter, and strategically leaving areas dark with bichromated carbon. Parts of the image could be emphasized, diminished, or eliminated, and even after the print dried, rewetting permitted repeating the development process.
Furthermore, in making his pictures with a 13x15cm camera equipped with a bulky 26cm lens to obtain large negatives, Ortiz-Echagüe adopts a directorial approach. An educated, urbane and clearly wealthy man, he could easily take command of his peasant subjects an interaction apparent in submissive, downcast eyes, or in a flirtatious reaction that betrays his voyeurist desire for the exotic ‘other’;
As I walk through the small villages, I talk to the people, select the models one by one and start the task of dressing them in the typical costumes (…). After overcoming the protests of the models, who resist putting on the clothes of their ancestors, I gather them in a previously selected scene, be it a typical square, the humble church or a nearby hill, from which the town with its majestic castle are included to form a wonderful village. The sun has just come out or is about to set; its horizontal rays clearly illuminate the characters.
España: tipos y trajes may be compared to August Sander‘s Antlitz der Zeit. Sechzig Aufnahmen deutscher Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (‘Face of our Time’) which was nearly contemporaneous with Ortiz-Echagüe’s book, in 1929, incorporating a selection of 60 portraits from his series ‘People of the 20th Century’, begun in 1911.
Where the National Socialists in Germany condemned Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit, Ortiz-Echagüe’s España: tipos y trajes was reissued 11 times during the Franco period. Ortiz-Echagüe was an adherent of fascist Falangism which valued authority, hierarchy, and order in society. Anti-communist, anti-democratic, anti-liberal, it abandoned its original anti-capitalist stance under Franco but retained its integral nationalism that identified regional differences and racial characteristics (some of which they regarded as weaker, some stronger) in support of the organisation of society according to territorial units. Though early on it held Germany’s National Socialism in high regard, there was no ‘Jewish problem’ in Spain and no identification of a ‘Master Race’.
Franco’s regime tolerated and even encouraged folklorists’ interest in the distinctiveness of the regions as part of an integral nationalism. [Alex Selwyn-Holmes provides an excellent account of the complexities of Spain’s fissiparous feudal condition around two Iconic Photos] It suited the regime to promote ethnic diversity as it diverted attention away from class conflicts, as well as from the very existence of economic inequalities.
Ortiz-Echagüe’s photos elaborate on the theme of ethnicity linked to territory, naming former Ancient Kingdoms, of provinces, villages, regional districts (for example, the Maragatería, in the province of León and home to the Maragatos, one of the so-called “despised peoples”), and topographic features such as the Huerta de Murcia [Murcian Vegetable Field] or the Montaña de Santander [Santander Mountain], landscapes and villages that perfectly suit fascist ideals.
He represents orderly, harmonious villages and towns inhabited by men and women untroubled by negative or aggressive feelings, each content in his or her station in life and contributing in their way to the advancement of the nation. As Jesusa Vega describes in particular his photographs of women;
are silent images of hermetic worlds, isolated and unaltered testimonies beyond reality and time, where the course of life – birth, life, death – develops through changes in attire, and where the ages – infancy, maturity and old age – appear inexorable… reinforcing an evocation of everything being fixed, eternal
While French photography critic Daniel Masclet might call Ortiz-Echagüe “the Spanish photographer and the photographer of Spain”, it is clear how his motivations and intentions support a fascist regime as nationalism so often does.