The Photofiction of Joan Fontcuberta

Perhaps Joan Fontcuberta (Barcelona, 1955) is the least literal of photographers. And he is probably the most literary of them all. His aversion to photography as a mere document of reality accounts for the former; as for the latter, his precursory reaffirmation of photography as a production of literature.

His is the art of a narrator who —from the image— faces problems similar to those of some writers who laid the foundations of modern fiction: Walter Besant, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, E. T. A. Hoffman, Honoré de Balzac, Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, Edith Wharton…

All battling, in their own way, for the recognition of their artistic condition. Perhaps to achieve a dignity similar to that of the painters of their time.

“Fiction is an art!”, some of them emphatically cried out.

For Fontcuberta, on the contrary, art is a fiction. A generator of imaginary worlds, a novelesque territory. That’s why he conveniently removes the distance between writers and visual artists, as much as he tries to iron out the mutual contempt they sometimes have for each other. After all, didn’t modern aesthetics —together with Hegel and Rimbaud— have one of its matrixes in a novel by Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray? What about The Man Who Was Thursday, where Chesterton achieved an unbeatable fable about art as anarchy? (I keep recommending this book as a compulsory reading in the current chairs of artistic activism).

The point is that Wilde and Chesterton were not only attracted to art and artists. They went a bit further and incorporated their creative anxieties or the prophecies announced in their works. Small islets in the immense continent of the great themes of literature, although estimable premonitions in the treatment of a world that, in recent decades, has come to invade the written fiction of this time assumed as the Age of the Image.

A contemporary of this era that he both stars in and places under suspicion, Joan Fontcuberta is no stranger to the exchange between contemporary writers and the artists that have emerged from his novels: Paul Auster and his Maria (or was it Sophie Calle?), Patrick McGrath and his Jack Rathbone, Ignacio Vidal-Folch and his Kasperle, Roberto Bolaño and his Edwin Jones, Álvaro Enrigue and his Sebastián Vacca, Javier Calvo and his Matsuhiro Takei, César Aira and his Karina; Grégoire Bouillier and his, again, Sophie Calle, Siri Hustvedt and her Harriet Burden, María Gainza and la Negra, Vicente Luis Mora and his Cabeza de Vaca…

Series ‘Miracles,’ Joan Fontcuberta, 2002.

“But… aren’t these invented or real artists involved in fictitious plots?” So what? Let’s welcome this imaginary museum that allows us to transform art or literature. Or that, at least, allows Fontcuberta to transform himself into another (a monk, an astronaut, a terrorist, a biologist). That “other” that reveals a behavior rather than a style, as well as belonging to a kinship in which we find Borges, Pessoa, Joan Brossa or a popular musician like Sisa.

This personality disorder offers us the key to his photofiction, launched from a sort of surrealism that arose from a “day dream” whose horizon was determined by Bloch rather than Freud, by the future rather than the past, by emancipation rather than repression. A liberating photofiction that sometimes reaches distant or fantastic worlds (unknown islands, the cosmos, shores where mermaids have landed) and other times stays somewhat closer, dealing with everyday situations (the circulation of information, the trivialization of political contents, the recurrent manipulation of the art system).

At this point, it is necessary to pay attention to those who offer a “peaceful warning against the dangers of the formal establishment of a correct reality.” Especially at a time when visual images are replacing written culture as sources for the transmission of knowledge with its new rhetoric and the irreversible transformation of that Subject Formerly Known as the Intellectual. This mutation has managed to interrupt the long letter that was philosophy for 2,500 years, until —according to Sloterdijk— “political and cultural syntheses on the basis of literary, epistolary and humanistic instruments” have become impossible.

Of that limit, and of its transgression, speak both his photographic series —Fauna, La isla de los vascos, Sputnik, Deconstructing Osama, Gastrópoda— and his essays —El beso de Judas. Fotografía y verdad, La cámara de Pandora, La fotografí@ después de la fotografía, La furia de las imágenes.

Perhaps his story about Ivan Istochnikov provides a valuable clue to this multiple work. That Soviet cosmonaut, “out of a legend” and hated by Stalin’s son, of whom he offers us a false and at the same time true biography. The “ignored being who, suddenly, under the spell of tangible evidence and revealing data, becomes visible.” A “little Orpheus rescued from the reason of State” from the very heart of the Cold War. The chosen one who is able to distinguish, from above, what was happening on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

From an irony without cynicism, Fontcuberta’s work is photography and, at the same time, a critique of photography. It is a remembrance of civilization and a warning about the place of false memory in historical accounts. An itinerary that can be organized from fossils to writing, from herbalism to politics, from topography to astronautics, from the Self to the Other and from the Other to the Self.

Pictures from the project ‘Sputnik,’ Joan Fontcuberta, 1997 (Blog Arcadina).

This photofiction has come to elaborate such plausible narratives that the media have fallen for them more than once, echoing his stories as if they were news that really took place. It happened in 2006 with the program Cuarto Milenio and the series Sputnik (the one dedicated, precisely, to the aforementioned astronaut Istochnikov). And it happened again in 2017, when they publicized —in press and radio— the discovery of Ximo Berenguer, a Valencian photographer who became obsessed with El Molino under the influence of his lover, the Cuban choreographer Negrito Poly, who had opened the doors of the dressing rooms of the famous Barcelona cabaret to him.

Fontcuberta won, in Spain, the National Photography Award in 1998 and the National Essay Award in 2011 (a unique case of receiving the same award in two apparently different fields). That same year he received the National Visual Arts Award of Catalonia. In 2013 he won the Hasselblad (which is like the Nobel for literature or the Pritkzer for architecture). In 2008, when he was only 53 years old, his retrospective exhibition —De Facto— took place, accompanied by the edition of El libro de las maravillas. Two days after its closing, he inaugurated a new project to warn that an anthology of all his work did not imply that he was dead or retired. The new exhibition was titled Blow Up Blow Up and it floated the question of the possibility that a work could summarize the era of the image. For Fontcuberta, Blow Up brought us closer to that totality. Blow Up, in short, as a testimony of a story that begins in the genesis of the counterculture and ends in the visual apotheosis of the present. And also as a document of a migratory drift of art: two Latin Americans in Paris, an Italian in London, a Catalan in Cambridge. An archive of what culture can build and what it is capable of razing to the ground. Of what it can preserve and what it can erase. Of what it manages to reveal and what it prefers to keep as a hidden negative of its own truth.

Not as an exclusive piece —the well-known film by Antonioni— but through the updates, versions and variations that it had undergone, before or after, during more than five decades as a long-haul project or way station through which creators, periods, technologies, styles and formats had passed. From Queco Larraín to Julio Cortázar, from Cortázar to Antonioni, from Antonioni to Brian De Palma, from De Palma to Joan Fontcuberta himself, who in 2004 found in Harvard the Larraín negatives that gave rise to the whole story. A journey that goes from photography to short-story, from short-story to cinema, from cinema to digital photography, from image to sound, from sound to jazz, from photographic grain to pixel, from jazz to rock, from the Contax camera to the Remington typewriter, from black and white to color, from conventional developing to digital printing, from Vanessa Redgrave to John Travolta, from enlargement to manipulation…

There is a type of photography to which the camera opens the way to reality. And there is a photography that, on the contrary, opens reality to the camera. In the first are included those who need a machine, objective and neutral, capable of restraining the human, all too human, impulses of the gaze. In the second are those who use the camera to demonstrate that manipulation is not just another technique of photographic art, but its essence. To this last option belongs, in a founding and prominent condition, the photofiction of Joan Fontcuberta.

Installation view of the enlarged still from the film Blow up, Joan Fontcuberta, at the àngels barcelona gallery, 2009.

His most recent series is entitled Contravisiones and dusts off an archive of negatives from an analogical and remote youth. In it we realize, among shadows, that the photographer sees things that are forbidden to his camera, to which time and time again he is amending the plane. Contravisiones is a series about the misplacement of the gaze, and in it we can perceive traces of Buñuel, Dorothea Lange or Dalí. Through its images, strange and elusive, the photographic act is not presented to us as something that is made manifest, but as a manifesto in itself. And the photographer anticipates his current profession as a manager rather than a hunter of images. An epidemiologist attentive to its propagation, ready to stop or mitigate its pandemic. Trained, if necessary, to put his finger in the camera’s cyclops eye, to diminish its power of Polyphemus and make it surrender to our gaze in order to complete its own.

Iván de la Nuez. Essayist and curator. Among his books are La Balsa Perpetua [The Perpetual Raft], El Mapa de Sal [The Map of Salt], Fantasía Roja [Red Fantasy], El Comunista Manifiesto [The Comunist Manifesto], Teoría de la Retaguardia [Theory of the Rear Guard] and Cubantropía [Cubantrophy]. Among his exhibitions, La Isla Posible, Parque Humano, Postcapital, Atopía, Iconocracia, Nunca Real/Siempre verdadero y La Utopía Paralela [The Possible Island, Human Park, Postcapital, Atopia, Iconocracy, Never Real / Always True and The Parallel Utopia].


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