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“Amateurism is in the DNA of photography”

Interview with Núria F. Rius, curator of the exhibition titled The domestic camera. Amateur photography in Catalonia (ca. 1880-1936)

by Róza Tekla Szilágyi

The exhibition on view in Barcelona reviews the phenomenon of amateur photography in the late 19th and early 20th century, focusing on a selection of recurrent and common themes and visual motifs that allow us to understand who practised photography as a hobby and how the language of amateur and popular photography was constituted at the beginning of the 20th century.

What fueled your interest in the heritage of domestic image making?

There are at least two things that I'm interested in. My first interest is the link between domestic photography and artistic tradition. I know that it's a very complex topic because some genealogies and fields are interrelated in the beginnings of photography from amateur science, and academic science, but also art and other ideas. There is a connection between amateur photography and amateur art – the amateur artistic tradition that was so powerful in the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. When looking at the first discourses about photography from Daguerre to Talbot, there is a constant reference to making images for people who don't have artistic training. 

Today, with the digital amateur culture we are at the highest point of this amateur visual tradition. I do believe that there is something to explore more in-depth about these connections between the artistic amateur tradition coming from the Enlightenment circles, and how it transformed into a more commercial, open, social kind of technique. 

I understand the temptation to look at photography as something very new. But as an art historian, I cannot stop seeing the connections with our world. I mean, I love art of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. And all the time I'm seeing the landscapes, the picturesque aesthetic, the portraits, and so many elements that come from the artistic tradition, I think there's something to explore for me. In my opinion, these connections are more relevant in the amateur field than in the photographic artistic, and institutionalised field.

The second element is the political sense. In Catalonia, in Barcelona, there was a huge amateur photographic tradition from the early 1900s. I cannot say that institutions and publishing houses have not dedicated efforts to talk about it. But when looking at all these photographs they come from male bourgeois photographers. Looking at domestic photography I find it very interesting that you can widen the spectrum of practitioners in terms of gender, age, and social class. That for me is the most powerful aspect of this perspective. In Barcelona, there is a huge anarchist tradition. Looking at the working class movement and anarchism in the early 1900s, you can see how they took cameras and self-organised photographic laboratories in their social clubs. In Barcelona, many anarchist and socialist clubs self-published their photographs. Looking at these super small-scale, and very cheap prints, you can find self-produced
photographs that they took with their cameras. So I'm interested in these other practitioners that don't have space in the institutionalised history of photography. I did my PhD on a very classic topic, but my focus was very local. And I think this super local approach let me discover things that I didn't expect to find. 

Hermenter Serra de Budallés Group of students from the Barcelona School of Industrial Engineers visiting the interior of a quarry, 1916, Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya (ANC), Fons Hermenter Serra de Budallés, Sant Cugat del Vallès

What kind of different attitudes does working with vernacular photography, amateur photography, domestic photography require when someone builds an exhibition in a physical space?

This was a huge question during the creation of the exhibition, and I think the Mapfre Foundation workers are still very exhausted. (Laughs.) We've been working on this exhibition for the last two years. We had to deal with many difficulties because, in terms of materiality, this image heritage is massive. There are so many photographs to choose from. In the exhibition, you can see almost 300 exhibited objects – photographs, cameras, and other things. And because domestic photography is about repetition, I could change almost 95% of the exhibited materials. There are some spectacular photographs that I couldn't change, but I could substitute a large part of the exhibition, because it is not about a specific photographer or photograph, but about canons, standardisation, about social practices, and I'm using photographs to illustrate all that. 

Another important element was the size of the photographs. It's very common to take these photographs and just enlarge them in exhibitions. We decided to find some strategies to keep the photographs in their original size and form, to respect the original scale as much as possible. Half of the exhibition is based on glass negatives, which was a very common format at the time, but it was hard to exhibit so we did modern copies. We enlarged them just a little bit to make them visible. But we made it very visible that they are copies. We also paid a lot of attention to cameras and everything necessary to be able to produce these images. We did this to explain how this hobby was sustained and to show the different social economic stratifications that took place in the industry. 

In the exhibition text, I saw two notions being used. One is the amateur and one is the enthusiast. Could you please elaborate on the distinctions between the two?

It was also a difficult part of the exhibition to find out how to use the terms. The editors of the texts helped me a lot to make my ideas as clear as possible. 

Generally speaking, I talk about amateur photography. The editors helped me to understand that for the general visitor amateur and hobbyist means the same. It’s something that you don't make economic profit from. I decided to use amateur photography in a very wide meaning referring to this vast field of photography that has been produced outside or beyond the professional sense of production and the institutionalised artistic field. Amateur means that the person doesn't do photography in a professional logic or for economic benefits or because of artistic reasons. Of course, numerous amateur photographs seek artistic qualities but do not engage with the conventional art world. But then going forward, I try to identify different degrees of practice. Within this very general field of amateur photography, you can find different ways of engaging with the hobby. The enthusiasts or hobbyists are people who photograph from time to time with no technical or aesthetic expectations. But then there is the amateur practitioner who is a serious amateur. I based this framing of the situation on Robert A. Stebbins, the sociologist who used the term serious leisure. These practitioners have an ambition and some kind of expectation and even work on improving their technique and aesthetics. Of course, it is dynamic because some people start as simple hobbyists and with time they become serious amateurs. I think it's not the technical or aesthetic quality that defines who is a hobbyist or an amateur – it is the social and cultural context that defines these categories. I think the beginnings of photography are based on amateurism. Maybe it's because amateurism is in the DNA of photography. 

Josep Maria Reitg [?]: Portrait of Cosme Reitg, Josep Maria Reitg and a friend, around 1905-1910, Ajuntament de Girona, Centre de Recerca i Difusió de la Imatge (CRDI), Fons Josep Maria Reitg Martí, Girona

Although almost all of us take part in the domestic image-making practice it’s still difficult to name the different segments of these practices, or even the whole image heritage. Vernacular, everyday, ordinary, banal, networked, and so on…

I try to focus on the practices and the space of production. For the exhibition I was trying to find a more engaging title so I chose The domestic camera – Amateur photography in Catalonia (ca. 1880-1936). I mean domestic in terms of the private house because it's one of the main spaces for this hobby. That is where we mainly take our photographs mostly depicting our close circle, and where we developed most of our images. This domestic in the exhibition title is not as a synonym of family but as a synonym of the house where it mostly happens.

Antoni Rosal Grelon: Racing, around 1910-1920, Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya (ANC), Fons Antoni Rosal Grelon, Sant Cugat del Vallès

The exhibited material is loaned from different institutions, archives, and collections. What kind of institutions collect domestic photography in Spain?

This exhibition is part of this local archive line of exhibitions at the Fundación Mapfre. I could organise the exhibition based on family and private collections, but I made an effort to look into the public archives in Catalonia. In Catalonia, we have the national archive and there are a lot of regional archives that are part of the public network of national archives. I was very surprised at how many domestic photographs are preserved in these public archives. My impression is that they have huge photographic collections, quite well preserved and documented compared to other Spanish regions. Maybe because at the beginning of the 1900s, Catalonia was a more industrialised area than the rest of Spain. There were more amateur photographers and more hobbyists and photography took a very strong position in this industrial capitalist society and among anarchists. Sometimes public archives look for these kinds of photographs because they portray the past of the nation and different regions. I think that there is a historical and ethnographic interest in these photographs. But I also think that the Catalan public archives are also aware of the photographic value of this image heritage – or at least some of these collections.

The local archives of Barcelona were super helpful for me. The working-class photographs are difficult to find, mostly because after a century, these families went into exile after the Spanish Civil War and they didn't have the economic power to always keep the same house as the bourgeoisie families. Most of the working-class photographs and bulletins come from the Barcelona neighborhood archives and some families of still quite working-class neighborhoods. 

Other photographs showcased in the exhibition were loaned from private collectors because I could not find them in institutional archives. After all, they are not in the public sphere of recognition – such as male nudes.

Joan Tarascó [?]: Double self-portrait in underpants, 1920s-1930s, from Jordi Baron Rubí's collection

Do you see any themes or topics that are closely connected to the region? 

The genres and the social practices are quite the same everywhere because it's a transnational and globalised industry and commerce. So obviously there are some differences, but generally speaking, it's quite the same everywhere now: hiking or excursions, holidays, family portraits, urban views, street views, photographs in the city during a walk on a Sunday morning, female nudes, funny photographs playing with the camera, and humour snapshots. But if you look closer, there are some subtle differences. 

For instance, there has been a strong relation between taking pictures and hiking since the 18th century. And what you can see here is how this cultural practice is adapted to the Catalan nationalist imagination. But how do the anarchists or the working class use photography during hiking? They photograph bigger groups showing the political flags that they used to carry with them. You can see the photographic genre is the same – hiking photography – but politically speaking is super different. In the bourgeois photographic practices, you mostly see the nuclear family. When looking at Catalan nationalist or working class photographs the landscape is not related to national pride, but related to the idea of escaping from the oppressive city. Instead of being the nuclear family of five, or seven people, it shows thirty people because there's one camera used by many more people.

Unknown photographer: Portrait of a working class group on an excursion, Barcelona, 1920s, from Núria F. Rius' collection

Cover photograph: Antoni Rosal Grelon: A group of men around a small pond, around 1910-1920, Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya (ANC), Fons Antoni Rosal Grelon, Sant Cugat del Vallès  

The domestic camera. Amateur photography in Catalonia (ca. 1880-1936) is on view until May 12, 2024 at the KBr Photography Center in Barcelona.

You can find more information about the exhibition here.

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