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CAMERA and CITY: Urban Life in Photography and Film

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

I am always lucky to see very enriching photography exhibitions in Palma de Mallorca, even that this city doesn't belong to the most famous places for our field, and it has been an honor for me to share with the world my constant personal discoveries why Balearic Islands are far from being here only for tourism.

This exhibition is the first result of the agreement signed recently between "la Caixa" and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It comprises photographs, films, videos and prints from the Centre’s archives,

in dialogue with some of the most outstanding collections of Spanish photography.

The exposition CAMERA and CITY (Cámara y Ciudad | La vida urbana en la fotografía y el cine) was curated by Florian Ebner - the Cabinet of Photography chief curator and Marta Dahó, art historian and consultor for Spanish collection.

When: November 11th 2020 - March 7th 2021.

Where: CaixaForum Palma, Place de Weyler, 3, Palma de Mallorca, Balearic Island.

Barbara Probst, Exposición 152: Nueva York, Broadway y Broome Street, 04/18/2020, 10:46 h 2020. Tinta ultrachrome sobre papel de algodón. Cortesía de Kuckei + Kuckei, Berlin.

While walking through the exposition, you keep meeting pieces of work of quite impressive row of famous international names in photography and film, as are Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, William Klein, Diane Arbus, Jaroslav Rossler, Brassaï, Robert Doisneau, Kertesz and Mikhail Kaufman. Than Joan Colom, Manel Armengol, Pilar Aymerich, Francesc Català-Roca, Leopoldo Pomés, Carlos Pérez de Rozas, Francesc Català-Roca, Leopoldo Pomés form part of the contribution from Spain. Finally you come across very interesting cotemporary authors as Valerie Jouve, Marti Llorens, Xavier Ribas, or Barbara Probst.

"Hold still / Keep going, said Robert Frank, one of the photographers who has best reflected the urban landscape through his camera. Frank was referring to the rhythm between stillness and movement, between the photographic and the cinematographic gaze.

The CAMARA and CITY exhibition sets out to show this rhythm through the intense relationship photographers and filmmakers have with cities and their inhabitants. Our collective imaginary of the city is formed through the eyes of these artists, who see its streets as an immense stage. Rather than a simple journey through the history of how photographers and filmmakers view the metropolis, CAMERA and CITY is above all a visual essay in which the history of photography and the moving image interweaves with the social and political history of the city, its euphorias, solitudes, rebellions and struggles."

Valérie Jouve. Sans titre n° 3 1994. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne – Centre de creation industrielle © Valerie Jouve, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2019 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Georges Meguerditchian/Dist. RMN-GP.

Read the press release from CaixaForum in English for detailed description and be inspired:

This exhibition reflects the idea that society is the engine of history. It explores the city’s role in this powerhouse of modernity by bringing its social and political life into focus and viewing

the metropolis as a great playground. Over these last few months, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought unimaginable changes on urban life. You will find echoes of these changes throughout

the exhibition. In addition, a new space has been created to allow some of the artists to share their recent experience of living

in the city, thus linking Camera and City to the unprecedented times we are all living through.


The Vertical City: Euphoric Modernity in the 1920s

The 20th century began with the upheaval of the First World War. However, after 1918 the West’s faith in modernity, technology and progress seemed unshakeable. As the pace of life picked up, film and photography became the driving forces behind this acceleration not only as instruments of analysis, but also as the means of adapting human physiology to the dizzy speed at which all facets of urban life were being lived. This euphoric rush went in one direction (upwards), propelled by very specific materials (steel and other metals). The United States led the way in many fields, including photography. Photographer Germaine Krull’s great paean to new architectural forms, including the cranes in Rotterdam port and the Eiffel Tower, was entitled simply Métal. Lightning and fireworks became metaphorical sparks of the new role of electricity. As cinematic symphonies of the big city filled cinemas, the great Constructivist artist László Moholy-Nagy captured the elegance of the Marseille transporter bridge on film, while the soaring architecture of radio towers heralded the arrival of a new urban culture.


The City’s New Actors: From the Curious to the Proletarian

The end of the First World War saw a series of new democratic and republican forms of government established in many European countries. These precarious new systems were often threatened by economic downturns and conflicts between the old middle-class elites and the working class. Following the economic crises of the 1920s, the boom-and-bust cycle gave way to greater social permeability, feeding the hopes and fears of a changing society and drawing the attention of writers, artists, filmmakers and photographers towards new characters in the urban landscape. Late 19th century photographers often amateurs who had previously focused on

the city’s middle classes and grand boulevards began taking an interest in the working classes on the edge of town and characters wandering the streets at night. Brassaï created a whole cast of imaginary characters who could easily have stepped straight out of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. The dark side to this euphoric modernity was the lonely individual adrift in the big city, the site of the mysterious encounters that haunted the writings of Pierre Mac Orlan. In the Soviet Union, however, the utopia of a socialist society was starting to take shape. Mikhail Kaufman’s In Spring, a cinematic poem that broke with Constructivist tradition, likens the creation of a new society to the awakening of nature.

Paul Strand. Blind Woman, New York 1916. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne – Centre de creation industrielle © Aperture Foundation, Paul Strand Archive © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/ Dist. RMN-GP.


The Militant City: Spain in the 1930s

For one 25-year-old French artist, Surrealist painter and photographer, 1930s Spain was a great experimental stage where he could hone his craft. And many other French and European leftwing intellectuals, artists and photographers followed in Henri

Cartier-Bresson’s footsteps to capture the social tensions and report on the Popular Front’s victory in an election that would soon be followed by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Even more remarkable were the young photographers who flocked to Spain with the International Brigades to fight fascism in a war that received greater media coverage than any previous one. Their pictures were published alongside those by the leading Spanish and Catalan photographers of the time, including committed republicans such as Pere Català i Pic and Agustí Centelles and experienced photojournalists like Gabriel Casas and Pérez de Rozas. Besides displaying the striking iconic images of the Civil War, this section also includes the various formats in which photographs were published at the time. Printed on the pages of French magazines and leaflets, as well as on the postcards, albums and special editions distributed by the Catalan Government’s Propaganda Commissariat, photography was no longer merely a witness: it was now a new weapon on the city streets.


The Humanist and Existential City: Reconciliation after the War

After 1945, Paris became the capital of what was known as humanist photography; it was a place to meet others, a site for reconciliation with life after the bitter experiences of war. The focus was on what people had in common as reflected by the title of a major photography exhibition at MoMA, The Family of Man, rather than enquiring into what had divided them so sharply in

the preceding decades. The street became the centre of attention for photography in the 1950s: a theatre stage imbued at times with gentle melancholy while at others gripped by sharp the European scene included Joan Colom, who scoured the Raval neighbourhood in Barcelona, under the shadow of Franco’s dictatorship, for an alternative vision of the other, at once sensual and sculptural. In the United States, whose cities had been spared the ravages of war, William Klein’s photographs captured the same nervous, even aggressive, vitality of the new metropolis, where children’s gestures and neon billboards proclaimed “the survival of the fittest” as the credo of the capitalist city.


The Critical City: Thoughts on Conditions in Society

Following a period of poetic realism and humanist photography, the 1960s brought a change of perspective on the same subject.

The larger-than-life characters wandering the empty streets of Paris were replaced by dropouts left behind by the modern metropolis:

the products of a competitive society who couldn’t survive in the big city. Peter Emanuel Goldman’s films revealed a sinister “city symphony” far removed from the euphoric Roaring Twenties. The growing interest in social sciences and humanities gave photographers a keener insight into the complexities of modern societies, which soon manifested itself in the United States with the arrival of critical intellectuals, artists and photographers from postwar Europe. Austrian-born photographer Lisette Model became a highly influential figure at the New School for Social Research, where she taught a young generation of photographers whose work was epitomized by the groundbreaking 1967 MoMA show New Documents.

Lisette Model. Lower East Side, NY (Déprime) c.1950. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee National d’art Moderne – Centre de creation industrielle © Galerie Baudoin Lebon © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-GP.


The Rebellious City

The delicate political balancing act necessitated by the new world order after 1945, including the Cold War and the dying colonial regimes, triggered a major intergenerational conflict in the late 1960s. Photographers at the Magnum agency, set up in 1947 by survivors of the Second World War and the Holocaust and later joined by photography professionals from across the world, produced iconic pictures of cities in revolt. Protests against the war in Vietnam and against the bourgeois, imperialist society waging it brought together American and European youth in 1967 and 1968 in a struggle against an established social order that had become outdated and patriarchal. A decade later, young people in Spain made this struggle their own, following the death of Franco, in 1976. At these different moments in time, photographers, young journalists and activists shared similar mindsets and were often members of the same movements or certainly sympathised with their goals.

Marc Riboud. La Jeune Fille à la fleur 1967. Gelatina de plata. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne – Centre de creation industrielle © Marc Riboud /Magnum Photos / Contacto © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Georges Meguerditchian/Dist. RMN-GP


Staging the City

For decades, street photography, with its direct approach to the subject “straight and candid photography” shaped the aesthetics of modern photography, exemplified here by Paul Strand’s work. Over time, though, cinematic aesthetics gained ground, and by 1976

A. D. Coleman was writing about a “directorial mode”, that is, taking photographs in the style of a film director. Telling a story through a sequence of images was an idea borrowed from filmmaking, but it was now applied to everyday life, turning streets into film sets. Staged pictures could express a far greater degree of complexity, blurring the lines between snapshot, tableau vivant and portrait, while also playing with genres and creating very intense images. This new approach was seen as liberating photography from the shackles of naturalism and the tyranny of authenticity, which had always been a chimera. In parallel, by staging a specific tradition, photography was questioning its own history.


The Horizontal City

In contrast to the euphoric 1920s, when vertical metropolises rose higher and higher, the second half of the 20th century saw a change in the perception of the city, now characterised by a horizontal spread into suburbs and semi-urban areas, with the notable exception of Berlin, whose empty centre still bore the scars of war: wastelands in a divided city. Attention now fell on the edges of cities, attracting photographers to the “non-places” in our modern society. How to deconstruct and retro-develop a city became

the latest challenge for architects. The failure of the urban and social utopias of the 1960s and 1970s was starkly exposed in the demolition of whole neighbourhoods. Immigrants, concentrated on

the outskirts of cities, became an integral part of the urban population, bringing with them their popular culture, poverty and distinctive ways of life.


The Reflective City: Negotiating the Public Space

The 1970s saw a more abstract and detached perspective of the street take hold. This approach aimed to understand the functioning of new social structures, and turned old streets into modern public spaces. A democracy that could shape public space, allow room for citizens’ individual identities and successfully organize community life was

a good indication of a mature society. During this decade it was artists rather than photographers who, instead of merely documenting urban life, sought to intervene in it by making contact with passersby and breaking through the barrier of human anonymity. They increasingly explored this abstract notion of public space and sought out possible room for manoeuvre, as well as observing forms of political organisation, cultural events and gatherings that questioned the forms of collective memory by which a society relates to its past.


The Global and Virtual City

The 21st-century metropolis is no longer a closed cosmos with its inhabitants, social classes, culture and counterculture shut off from everything else; it is now closely connected to the whole world. In the age of globalisation and the internet, physical cities and virtual cities coexist, and the consequences of an online stock market crash are felt on the street. Echoing the 1920s, bird’s eye perspectives are once again all the rage: Google Earth and Google Street View constitute the “scopic regimes” of our age (Jonathan Crary), a new kind of surveillance of public space that goes far beyond local authorities’ CCTV cameras. The peripheries of the world have become far more interesting than the old centres of the West: this is where we can read the future of cities, with their flows of migrants and refugees alongside people plying their trade in

the dark corners of sunny streets. Parabolic antennas recall the utopias and promises of the radio towers at the beginning of

the modern age.

Valérie Jouve. Sans titre n° 6 1994. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne – Centre de creation industrielle © Valerie Jouve, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2019 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Bertrand Prevost/Dist. RMN-GP.


Common Limits

At a time like this, how should we go about presenting an exhibition that sets out to explore the idea of the city, its urban structures and street life? What does it mean to think about changes in urban space and the public sphere when societies all across the world have been emptying their streets and putting their citizens into lockdown to save human lives? Can we really present the exhibition in the same way we did before when we are yet to emerge into the after, stuck instead in an in-between limbo? This presentation of Camera and City: Urban Life in Photography and Film at CaixaForum includes a specially created space in which some of the artists were invited to share their recent experience of living in the city. In their own way, they have each woven the show’s discursive threads through new gestures, voices and pictures. Some of the artists have linked their thoughts on the current situation to their own piece already on display in the exhibition, while others have opted to share work they created during lockdown or made specifically in response to our invitation. As a whole, this

wide range of projects acts as a sounding board inviting us to join in this open-ended reflection on the limits that bind us all.

Photographies from © Fundación Bancaria Caixa d'Estalvis i Pensions de Barcelona, "la Caixa". Todos los derechos reservados, Paris © Centre Pompidou.


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