Fotografia a Catalunya


18.02.2016 — 12:15

Joana Biarnés. The face, the moment and the place

Oriol Bosch Bausà. Museu d'Art Jaume Morera

John and Paul (The Beatles). 1965. Hotel Avenida Palace. Barcelona © Joana Biarnés

For some time there has been renewed interest in recuperating and re-evaluating the contributions of many photographers who have played a leading role in the history of photography in our country. This has been evinced by the appearance of new research, publications, and exhibitions over recent years throughout the country and it has enabled the public at large to learn about some extraordinary people who, until now, have been unheard of, while enabling specialists to appreciate that the history of photography in Catalonia was always richer and more multi-faceted than had hitherto been thought. Amongst the names to have been rescued from oblivion recently the case of Joana Biarnés (Terrassa, 1935) is particularly outstanding. She was a pioneer of photojournalism in Catalonia, and a fine example of the need to continue insisting upon the systematic revision, recovery, safekeeping and dissemination of Catalan photography as one of the most valued, and internationally exportable, aspects of our heritage.

The Jaume Morera Art Museum in Lleida held an exhibition until 20 March 2016 entitled “Joana Biarnés. The face, the moment and the place". This was the first individual exhibition about someone who was one of the first women to become a professional press photographer in the whole of Spain. The exhibition was curated by Mónica Carabias and Francisco José García Ramos, both lecturers at the Complutense University of Madrid, and included a selection made by the photographer Cristóbal Castro. It was produced by Terrassa Town Council and was first seen in Terrassa's Muncunill Hall in the autumn of 2014, shortly before the Generalitat de Catalunya awarded her the Cross of Saint George in recognition of her work. It was not a retrospective exhibition, but instead concentrated on her work as a graphic reporter during the 1960s and 1970s. It consisted of a collection of seventy black and white photographs printed for the occasion from the photographer's original negatives, most of which had been printed in the press of the day such as the weekly ¿Por Qué?, the magazines Ondas and Semana and especially the Madrid-based newspapers Pueblo and ABC, national newspapers, for which she worked. 

The collection of photographs provided visitors with the opportunity to view the works in two profoundly suggestive ways. Firstly, it made it possible for visitors to better appreciate her personal story. She had, and continues to have, a vigorous and tenacious character and was able to overcome the obstacles and stereotypes imposed by the patriarchal culture of the Franco regime, which relegated women to the domestic sphere and blocked their access to professions traditionally dominated by men. Joana Bairnés was, in effect, one of the first women to encroach on this male territory. Although she had studied at the School of Journalism, her father, Joan Biarnés, introduced her to the world of photography. Her father was a photojournalist for a number of sports publications and she had started to work with him during the 1950s. She had to fight against all sorts of difficulties. On one occasion, for example, a referee halted a game between Barcelona FC and Espanyol merely because she was covering the match as a professional photographer. Her determination enabled Biarnés to become independent and construct her own professional career, a career that would stretch over thirty years. She worked for newspapers, mainly for Pueblo (1963-1972), as well as for agencies. She had a distinctive personal style as well as a wide range of registers which included, in addition to sports photography, such varied subjects as social reporting, society photography, the worlds of music, cinema and fashion. In 1975 she founded the Sincro Press agency, together with her husband, Jean Michel Bamberger, who was also a journalist. Despite years of uninterrupted work she decided to abandon photojournalism a decade later on account of her discomfort with the way the profession had turned to sensationalism. After opening and running the renowned restaurant Ca Na Joana in Ibiza for twenty years, and after three decades away from photography, her work started to be publicly recognised thanks to a number of initiatives such as this interesting exhibition and the indispensable crowd-funded documentary, Joana Biarnés, una entre tots (2015,) by Òscar Moreno and Jordi Rovira, in which she gave a first-hand account of her career.

Secondly, in addition to this valuable account, visitors could also assess the photographic work she achieved. In this case, a selection of photographs presented, not just as a mirror to a specific period exemplified through a varied catalogue of personalities and situations in Spanish public life during the so-called 'development' period of the Franco regime, but also as an example of Biarnés's personal style, characterised by close focusing and sensitive to the subject matter being photographed. Thus, the exhibition predominantly contained portrait photographs, but in her case they were always surprisingly intimate, with the person being photographed lending themselves to the task. This gives her photographs a hitherto unseen degree of emotion and sincerity. Proof of this is, for example, her famous exclusive report about the visit to Barcelona by The Beatles and the series of portraits of personalities from the worlds of culture and entertainment included in the exhibition. In fact, to a certain extent, each photograph reveals a small part of the warm and out-going character of the photographer herself, a person who is as captivating, or even more so, than the photographs themselves for those who have the opportunity to meet her for the first time. It is, perhaps, recognition of her uniqueness that makes her work outstanding in the photojournalism of the period, along with that of Pilar Aymerich i Colita, the latter also being a pioneer in the dissemination Biarnés's work through her inclusion of her in the exhibition 'Pioneering Photographers in Catalonia', which she curated together with Mary Nash in 2005 at the Palau Robert. This is why we need to recover her and her work, along with other photographers before and after her who, through their experience, creativity and personal point of view, are examples to follow as well as indispensable witnesses to our identity and collective memory. Their work must be rescued from neglect and disseminated as an essential part of our heritage. The fact that this is still a pending task is an added stimulus for getting down to work and to continue working, the sooner the better.

Oriol Bosch Bausà

Museu d’Art Jaume Morera