Jorge Ribalta, the reinvention of the documentary among the audience at Sónar | Babelia


For four consecutive years, between 2005 and 2008, Jorge Ribalta (Barcelona, ​​1963) dedicated himself to portraying the multitude of young people who, full of enthusiasm, attended the call for electronic rhythms and textures offered by the Sónar festival, consolidated as a central initiative in the institutional culture of cosmopolitan Barcelona. At that time, in charge of the Department of Public Programs at Macba, the photographer had abandoned his studio work and longed to take to the streets with his camera. Hence, on Thursdays and Fridays, at the same time in the afternoon, the artist will enter the festival grounds, located in the courtyard between the museum and the CCCB, seduced by the play of light and shadow left by the sunset as it reflects off the rear facade of the Richard Meier building.

From there it arose Sur l’herbewhose title is a nod to breakfast on the grass of the painter Edouard Manet. In this case, the grass is artificial, a hard and bland ground, dotted with cans, brochures, butts, shoes and plastic —the inevitable scourge of our days— through which the photographer makes his way to mingle and go unnoticed among the attendees. . Something that he would not always achieve, since while they were photographing themselves with their digital cameras, the artist carried a model from the sixties used by humanist photographers: the Rolleiflex. “My presence was somewhat exotic,” recalls the author. “They asked me what century my machine was from. However, within that context it seemed as if the logic was to photograph each other. Thus, the public became the true spectacle of the event. “A public that stretches and contemplates itself inside the fenced enclosure of the festival, as in a great kermesse postmodern that suggests an exclusive refugee camp for the young cosmopolitan elite”, as the author writes in one of the texts that accompany the catalog of Everything is true. Fictions and documents (1987- 2020), his first retrospective, organized by the Fundación Mapfre in collaboration with the Museo Universidad de Navarra. The exhibition covers three decades of the Catalan photographer’s career through 14 photographic projects and four projections.

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CCCB, Plaza de Willy Brandt 11-14, June 15, 2011. From the 'Futurism' series.
CCCB, Plaza de Willy Brandt 11-14, June 15, 2011. From the ‘Futurism’ series. © Jorge Ribalta

There is no emotion, not even fun, in the images that make up Sur l’herbe. And it is precisely in this synthetic context that the author will rely on to shape the sequence of images. At the same time, it establishes a parallelism with the work of Manet, made in 1863, a painting that would mark the discourse of modern life and that coincides with the dawn of the photographic medium. The series invites “a reflection on the new centrality of the cultural and tourist industries in the urban economy and on how culture also generates its own methods of social discipline”, says the artist. It is part of a trilogy dedicated to Barcelona characterized by this change in the economic model, a process of transformation documented from different angles by the photographer in the Forum 2004 area, in the Poblenou neighborhood and in Plaça de la Garduña in Raval .

Made in black and white, like most of Ribalta’s work, Sur l’herbe occupies an entire wall in the form of a mosaic. A presentation saturated with images that moves away from the single image that also comes to characterize his work. “Seriality is what makes images legible and accounts for social complexity,” the photographer points out, alluding to the theory of Sergei Tetriakov, a critic of the historical avant-garde, implicit in the emergence of the documentary discourse that began in the thirties. “Photography allows us to understand social complexity because it interrupts movement and temporarily cuts the web of relationships that surrounds the individual. This moment of interruption makes legible what would not otherwise be possible”, explains the Catalan author, who combines his artistic work with the exercise of criticism, curating, cultural management, research and publishing. “A multiplicity of facets that has tended to place him in an elusive position, often to the detriment of his visibility as an artist”, as highlighted by Valentín Roma, curator of the exhibition.

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Ribalta’s work has been described as an archeology of photography, given its purpose of “returning the historical memory of the medium to the present day”. His first stage, which began in the eighties, pursued the “dismantling of naturalism and transparency” and understood photography as “the result of a process that is produced or manufactured”. During the first years of this new century there was a radical turn in his work during which the author abandoned constructed naturalism to redirect his projects towards a reinvention of the documentary.

#sn, 1990. From the Untitled series.  1987-1990
#sn, 1990. From the Untitled series. 1987-1990© Jorge Ribalta

“My position stems from the debate on the critique of realism that took place in the eighties, in the time before digital photography,” explains Ribalta. “A critique then necessary, heir to the studies and approaches of the sixties, which eventually runs out. It implied giving up what for me is the great contribution of photography to modern culture: the principle of reality, objectivity and materiality of things, that is, the documentary principle”. Thus, in Documentary processes, his first exhibition as a curator, in 2001, the author analyzes the relevance of the document in recent times based on Photoshop and the idea of ​​naturalizing photography as fiction. “You had to resist that speech,” says the photographer. “Photography is true that it deceives, but it is also true that it tells the truth. And the element of truth was more important than the element of fiction. Therefore, I believe that we must continue to maintain this great contribution of photography that allows us to understand, discuss and judge. That is why photojournalism continues to exist, and public discourses based on the role of photography as truth”. In this pulse the exhibition is maintained, on the premise that “the documentary is a form of fiction, a convention, or a kind of pact regarding the use and circulation of images, which fulfills a function. A pact that has been very important in modern culture”, defends the artist. “By freezing movement, photography has made it possible to represent the complexity of our society”

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Thus, after the tremendous experience of a quarter of confinement motivated by Covid-19, Sur l’herbe takes on a new meaning. The photographs “become an allegory of the liberal public sphere,” warns Ribalta. “The suspension of public life makes the echo of the iconography of the expulsion from paradise appear in these images. Emancipated humanity in quarantine, waiting for Venus.

Everything is true. Fictions and documents (1987-2020). Jorge Ribalta. Mapfre Foundation. Madrid. From February 11 to May 8.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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