BY JUDITH BLACK
Lucky is what you might call it. Lucky for me, lucky for Carlos and Neus, lucky for Ramon Rius. Lucky for us all. Luck has long been defined as one thing that photographers cannot do without; we pack it in the camera bag.
As a photography professor at Wellesley College, I often get calls from colleagues asking for advice on what kind of camera to buy, what film to use or how to choose a wedding photographer. So when I got a call asking if I would look at some old negatives from a family shoebox to see if they were worth printing, I agreed.
For many years, I have researched the history of family albums and their value as vernacular documentation of individual lives and as archives of social and political histories. Squinting through the loupe at the negatives to see the detail, it was immediately apparent that the photographs had been worth the look. They were medium format negatives, about 2.25 x 3.5 inches (6 x 9 cm) from a roll film camera, maybe a Kodak Brownie. They were also in relatively good shape, not torn or badly damaged, only a bit scratched and mottled. Sharp enough focus, lively compositions, pretty good exposures—in fact, they were very beautiful images.
Talking with Carlos Ramos, the Wellesley Spanish professor who had come to me with the negatives, I learned that they belonged to his wife’s grandfather, Ramon Rius, and that he had taken them during the Spanish Civil War near his bakery in Lleida. After showing the negatives to several other photographers in the art department, we all agreed that the images would make a very interesting exhibit. It would be a great way for the Spanish and Art departments to collaborate, and give students a taste of history as seen from the “bottom up,” rather than through the eyes and official records of historians.
The connections between the Spanish Civil War and influential literary works by George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway were obvious, as was the relation to the iconic photographs taken by Robert Capa, one of the first photojournalists to record images of war from the front lines. Picasso’s Guernica and other depictions of the war also came to mind. Original propaganda posters from the war were in the college archive. A small gallery in the department could be used for an exhibit in the fall of 2006, in which we could place the photos in both an artistic and historical context.
Vernacular photography, or photographs taken by “ordinary” people for no particular purpose other than to satisfy the photographer and a few close friends, has become an area of study for photo historians. The amateur photographer has long been a mainstay for the photographic industry, especially since the invention of celluloid roll films and the Kodak camera, which enabled people everywhere to record their lives. Family members, vacations, birthdays, all were entered into albums. “You press the button, we do the rest,” was the mantra that made George Eastman, the inventor of the Kodak camera, a very wealthy and influential man.
By 1936, one hundred years after the invention of photography, when Ramon Rius photographed the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in Lleida’s streets, camera shops and studios were common businesses in the city. According to local historians, at least ten photographers, amateur and professional, are known to have been working in Lleida at that time. (Servei de Publiacions-UdL, Fotografs a Lleida: des dels inicis fins als anys 50, Lleida: Edicions de la Universitat de Lleida, 1998.)
In August, Carlos left the negatives in my care and returned to Lleida for a month’s visit, hoping to find out more information about the sites and the events pictured in Rius’s photographs. He emailed me excitedly to say that the negatives were important to the city’s historical archives! They were only the second batch of images known to exist of the war in Lleida; the other photos had been taken by Agusti Centelles for the Propaganda ministry after the bombing of a school in November 1937, where hundreds were killed.
Rius, who owned the town bakery, had not been hired by anyone. Unlike other war photographs, his were taken with no declared intent other than to record what was happening on his street and in his town. While it would be a stretch for most of us to think of ourselves as foreign war correspondents, it is not a stretch to imagine taking a photo of the building burning across the street. Though we will never know what impelled Rius to grab his camera when the bread line formed outside the bakery, when the fascist troops read their statements, or when troops piled into trucks, we can put ourselves in his place. There is not a dead body to be found in any of his images, only the subtle story of a war that pitted best friends and relatives against one another.
The narrative that emerges from the best photographs does not take a moral stance, but allows us to ask questions. Who is the woman in the doorway? Why do people look directly at the lens as if knowing the photographer? Where was Rius standing on the bridge while the parade marched towards him? Where is his shadow? Who are the men in the white shoes? The light, the gestures, the framing all come together in a way that even Henri Cartier-Bresson — or Robert Frank, or Susan Meiselas — would have admired. Rius, using a camera that had little framing and minimum focusing capability, got lucky. Repeatedly!
Of the forty-eight negatives of Rius’ that have been found relating to the war, only three or four are unusable. In just forty-five images, the story of the war is played out. Perhaps Rius took many more and edited them down to his favorites. We will never know. History will judge Rius on fewer than one hundred surviving images—or approximately four rolls of thirty-six-exposure 35mm film. From the many other pictures that he took before and after the war, we can tell that he loved cameras, and the way the lens captured light. He particularly enjoyed taking self-portraits; country scenes and an old cathedral were other favorite subjects. But there are still many questions about Ramon and his camera that will never be answered.
Luck may have played a role in bringing Rius’s photos to us, but chance is only one part of the equation. Rius’s courage to make repeated ventures out onto the street with his camera while public demonstrations swirled around him make these photographs all the more intense. We don’t know why he risked doing what he did; the act of photographing exposed him to retribution from many sides. But he was ready, and he took the chance.
Perhaps the luckiest part of all of this is that the negatives survived the bombing of Rius’ apartment and bakery, and all the years hidden in the family archives. And that Neus Codina, Rius’s granddaughter, recognized that something important was in those negatives and urged her husband, Carlos Ramos, to investigate.
Archival prints are usually meant to be handled only with white gloves, so that finger oils do not mar the surface over time. But returning the prints and negatives to their home in Lleida this January reminded me that photographs are physical memories, meant to be touched and examined closely, not stored under glass. Watching a group of Lleida senior citizens who were involved in the war, now in their nineties, handle the prints, point, talk and remember, brought this home to me. I felt that Rius was there at the table, too, leaving his fingerprints all over the images.
The images that resulted from Rius’s vision and impulse to take pictures are a powerful reminder of how historically important even the most “ordinary” photographic documents can become. Photographs from the family album often trigger stories; oral histories surface and are passed on in this way. Susan Meiselas, an American documentary photographer and member of Magnum, the photo agency started by Robert Capa and others in 1946, has worked with Kurdistan to re-create some of what was lost in when the country’s libraries and archives were bombed, by piecing together stories generated by family photographs. (Meiselas, Susan. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. Random House, 1997; www.akaKURDISTAN.com.) Similarly, we hope that the discovery of Rius’ photographs will help Lleida hold on to an important part of its history so that the memories are not lost along with the generation that witnessed the war.
Judith Black is a photographer and an associate professor of art at Wellesley College. Her photographic work focuses on her family and self in a twenty-five year exploration of the portrait. Her research looks at photographers who use their family experience as material for their work, and studies how that representation reflects the social and cultural image of the family in the visual arts of the period. Black’s work has been included in numerous national and international exhibitions and publications exploring the themes of family, self and the maternal. It can also be found in museum collections across the country, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Polaroid International Collection, the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, and the Houston Museum of Fine Art.
History in a Shoebox: Photographs from the Spanish Civil War
The year 2006 marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War. Fascist regimes and civil wars have been a constant historical theme in many places and times; having an exhibit of Ramon Rius’s photographs was a perfect way to bring the attention of the college to the events of the time. Grants from the Davis Fund for World Cultures, the Art Department, the Spanish Department at Wellesley College and the Spanish Consulate in Boston allowed us to have quality scans done of the negatives, twenty inkjet prints made and an exhibit mounted in very short period of time. The resulting exhibit, History in a Shoebox: Photographs from the Spanish Civil War, drew a considerable audience from both the college and the Boston area. Text panels accompanying the photographs gave timeframe and historical background.
In January, we brought the negatives, along with inkjet prints of the entire collection, to the historical archives of Lleida; in May, the entire body of work was exhibited the University of Lleida. A book of the photographs, Lleida en guerra. La colleccio Ramon Rius, a cura de Carlos Ramos, included essays by nine different scholars, and was published to coincide with the opening of the exhibition; this essay was included in the book. A portion of the exhibit will be shown at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C. in November 2007.