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Francesc Català-Roca

7 August 2022

I learned of the Catalan photographer Francesc Català-Roca from my friend in Barcelona, Lluis Ripoll, himself an eminent photographer (you can explore some of his work on the Leica Users Group gallery). Inspired by Lluis, I bought a newly published book of Català-Roca’s photographs from the excellent online bookshop La Fábrica in Madrid. That book contains more than 200 images, many of which are currently (until 18 September 2022) being shown in cultural centre El Águila in Madrid as part of the PhotoEspaña 2022 photography festival. The PhotoEspaña catalogue describes his work as follows:

Today, one hundred years after his birth, Francesc Català-Roca (Valls, Tarragona, 1922 – Barcelona, 1998) is universally revered as on of the founding fathers of humanist documentary photography in post-war Spain. He consolidated his style in the 1950s, a personal approach marked by a distinctive gaze that was manifested in his positioning of the camera, with precise frames that avoided frontality, his use of high- and low-angles, his mastery of light, his quest for balance and incorporation of dynamic movement, and his great love and empathy for his subjects. Català-Roca managed to combine the technical expertise acquired during the years working in his father’s laboratory with his knowledge of the photographic trends of the interwar years, and used that compendium to create photographs that bore witness to the reality of his homeland. His efforts materialised in remarkable projects such as his photo essays on Madrid and Barcelona, published by Destino in 1954 which, if not for the political circumstances in Spain, still quite isolated at the time, would certainly have been included among the greatest urban photography books.

I went to Madrid last week to spend a day visiting photo exhibitions, and I started with the Català-Roca exhibition, called La lucidez de la mirada (“the lucid gaze”). I cannot recall visiting a photography exhibition in recent years that had such an impact on me. I had seen the images in the book, but to see them in real life was a revelation. In the photo below you get an idea of the size of the prints–Català-Roca used mainly a 6×6 cm Hasselblad or a 9×12 cm view camera. The prints on display are recently made copies, but all are traditional silver gelatine prints, faithful to the craft of the photographer.

Visiting La lucidez de la mirada

So what made such an impression on me? I have seen exhibitions of works by most 20th century masters of urban photography (e.g. Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, Friedlander etc.). They are great. But Català-Roca combines the same vision with exquisite craftsmanship that is unparalleled. Every image is carefully crafted, with exquisite attention to composition, light, everything. This is simply fantastic work. The blurb I quote above is spot on: Català-Roca had the misfortune of living in a culturally backward, Fascist dictatorship, and so his work did not get on the radar screen of the cognoscenti in New York or Paris until late in life. For me there is no doubt: Català-Roca was one of the two-three greatest photographers of the 20th century. If you can make it to Madrid before 18 September, go and see the exhibition. If not, buy the book.

As a bonus, when I was leaving the exhibition, I stopped for a brief chat with the lady at the welcome desk (there is no ticket counter since entry is free), and it turned out that she had her little helper with her.

From → Photography

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