Paper presented in collaboration with Jordi Calafell at Photography: Between Anthropology and History, PHRC, De Montfort University, Leicester, 20-21 June 2016.
Thanks to the PHRC Conference Team. Jordi Calafell and I, are very pleased to have been invited to participe in this 4th annual conference and especially in this edition dedicated to Professor Elizabeth Edwards. My colleague Jordi Calafell has not been able to join us due to his work in the Photographic Archive of Barcelona, so I am going to present the research on behalf of us both.
This paper focuses on Spanish domestic photography in the Civil War years. A visually very well known conflict thanks to the pioneering photojournalism done by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, David Seymour Chim, Henri-Cartier Bresson among many other photographers that emerged in those years. The Spanish Civil war confronted the Republican government against Fascism throughout the course of European rising right-win extremism. It is widely accepted that the Spanish Civil War was the first modern conflict deeply documented by mass media such as cinema and photography. In this sense, Spanish Civil War would be responsible for the birth of modern international photojournalism, which matured during the upcoming Second World War. Our global research question is: assuming that the Spanish Civil War was the first modern photojournalism conflict, would it be possible to consider it also as one of the first war photographed domestically? We develop this inquiry considering the fact that domestic photography had its first massive extension in the inter-war period.
We started this research at the end of 2015 and when we asked people if their families had photos from the thirties and the Civil War years, the automatic answer was “absolutely not because that was not a time for taking snaps”, “there were no photographic materials” or simply, “people did not want to remember those years”. However, after insisting on the possibility of looking at their domestic images and when we got over their resistance, the oldest photographs they normally had were usually from the 1920’s and 1930’s, but often also range from between 1936-1939. More than us, families then became completely surprised at seeing that in effect, they did have some in their personal collections.
II. Initial inquiries
Our research question comes together with other initial inquiries that are strongly related to contemporary Spanish society in terms of social fabric, political ideologies and cultural backgrounds.
Although the Francoist dictatorship finished in the seventies, critical inquiries and new historical approaches towards the Civil War and the Franco Dictatorship have started recently. From the perspective of History of Photography, local Republican photojournalists are just being recovered from the historical amnesia imposed after the end of the war through exhibitions and monographs. This is particularly the case for Catalan photographers like Pere Català Pic or Gabriel Casas. Not to mention, Agustí Centelles, who is considered the ‘Catalan Robert Capa’. Certainly for most of us it seems like the Civil War swallowed a piece of history that not until now has demanded to be narrated. What kind of history of photography would we have constructed, if it had not been for the Franco dictatorship?
When it comes to domestic photography, we know that just after Franco’s victory a public campaign started to collect as many photos as possible. The aim was to pursue all those Spaniards engaged or participating in any kind of Republican activity. But, beyond the official censorship, invisible power and coercion imposed social silence for more than four decades. Even now many witnesses don’t feel comfortable enough to speak about the war. Although democracy was restored, still nowadays there is no definitive law in place to give access to historical memory. That being said, what has happened to domestic photography from that time? And which role can it play in contemporary time and memory?
Epistemologically speaking, our aim is to drag domestic photos into the core of visual questions regarding the representation of the Spanish Civil War.
1) On a visual level, which narratives do these photos show us? What do they hide? In this frame of analysis, what’s the dialectical relationship and contrast between domestic photography and the images of photojournalism?
2) In terms of action, who, when, how and for what purpose were these photos taken? Did the experience of war alter the photographic ‘routine’ of civilians?
II. The Second Republic years and the spread of photographic culture
Due to the domestic nature of personal photographs, the epistemological field of the research is as large as our ability to reach people. On this point, we would like to clarify that many of the collections we have worked with belong to old Republican or non-positioned families (this last group is more numerous than we think). We have had access to only a small number of Nationalist images, the majority of them from anonymous families. In short, we have mainly built our inquiries using Catalan photographic collections and to a lesser degree, Castilian and foreign archives.
In spite of these handicaps, we consider the city of Barcelona to be a very interesting case study. In the thirties, Barcelona became the first city in Spain with 1 million inhabitants. Its comercial development during the beginning of the 20th Century had a high quantity of rural immigrants that filled the industrial manpower demands. This population growth was concomitant with the city service sector enhancement and the maturity of urban cultural practices within it photography.
Consideration should be given to the interclass feature of this new urban and mass culture. According to Ucelay Da Cal (1982: 58-60), Catalan culture was mainly bourgeois despite different social classes and inner tensions. In the 20’s and 30’s popular classes followed cultural patterns set by the ruling class. On one hand, because this ruling class promoted social advancement as a way of reinforcing social class borders. On the other hand, because the aim of popular classes to defend themselves and self affirmation required them to adopt bourgeois models of organization, behavior and taste (Da Cal, 1982: 60). Sport and outdoor leisure at the seaside or in the countryside, and above all photography were those cultural signs of social advancement and autonomy. In this regard, Republican politics and culture, prior to the Civil War, had a deep spread and rooting in Barcelona more than any other place in Spain.
Jordi Calafell and I argue that in the 30’s, for the first time, all social classes in Barcelona had the possibility of accessing their own self-representation. New popular and mechanical photographic systems, such as the street photographer or photomaton machines, appeared and multiplied around 1929. This was no coincidence. What’s more, acquiring a camera was not necessarily expensive. Therefore, economically and culturally speaking domestic photographic practice was in a larger or smaller degree on the brink of being available to the masses as the Spanish Civil War started.
III. Sketching a classification
Due to the breadth and complexity of the topic, our objective here is to map out photographers, types of images and uses of visual narratives involving questions of generation, gender and different photographic backgrounds. We do not claim to create enclosed and static categories but to look for tendencies, strong lines and patterns in the photographic action and experience.
The Spanish Civil War meant the military confrontation between two traditional faces of Spain: the conservative and the progressive. Despite these two clear blocs, it is important to point out that in reality, ideological positions and actions were not so distinguished or different. War was, and still is, about ‘in-betweeness’, contradictions, incoherencies, even frivolities and domestic photos ‘trace’ all of these aspects.
In terms of photographic culture, we want to underline that all domestic photos share visual patterns and senses of use. It is to say, both Nationalist and Republican photographic collections are constructed on the same formal basis. The only difference lies in material aspects such as uniforms and symbols. In this sense, visual forms and uses are the same in both cases.
From the rearguard to the combat zone
Portraits as an evidence of life and a tool for communication
The first typology we might consider is the most classical genre in photographic culture: the portrait. These photos are constructed on the basis of its believed iconic status. That is to say, from the conception of image as an index or as physical evidence of existence in the brink of an imminent change or an extreme vital experience such as war, especially for young people. In our view, they are the most photographed not only because they are those that made up the troops but because on their return –if they were truly going to return–, they were not going to be young anymore, but adults. Red Cross Nurses or civilians turned into soldiers are the most common examples. Already in the combat zone, we have found again many examples of soldiers’ portraits always accompanied by hand-written messages of calm and peace. They normally are photomaton or ambulant portraits. They were cheap, fast to do and small, easy to send by postal service as long as they passed censorship. It is important to highlight its communicative objective. These photos kept the rearguard in touch with the combat zone, always in permanent dialogue. Other examples show how soldiers on leave resume their everyday lives, hanging out not only with their girlfriends, but also continuing with photography.
Still within this ‘category’, we would like to include portraits of groups of soldiers. As Anne Wilkes Tucker quoted from Jeffrey Hunt in War/Photography. Images of armed conflict and its aftermath, soldiers breaks in combat were a kind of manifestation of their “civilian inside the soldier returning to the life they had before” (Tucker, 2012: p. 289, rf. 1). We would like to highlight that the Spanish Civil War was mainly civilian as military troops were not only made up by volunteers but especially with normal young men, with no military experience, forced into fighting in the war. As historian James Matthews studied (2013), more than 1 million men were pushed into combat on both sides while they were more worried about their families and their everyday life rather than the ideological battle. Thereupon, we wonder whether domestic photographs taken in the combat zone can be considered as a part of civilian daily life, will and resistance in a foreign context to them such as war.
Documenting urban war landscape
Perhaps the most common thought about domestic photographic practice and war is to expect a kind of domestic photojournalism. However, we have very few cases of amateur photographers that portrayed the social and political events from the war. The limited examples we have worked with refer to expert photographers such as Joaquim Garrigosa, a stamps seller, trained in photographic courses in the Photographic Association in Catalonia (Barcelona). He had already been photographing political and social agitated events prior to the Civil War. In this sense, his photographs continue a task of documentation started before, inasmuch the war was its extension. Hence Mr. Garrigosa took photos of assaults on churches in July 1936, at the beginning of the war.
Youngsters and leisure
According to Luis Sanfelippo (2013: 55, rf. 18), there is a tendency to globalise historical traumatic experiences such as Nazism or the Argentine dictatorship. We can add the Spanish Civil War to this list too. Sanfelippo warns that it can be an impediment to see that in some way normal daily life continued, at least certain aspects of it.
Looking at the rearguard photographic activity it seems to us that two types of evidence are imposed. Firstly, although in prior decades adults were the centre of domestic representation, now they tend to disappear in favour of youngsters. This happens not only because adults were either in the front or working in a difficult context but also because photography is becoming progressively an infant issue. Secondly, these youngsters had fun and their naive life continued in relatively the same way. What seems important to us is the fact that photography played a role as a mediatory tool that activated and monitored those moments of disruption in the context of war.
Among the different examples we have worked with, most of the photographs come from middle and upper class families. Looking at them it seems that youngsters have stolen the family camera and started taking snaps with some common themes. The first one refers to the beginning of war. The Spanish Civil War broke out in July of 1936 after a failed attempted coup by a part of the Spanish army and conservative parties. It meant that children with brothers, cousins and friends were spending the summer at the seaside when the conflict began. The first photos of the war are framed in this context and they show a relaxed and care-free atmosphere despite the first signs of war appear such as military caps. In the city, they continue with their photographic ‘routine’, depicting themselves playing on the rooftop or walking on a Sunday morning with some of their friends. We would like to point that although Barcelona, our main case study, was a certain distance from the combat zone, the city started to be bombed at the beginning of 1937 and aerial attacks by the Italian army were increasing all through that year and into 1938. In short, within a dramatic and menacing context, photography was a place of distention, even disconnection, as well as encounter, meeting point and of strengthening relations and affections.
This kind of photography finishes around mid 1938, a moment when boys of seventeen and eighteen were moved to the combat zone. This is the dramatic ‘Baby generation’ that fought in the south of Catalonia in the final moment of the Republican government. The absence of friends and brothers as well as the beginning of scarcity and a lack of material commonly interrupt all these family albums, despite a few exceptions. Rare photos taken from 1938 on translate much more tension and concern.
Condor Legion (German Air Force) and military tourism
A very important photographic production belongs to the German Air Force soldiers, commonly known as the Condor Legion. They were young German Nazis who moved to Spain to fight on Franco’s side. According to historians, despite the war, all these soldiers travelled to Spain primarily attracted by the exoticism of the country, it is to say, with a certain touristic attitude. We can see it clearly in their personal collections in which we can find a lot of landscapes and monuments portrayed using good technology from Germany. It is interesting to point out also how they depicted insistently North African soldiers. Not one reference to Spanish soldiers neither Nationalist or Republican as German soldiers despised them.
Domestic photography in the Spanish Civil War is such a complex topic that obviously poses numerous questions. We would like to point out at least three conclusions:
Conclusion I. A permanent photographic activity
The main evidence is that we can talk about permanent photographic activity in spite of the war. It seems that in a small degree domestic photographic practice responds to a need for documenting the historical events. However, playful, emotional and communicative uses are by far the most common and redundant. We could add also these photos work as a collective tool for social reinforcement in the context of abrupt changes, polarisation, forced ideological positioning and even personal vendettas.
Conclusion II. A first complete generation of domestic photographers in Spain
Regarding all these photographic collections from 1930s to the post-war period it seems quite clear that in terms of photographic culture we can talk about the first complete domestic, photographed generation in Spain. From their childhood before the war until Francoist adulthood, there is the question of a photographic generation that grows concomitant to the spread of domestic photography and other mass media such as cinema or radio. We refer to men that further on are going to become the Pierre Bourdieu ‘middle-brow photographer’ in the fifties and sixties.
We wonder whether these photos are imposed ‘everyday life’ and happy situations or, on the contrary, if they act in effect as a moment-space of relaxation and disconnection. Is it the language code of photography what creates the situation, or, does the key concept rests with how people used photography in a context of war?
Conclusion III. Spanish domestic photography and Civil War post-memory
It is time to look again here at the first ‘No’ a family used to answer us when asking them about family photographs from the thirties. In a sense, this denial was not a lack of willing to show us their photos but a preconceived idea about the horror and trauma of the war and that during war life didn’t go on. What is more, this typical answer is shared between old people who lived through the conflict and the forthcoming generations, my parent’s and even mine, who did not experience it. On this point, it is important to underline that the long dictatorship muted any witness accounts which currently still affects us. That is to say that most of us still have deep personal connections to the Spanish Civil War since that there has not been any collective, involving, complex narratives.
The concept of post-memory, proposed by Marianne Hirsch, is probably useful to help us to understand the relation between the cultural constructed memory (“that was not a time for taking snaps”) and what domestic photos show iconographically. That is to say the belief of this preconceived idea is also held by younger generations. The short chronological distance and the collective idea about the meaning of War for Spaniards, especially those on the Republican side, have distorted the contemporary point of view and therefore the experience of collective memory. Looking at domestic photos, questioning their visual motifs and the reasons for their use can challenge our knowledges. Therefore, it is time to open shoeboxes and confront the collective memory with photographic evidence. Without doubt, domestic photography gives us a new insight into the Spanish Civil War.
Matthews, J. (2013). Soldados a la fuerza. Reclutamiento obligatorio durante la guerra civil,1936-1939. Madrid: Alianza.
Sanfelippo, L. (2013). Versiones del trauma: LaCapra, Caruth y Freud. Historiografías, 5, p. 51-70.
Tucker, A. W., Michels, W. and Zelt, N. (2012). War/Photography. Images of armed conflict and its aftermath. New Haven, London: Yale University Press.
Ucelay Da Cal, E. (1982). La Catalunya populista: Imatge, cultura i política en l’etapa republicana, 1931-1939. Barcelona: La Magrana.
*Our warmest thanks to Teresa Ferré, Artur Cañigueral, Jep Martí and all participating families for their collaboration and help.