Photography: Pierre Gonnord

Galeria Juana de Aizpuru, Madrid, 2007

The only real difference between them is about a dozen or so city blocks in uptown Madrid, plus four centuries of elapsed time and technological innovation. Drop by the Prado to check out the Blind Hurdy-Gurdy Player (if not within dropping distance, Georges de la Tour should be on your -- and everybody’s --- coffee table). Then come back to the Juana de Aizpuru gallery to make the acquaintance of Abel with his one empty eye socket, the other buried under a thick carapace of oozing cataract, and an upraised hand whose gnarled fingers are deformed by calluses, cuts and filth. Same deal, right? Same chiaroscuro virtuosity, same mannerisms for depicting the “wretched of the earth” with not a whisker of condescending pity. They’re virtually the same piece of human wreckage, De la Tour’s eyeless street busker of seventeenth-century Lorraine, and Pierre Gonnord’s specimen of a hopeless down-and-outer, a twenty-first century hard luck story in spades.

But Gonnord is a French photographer based in Madrid who travels between Spain and France to search out his subjects in the dirty corners and mean streets where social workers fear to tread, from the Paris banlieue to the squalid shantytowns of Seville, which must be where he found that woman Concepción, whose incredibly resonant face conveys so many possible biographies. Who are his subjects? Illegal immigrants, for the most part, generally from Eastern Europe or North Africa, and not a few of them criminals on the run from the law. Gonnord tells of one: “Michel was born in a circus and grew up surrounded by clowns and wild animals. His parents died early on, and he joined the Foreign Legion. Now he lives by himself, and I sometimes see him sweeping up in some brasserie. He reminds me of one of those characters you see in the bygone Paris of Brassaï.”   

 Gonnord’s evocation of LaTour (1593-1652) lies not just in having his subjects backlit by flickering candlelight.  I submit that the people he photographs are living in  the same conditions of joyless, precarious misery as did, well, practically everybody at the time La Tour chose his subjects,  Murillo put faces on the carpenters in his nativity scenes, Velazquez painted jester dwarfs, and Goya depicted the street ruffians in the Caprichos. You need only take a look at just about anyone’s version of a penitent St Jerome or a pustulent Job – the latter examples bringing us back once again to De La Tour by way of Auden’s: “About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters…”         


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