November 20: Spanish photography under Franco was slow to emerge from Pictorialism.
Fernando Gordillo who was born on this date in Madrid in 1933 (†2015) was the youngest member of the School of Madrid and one of the innovators in photography in Spain in the second half of the twentieth century.
During his beginnings as an amateur, having been gifted a camera by his parents, he came into contact with members of the Real Sociedad Fotográfica (Royal Photographic Society) founded as The Photographic Society of Madrid in 15 December 1899 with 55 partners all from the aristocracy and gentry. A few months after its founding the group showed at the Universal Exhibition in Paris and a year later, in 1901, at the National Exhibition inaugurated by His Majesty rey D. Alfonso XIII who in 1907 granted the title of Real (Royal).
Despite the rise of Modernism across Europe, Spanish photography was dominated well into the 1940s by the pictorialism of José María Álvarez de Toledo (1881–1950), Eduardo Susanna Almaraz (1894–1951), Francisco Andrada (1894-1977), José Lozano, the Marquis de Sta. Mª José de Loygorri and others, and most famously by José Ortiz-Echagüe (1886–1980) in Madrid whose moody, virtuoso Fresson direct-carbon prints earned him international attention.
Against this background, at age twenty Gordillo began working as a freelance photographer. However, owing to his perfectionism he worked slowly on only half a dozen jobs.
He is best known for his series on the village of Pedro Bernardo, in the Basque province of Ávila and 108km from Ávila itself, in the fertile Tiétar valley in the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos. With fine views of the Montes de Toledo it is known as the Balcony of Tietar. He had fallen in love with the authenticity of the traditional farming village during a photography excursion with the Real Sociedad Fotográfica of Madrid in his early twenties (in 1958).
Pedro Bernardo in the fifties and sixties was at its peak population of 3,000, which dropped dramatically over the next decades, tumbling to 1840s levels by the end of the 1970s (less than 800 live there now). Although poor and backward by urban standards, the people he found there were content and plenty of agricultural work was available tending vines, hand-picking the terraced olive groves and pressing oil, growing figs and vegetable crops and herding goats, sheep and cattle.
Gordillo had his own theories about photography, and admired W. Eugene Smith (1918–1978) and his essay Spanish Village (taken in Deleitosa in summer 1950, then with a population of 2,300, and 127km from Pedro Bernardo), and originally published in the April 9, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine. From it he no doubt learned what to make of Pedro Bernardo and perhaps shots like Señora con empanadillas (see below) and La muerte de un ángel were made with Smith’s essay as a model.
His La muerte de un ángel echoes Smith’s much more sombre and Caravaggiesque scene of mourners, but where his exemplar’s is dark, Gordillo’s image is full of light. The black-clad women pressed to the image boundaries appear to sleep as if dreaming of the youthful corpse taking flight on the chrome wings of the bed. All of his pictures of the village are as optimistic. Though Gordillo’s reaction to it was positive, reception of Smith’s Spanish Village by authorities in Spain was not, since it represented both the poverty and made the military presence of the Guardia Civil appear sinister.
However, post-war American relations with Spain under Hitler’s ally dictator Franco were warming, if not entirely cordial; Spain’s Franco’s Regime, Slightly Mellowed, Looks West for Friendship and Aid was the title of a story in LIFE, on April 4, 1949 with photos by Dimitri Kessel (1902–1995).
A November 1948 poll surveying the attitude of American citizens to Franco’s regime found 86% in favor of Spain’s incorporation to the UN and only 8% against sending an ambassador to Madrid.
American tourism in Spain was welcomed; when in August 1947 Generalissimo Francisco Franco was asked by fascist sympathiser American writer Merwin K. Hart “Would the people of Spain like to have Americans visit Spain in considerable numbers?” Franco replied enthusiastically, “Very much. The Spanish people are an hospitable people…Spain [is] much loved by all foreigners who visit it.”
However, Spain’s photojournalists were tightly controlled and censorship evaded only on pain of heavy fines or imprisonment, to the point that it could be said that photojournalism hardly existed in that time, but only positive propaganda for the dictatorship. From 1963 Gordillo was one of those photojournalists, working for the newspaper Arriba, though he returned to freelancing in the seventies.
He joined the modernist group La Palangana (The Basin) which ceded from the Royal Society of Photography of Madrid in 1957, unhappy with the prevalent academism and inspired by European and American photographic neorealism exemplified by the world-touring MoMA exhibition The Family of Man (though Franco’s Spain, along with the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam, was one of the few countries it did not visit).
The name of the collective was derived from the photograph that Francisco Ontañón (1930–2008) took of prints of the portraits of each of the founding members floating in a washbowl. Initially the group consisted of Francisco Ontañón, Joaquín Rubio Camín, Leonardo Cantero (1907–1995), Paco Gómez (1918–1998), Gabriel Cualladó (1925–2003), and Ramón Masats (*1931). Toward 1963, Gerardo Vielba (1921–1992), Gonzalo Juanes (*1923), Rafael Romero, and Juan Dolcet (1914–1990) joined the group, laying the foundations of what would come to be known as the Madrid School. Beside the The Agrupación Fotográfica Almeriense (Photography Association of Almería, Afal), whose members Edward Steichen invited to show in The Family of Man, La Palangana was responsible for a renewal in Spanish photography.
Rubio Camín, Masats, Ontañón, and Juanes dropped out and their places were taken by Fernando Gordillo, Carlos Hernández Corcho, Rafael Sanz Lobato (*1932), Sigfrido de Guzmán, and Felipe Hernández Taradillo. With them Gordillo published Cuadernos de Fotografía (Notebooks of Photography) 1972 – 1974, its editorial board being almost exclusively of the founding members of the School of Madrid.
It was a haven for professionals and innovators and fostered the realist style that was emerging from under the prevailing Pictorialism. Gordillo was director during its first year of publication. He later also worked for publishers Photo Art, Image and Sound, Universal News and Yearbook of Spanish Photography.
Gordillo’s essay on Pedro Bernardo follows the principle set by La Palangana; realism documented without interruption, though with some selective romanticising. Slowly and systematically, on visits that he continued until 1974, Gordillo undertook what he called a “report without action”; he recorded all the events of life in Pedro Bernardo, from births to deaths and of all ages and occupations, in this traditional pueblo español, producing some 500 images of which there were 100 that he felt were significant.
His Paisaje urbano is a perspectival puzzle, a scene taken at a corner with steep steps declining to the right that are hidden in shadow behind a female figure whose elevation is at odds with the placement of the man approaching at centre left. The composition is full of truncated figures all along the narrow winding street. An impression of haphazard architecture is reinforced by the towering backdrop of a wooded slope and again, when one’s eye comes to rest on the laughing boy perched precariously above the well. He is illuminated theatrically by sunlight that bounces from the whitewashed wall opposite, and which projects hard shadows toward the camera that net the fleeting figures.
He was in pursuit of the immediacy of reality, of the free flow of events in which he never intervened, using his intuition and waiting patiently for an opportunity such as this photograph…
…in which a woman on a balcony overlooking the street appeared unexpectedly with a jug in hand to water her plants. She stands like a church icon in the narrow space behind the railing in front of the concrete wall that is painted to resemble a classical portico. The angle of view is slightly angled to the facade, evoking the simplicity of Early Renaissance perspective. Her smile is patient and beatific, as if she has foreseen the presence of a photographer.
Fernando Gordillo stands as champion of realist photography during the Franco regime. His works have been published by magazines and yearbooks such as Arte Fotográfico, Imagen y Sonido, the Boletín de la RSF, Cuadernos de fotografía, Nuevo Índice, Foto Profesional, FV Foto Vídeo Actualidad, Diafragma Foto, and Camera Internacional. The collections of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid), the Valencia Institute of Modern Art, the Cultural Department of the Ayuntamiento de Córdoba, the Fundació Foto Colectania (Barcelona), the RSF of Madrid, the Agrupación Fotográfica (Photographic Association) of Guadalajara, and the Diputación de Soria, among others, own some of his works. Despite that, his work, though awarded the Villa de Madrid Photography Prize in 1997, has been rarely exhibited.