Who was René Robert, the Flemish photographer frozen to death on a Paris street | Culture


The circumstances surrounding the death of the Swiss photographer René Robert, who died of cold on January 19, at the age of 84, on a Paris street, where he was lying for hours without anyone helping him, have overshadowed the work of a creator who dedicated his life to converting the essence of flamenco into images. Friends, acquaintances and experts in cante jondo photography describe the personality and profession of someone whose death has become a terrible symbol of the dehumanization of others in big cities.

Robert, born in Freiburg, who will be buried on Monday in Paris, had a partner for decades, Sabine. He discovered the magic of photography at the age of 14, thanks to the father of a friend who revealed his images, Robert said in an interview in 2007 on the Música Alhambra website. He sought his fortune in France as a photographer and in the sixties he began to frequent the Parisian tablao Le Catalan. In the aforementioned interview, he says that he was first attracted to baile, while cante seemed “more confusing” to him.

His friend the journalist Michel Mompontet, who announced his death, describes Le Catalan as a place where the Spanish diaspora went: Picasso, who had his workshop nearby, Juan Gris… “The old Flemish people say that you could see and hear what best and worst. The artists were very poorly paid, those who were starving came and hired you for three months, they gave you food, drink and sleep”, explains Mompontet, who met Robert when he was 20 years old, at the end of the eighties. In those shows “there was almost always a super-elegant man, with a polka-dot scarf, a hat, a cigarette in his mouth, discreet, but a friend of the artists,” he says. It was Robert.

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Although at first it imposed on him, over time Mompontet discovered the “simple personality” of someone who worked as an advertising photographer “to eat”, until his images of flamenco began to acquire value. Over the years, several generations of artists passed through his goal: Paco de Lucía, Camarón, Chano Lobato, Fernanda de Utrera, Aurora Vargas, Tomatito, Antonio Gades, Cristina Hoyos, Sara Baras, Carmen Linares, Vicente Amigo… “Robert was little talk. A humanist, with a great sense of irony and very friendly”, recalls Mompontet.

The singer Aurora Vargas, portrayed by René Robert.
The singer Aurora Vargas, portrayed by René Robert.

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A portrait with which the French photographer Jean-Louis Duzert coincides. “She was humble, she liked to work in the shadows.” This former photojournalist also discovered flamenco and Robert around the same time. Since then, the friendship and complicity between the two has been constant. “We talked at least once a month to catch up on shows, concerts… He sent me his photos and I sent mine,” he recalls, still moved, by the death of someone he saw as a “guide, a teacher” and even “a father”, although they were separated by 13 years. Robert considered him, as he wrote in the dedication of one of his books, “a brother of photography”.

robert posted Flemish (1993), Rage and Grace (Rage and Grace) (2001) and Flemish attitudes (2003). He had bequeathed his photographic archives to the French National Library a year ago, and Duzert says he was still preparing projects. “We planned to do a book together about 50 years of flamenco in France. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen anymore.”

“Robert not only photographed singers and dancers, he also tried to capture that kind of catharsis of flamenco, that tragic spirit, always in black and white,” explains Eduardo Navarro Carrión, cultural manager of the Cervantes Institute in Paris and organizer of the exhibition that in 2019 He showed his photos in Nantes, at the Spanish film festival in this city. Robert explained that when he used color to portray flamenco he found it “very touristy”. His was a photograph “very scenic, looking for the creative moment,” adds Navarro. “Expression at its peak”, in Robert’s own words.

“I didn’t want to go digital. She liked to develop the photos of her. It is curious because, at the same time, he was very open to other arts”, says Mompontet. “He was in love with Caravaggio, of the dark planes, and [el flamenco] for him it was a tragic representation of the extreme feelings of life. For someone as reserved as he was, that fascinated him. How can you express with such heartbreak the deepest, deepest feelings of life, and make it something visual and musical? And that, Mompontet delimits with a laugh, he barely spoke Spanish. “Flamenco is a way of feeling and he had it. That’s why the flamencos who were close friends, Camarón, Paco de Lucía, understood each other with him, although I don’t know in what language”.

Chema Blanco, artistic advisor to the Nimes Flamenco Festival and director of the Seville Flamenco Biennial, shared a glass of wine and a meal with him and other people every year during the French event. “He was very loved, there were many people who admired him,” he recalls of that “short man.” In those meetings they talked “about the shows we had seen. He was very personable and had that typical French bohemian air.” Blanco was impressed by him “who looked at you and listened very carefully.”


Flamenco photographer Paco Sánchez, a portraitist of cante jondo figures for 40 years, points out that Robert’s style is very similar to his own. “I discovered it years ago and I was surprised because I saw myself reflected in my beginnings, in the seventies, with highly contrasted black and white photos, with the veins on the necks of the singers about to burst and the details of the hands of the dancers”. For Sánchez, it is a photograph that is characterized by “simplicity, very direct”. Of his personality, although he did not know him, he points out that he “did not lavish much on the media, he was sparing in interviews.”

The artistic director of the Picasso Museum in Malaga, José Lebrero, was in charge of the Andalusian Center for Contemporary Art in Seville when he organized the exhibition in 2009 singing is prohibited, in which the role of flamenco in photography was shown. Among the fifty authors, of which some 200 images were shown, was Robert. Lebrero includes it “in the tradition that has existed in France for flamenco with an interest in the exotic”. His work “is part of a saga that was attracted to darkness and black Spain; more the tavern and the ritual than the aesthetic excellence”.

With his death, “a chapter in the world of flamenco closes”, laments Duzert.

Juana of the Pipa
Juana of the Pipa

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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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