“A Photograph Doesn’t Lie”: Ricard Martínez & Susanna Muriel on Re-Photography and the Spanish Civil War

August 26, 2019
By
Agustí Centelles, Carrer Diptació, Barcelona, July 19, 1936. Centro Documental de Memoria Histórica, Salamanca.

Cover of Newsweek magazine, August 1, 1936. Photo by Centelles.

Revisiting a historic image to take a new photograph from the same point of view—the technique known as re-photography—opens up new avenues for research. It also helps redefine our relationship to the past and the future. What does rephotography look like in relation to the Spanish Civil War and Francoism? A conversation with Ricard Martínez and Susanna Muriel Ortiz.

Early in the morning on July 19, 1936, the young photojournalist Agustí Centelles left his house in Barcelona, a Leica camera in hand and his pockets full of film rolls. The day before, the army had risen up against the Republican government. But the Republic was resisting. From one moment to the next, the streets of the Catalan capital had turned into a battlefield. History was being made, and Centelles was determined to cover as much of it as he could.

Around 2 PM that same day, Centelles arrived at the corner of the Diputació street with Pau Claris. The fighting had stopped—but it had clearly been intense. Toward the end of the block, where Diputació intersects with Roger de Llúria, he saw five or six dead horses, still tied to a cart that some assault guards were attempting to cut loose. Centelles started walking in the direction of the horses, taking photographs as he went. Once he got to the corner, three guards took up their rifles, with bayonet and all, and took aim, using the pile of horses as a parapet, reenacting what could have been their position during the firefight that morning. An older man in a dark suit stood next to them, a couple of steps back, pretending to fire a small revolver. At that point, Centelles focused his Leica and took the shot that would make him famous. In the following days the picture, shot in landscape, was published in a couple of Catalan papers. Ten days later, it appeared—now in portrait, with the suited man cropped out—on the cover of Ahora, in Madrid, and of Newsweek in the United States.

“And yet, it’s possible that wasn’t the shot that Centelles was going for that day,” Ricard Martínez tells me. It’s July 19, 2019, exactly 83 years later, and we stand on the same corner of Diputació with Roger de Llúria, close to noon, with our feet on the very sidewalk that, in 1936, was blocked by dead horses. “If you take a close look at the sequence of Centelles’s negatives,” Martínez says, “you realize that he walked down the block in search of a particular shot. Yet the one that ends the series is not that of the assault guards pointing their rifles, but a frame of the dead horses, from a different angle, without any human presence at all”. He shows me a print of that picture, which is decidedly less epic than the one that made Newsweek’s cover. If anything, it’s desolate.

Martínez, a photographer and film producer, has spent the past ten years doing rephotography. “To rephotograph,” he wrote last year, “basically means to revisit a historic image and take a new photograph from the same point of view.” Although the technique was developed by scientists to visualize long-term geological shifts, since the 1970s it’s been used for artistic and political purposes as well. (New York Changing, in which Douglas Levere re-photographs Berenice Abbott’s pictures taken 65 years earlier, is a good example.)


“Once you put yourself in the exact place from where a photograph was taken, you begin to see with your body.”


Martínez’s work reintroduces photographs from the past, often images of the Civil War in Catalonia, into their present context. Sometimes he uses Photoshop; other times, he takes a picture of his hand holding the older image against the background where it was shot. In both cases, the old merges with the new, like a ghost coming back to take up the spot it occupied while alive. In his most ambitious project to date, Martínez installed life-sized reproductions of historical photos in the Barcelona streetscapes where they were taken. These installations are almost always controversial in Spain, where the unexpected return of the repressed can unleash strong reactions ranging from graffiti to destruction.

For the past couple of years, Martínez (RM) has worked together with Susanna Muriel Ortiz (SMO), a photographic archivist, who also joins us for part of the interview. Both belong to “Point-of-View Archeology,” a collective that organizes exhibits, courses, and rephotography tours through Barcelona.

Patio de armas del castillo de Montjuïc. Barcelona, Ricard Martínez, 2011. On October 14, 1940, Lluís Companys, President of the Catalan Generalitat, is brought before a military tribunal, a few hours before his execution. (Photo credit original image: unidentified, 1940 / Archivo Varela, Cádiz).

Patio de armas del castillo de Montjuïc. Barcelona, Ricard Martínez, 2011. On October 14, 1940, Lluís Companys, President of the Catalan Generalitat, is brought before a military tribunal, a few hours before his execution. (Photo credit original image: unidentified, 1940 / Archivo Varela, Cádiz).

Finding out when and where a photograph was taken often requires a serious forensic investigation. What do you get out of that process?

RM: First off, there’s the emotional dimension. The process requires a deep personal involvement—especially when it comes to the Civil War, which in some ways isn’t over yet. Then, once you’ve discovered the place from which an image was shot, and you stand there, you gain so much precise information that you begin to perceive the image in a completely different way. On the one hand, you’re seduced by the illusion of objectivity that every photograph conjures up. On the other, though, standing there also pushes you to adopt a more critical way of looking. As you discover where the photographer stood, and as you wonder why he stood there and not somewhere else, you begin to think about the sheer language of photography. Whether you want to or not, you have to face the fact that, through their rhetoric, photographs construct a reality. I say construct because I don’t like to use the word manipulation. Photographs don’t lie. If anything, it’s the captions that do the lying, and generally the photographer doesn’t write those.

So, on the one hand, this process unmasks the entire literary or journalistic construction behind a particular photograph. On the other, though, it compels you to see with more than just your eyes. You’re beginning to see with your body as well. You realize, for instance, that the photographer’s eyes are attached to a body, a body that can move. You can take a step forwards or back, you can squat a bit or stand on your toes—in Centelles’s case, you’d be squatting because he was 5’5”—until everything lines up. That exercise forces you to face the fact that, like everyone, you view the world from a particular point of view. And that your gaze, just like the photographer’s, is never passive.


“Rephotography has a therapeutic effect.”


“Finding the point of view,” you have written, “means to return into someone else’s footsteps. It’s a gesture of empathy between generations.” Is it always about empathy, or do you also discover things that the photographer would have preferred to keep hidden?

RM: Well, for the case of the assault guards, just putting yourself in the place of the camera makes you realize right away that he shot it while standing in the street, where there would have been no protection in a hypothetical crossfire. So he couldn’t have shot that picture while guards were still engaged in combat, as the initial captions suggested. The light, too, indicates that the photographs were shot at around 2 PM.

How do you know?

RM: As it happens, Barcelona is one gigantic sun dial. The Eixample, designed in the late nineteenth century by Ildefons Cerdà, consists of octagonal blocks that are perfectly lined up with the compass. This means that the shadows in a picture, especially where they hit a wall, allow you to determine when the picture was taken, sometimes up to the minute.

This is the technical part. But I imagine there are also professional, historical, and even personal dimensions to all this. 

RM: In fact, they are constantly intertwined. Let me give you an example. Susanna and I are working with one of Centelles’s two sons, Sergi, who has allowed us access to the archive of family photographs. [The professional archive was sold to the Spanish state archive in 2009—ed.] Sergi has joined us on trips to some of the places where his father took pictures, including Huesca and Belchite. Susanna and I approach those pictures from a technical standpoint. For Sergi, it’s an emotional experience. He was born in the midst of the war, in July 1937. For him, therefore, it makes a difference whether one of his father’s pictures was taken before or after he was born.

SMO: On one of our trips, Sergi was holding one of his dad’s professional pictures, which was after all what drove us to undertake the journey. But once we got there, what he talked about most were the family pictures that the place reminded him of.

RM: Interestingly, even Centelles’s professional work is intertwined with the personal. The negatives of that same July 19, 1936, allow us to retrace his steps street by street. At one point, he goes along the Nou de Rambla, but then he turns into Lancaster Street, where he takes a single picture before moving on. Why Lancaster Street? Well, as it turns out, that’s where his father lived. So he must have checked in on him.

Patio de armas del castillo de Montjuïc. Barcelona, Ricard Martínez, 2011. On October 14, 1940, Lluís Companys, President of the Catalan Generalitat, is brought before a military tribunal, a few hours before his execution. (Photo credit original image: unidentified, 1940 / Archivo Varela, Cádiz).

Patio de armas del castillo de Montjuïc. Barcelona, Ricard Martínez, 2011. On October 14, 1940, Lluís Companys, President of the Catalan Generalitat, is brought before a military tribunal, a few hours before his execution. (Photo credit original image: unidentified, 1940 / Archivo Varela, Cádiz).

Contrasting the past with the present shows how much has changed but also how much hasn’t.

RM: There are places in Barcelona that still show bullet holes, as if the fighting happened yesterday.

When you take groups on a tour looking for places where historic photographs were shot, I imagine that experience is different for a visitor than for someone who grew up in the city.

RM: Foreigners see it like a game. For people from Barcelona, the experience is often more emotional. For many, the war is an inextricable part of their lives, their family history. The other day, when doing the Centelles tour, someone told me: “My grandmother lived right here, and told me about the dead horses.”

SMO: They were actually twin sisters, whose grandmother lived just above where we’re sitting now. The scene she told them about is the same one that Centelles photographed.

RM: The grandmother also told them that during the shooting that morning, a bullet had entered the apartment.

If you had the funds, are there larger projects you’d like to undertake?

RM: So far, my public installations have all been temporary. I’d like to do something more permanent. But that’s complicated, not just in terms of costs and materials, but also because those large photographic installations are an obstacle, physically and otherwise. An installation has something violent to it. It’s an intervention. A disturbance.

SM: A couple of years ago, Ricard installed a life-size photograph in front of the Barcelona Cathedral of Franco visiting the city in 1970. That installation was vandalized multiple times.


“A photographic installation has something violent to it. It’s an intervention—a disturbance.”


The reactions to a project will depend, I guess, on the affective value of the image used. In Catalonia, a photograph of Franco doesn’t incite the same response as one of President Lluís Companys, of whom you did an installation at Montjüic.

SMO: That’s right. And the affective component is not limited to public photography. I am now giving a series of workshops that help people organize their archives of family photographs and come up with ways to re-photograph them. It has made us realize the therapeutic effect this work can have. One woman, for example, chose a picture in which she appeared in the company of people who since have all died. She decided to shoot that image again, holding the old photograph, but with her husband and daughters in the place of those who’d passed away. She clearly felt the need to come to terms with that memory—and in the course of the project, she did. In the first class, she was all tears. By the last class, she was smiling.


“Every photograph probes the future.”


Is rephotography always nostalgic?

RM: It’s easy to get that impression. And of course there are plenty of nostalgic instances; for example, projects that compare the Barcelona of old with the city today. But I am convinced that, in reality, it’s the other way around. Think about it: you reconstruct a photograph, you figure out where everybody in the picture was standing, where the photographer stood when he pressed the shutter release. But what is your place in all that? Where do you stand? One answer to that question is simple: Here, in the present. But another answer says: you are in the future. That is to say, you are in the future of the photograph you are recreating. Realizing that doesn’t close history off, like nostalgia would. It opens it up, because it also reveals the potential in what you are seeing. It was that same idea that drove Agustí Centelles, that day in July, 1936, to fill his pockets with film rolls. Every photograph probes the future.

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One Response to “ “A Photograph Doesn’t Lie”: Ricard Martínez & Susanna Muriel on Re-Photography and the Spanish Civil War ”

  1. Elissa Krauss on September 1, 2019 at 2:59 pm

    I was very fortunate to have a tour of Barcelona with Ricard back in December 2016. His knowledge, insights, and explanation helped us to feel and experience history. Anyone who plans to visit should contact him for a view of Barcelona and the history of the Civil War that is unparalleled… and should not be missed.

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