Photography: Cristobal Hara

from Focus, Sept.-Oct. 2006

The trouble with photographing just about anything at all in Spain is that no matter how original, how visually striking or subtly thought-provoking the result may be, everyone will look at it and say "Right, another picture of Spain." The country that has it all -- light, color, contrast, and character pouring out of every human visage --  turns out to be a deal breaker for the photographer who reaches out too greedily to grasp it all. This is the dilemma faced by Cristobal Hara, as a Spanish photographer who specializes in Spanish subject matter. Many rate him as one of the best in the business, along with Cristina García Rodero, though in recent years, she appears to have her viewfinder locked onto the doings at the Burning Man whoopee fest.

Hara's end-run around the intractable problem involves making or allowing his pictures of Spanish reality seem as unreal as possible. The viewer's visual processing apparatus is obliged to churn out possible answers to the question "Wait a minute, is what I'm seeing here some kind of put-on?" and thus overrides the lower brain functions that would otherwise be classifying and filing the image under "Spanish".

It probably helps that Hara is himself a Spaniard, allowing his human subjects to be  somewhat less self-conscious when he aims his lens at them. Deep Spain, with its rural backwaters and dying villages that yield up their secrets to him, is not an easy place or state of mind for outsiders to penetrate. Anyway, Hara insists he is not particularly interested in the people he photographs, or in any of his other subjects, to get right down to cases. The only thing that concerns him is the photographic language in which the subject can be expressed

Hara's peculiar dialect relies on mystification and perversity. Mystification, in that no matter what the subject may be -- often some combination of people and animals, singly, one-on-one, or in groups,  whitewashed walls and building facades, the whistle stop rural bullfight circuit, stone foundations of buildings that long since crumbled away - he never really wants you to know what is going on. Here's a man sound asleep in bed with a sheep. A joke, right? Wait, it's obviously not posed or set up. Is there a backstory that makes this intelligible? If there is, Hara's not letting on.

Perversity: Hara is notorious for making every technical blunder in the book and appropriating them all for his signature style. An impenetrable shadow envelops his subject, a blur of sudden movement streaks into view or a huge extraneous object intrudes without warning into the frame, not only wrecking the composition (assuming there was one in the first place) but blotting out the subject as well. No big deal -- it merely  add a piquant note of immediacy, evoking the unique moment when the photographer has to act. His cavalier take on rule-breaking is doubtless one reason why they love his stuff in Germany, where several collections have appeared and more are on the way.

A word on the venue  The Sala del Canal de Isabel II is actually a turn-of-the-century water tower clad in neo-mudejar brickwork and one of Madrid's seldom examined examples of industrial architecture. Decades ago, the water utility people had the inspired notion of putting layers of scaffolding inside the obsolete, shuttlecock-shaped structure and have it serve as a year-round venue for photography-only exhibits, in which you take an elevator up to the top and stroll down, Guggenheim style, to see the pictures. Many of their shows have been world-class and not enough people who come to Madrid know about this place.

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