Photography exhibit sparks symposium

December 7, 2011
By and

Bombing victim in Lleida, November 1937. Spain, Ministry of Culture, Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica, Archivo Centelle

Agustí Centelles (1909-1985) is one of the most important photojournalists of the Spanish Civil War, and his work should be studied alongside that of Robert Capa, David Seymour, Gerda Taro, Hans Namuth, and Georg Reisner. This much is clear in the wake of the successful exhibit Centelles in_edit_¡oh!, which has been on show at NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center since October (and extended through the current semester), and the symposium dedicated to Centelles’s work that was held at the same location this past November 30. The symposium, which gathered six experts in the Spanish Civil War and the history of photography and drew a full house, addressed the use of Centelles’s work in the Republican propaganda effort; the significance of Centelles’s heroic efforts to preserve his archive in exile; the powerful and exceptional nature of his concentration camp photographs; and the relationship between his work and that of Capa. (For more details, see the symposium program below.)

The Centelles exhibit, co-sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), was curated by Joaquín Gasca and NYU’s Michael Nash, director of the Tamiment Library, in collaboration with María José Turrión, former director of the Center for Historical Memory in Salamanca. It showcased forty prints, some of which had never been exhibited in the United States before, and was accompanied by a display at the Tamiment of journals and magazines in which Centelles’s photographs were published. The Tamiment Library is also home to the archives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—one of the world’s largest collections related to the participation of foreign volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. The exhibit catalog has been edited by Joaquín Gasca.

The Centelles show (video) is the most recent of a long series of successful photography exhibits* hosted at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, including four exhibitions which resonate strongly with the Centelles show:  Walter Rosenblum’s Spanish Civil War refugee photographs; The Aura of the Cause: Photographs of the Spanish Civil War; Richard Bermack’s Frontlines of Social Change:  Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; and Ione Robinson’s La Retirada:  The Spanish Republican Diaspora, among others.  Although the KJC I of Spain Center is a university cultural center and not a gallery or museum, it was a particularly appropriate venue for the Centelles exhibition—not only because of these and other shows, but also because of the presence on the NYU campus of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive.

All of these exhibitions, like that of Centelles, have been accompanied by parallel pedagogical initiatives and public outreach programs at the university, which aim to “frame” photographs not only as autonomous aesthetic objects as many galleries and museums might do, but as images that circulated in a variety of ways, and as windows on to a wider history.  Because of the location of the exhibition—in the public atrium of NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center—Centelles’s work has been viewed and appreciated not only by the many visitors who came for the sole purpose of seeing it, but also by the hundreds of students, professors and members of the general public who came to the building for other reasons.  Several university classes incorporated the Centelles exhibition into their curricula; and a group of 80 New York City high school teachers were introduced to the work of Centelles during an ALBA workshop held at the Center.

*Other photography exhibitions held at the KJC I of Spain Center include:  José Antonio Robé’s Manhattan:  Cita con Lorca; Kike Calvo’s Habitat; Paula Allen’s  Flowers in the Desert: Women of Calama Searching for the Chilean Disappeared; Zoraida Díaz’s Los sitios de Colombia; Maya Goded’s Neighborhood of Solitude:  Prostitutes of Mexico City; Gilles Larrain’s Paisajes del alma flamenca; and La colonia:  A photo album of Spanish immigrants in New York, 1898 – 1945” curated by James D. Fernández.

The Spanish Civil War Photographs of Agustí Centelles

A Symposium

Wednesday, November 30, 2011, 6:00 p.m.




Jordana Mendelson (NYU)

Visions de guerra i de reraguarda: Agustí Centelles and the Catalan Press during the Spanish Civil War”


Juan Salas (NYU)

“Hidden Photographs and the Weight of the Archive”


Sebastiaan Faber (Oberlin College, ALBA)

“What’s a Picture Worth?  Centelles vs. Capa”


José María Naharro-Calderón (Univ. of Maryland)

“Despite the Barbed Wires: Framing the Retirada”


Moderator: James D. Fernández (NYU, ALBA)


Respondent: Susie Linfield (NYU)

Agustí Centelles i Ossó (1909–1985) helped reinvent Spanish photojournalism in the 1930s. One of the first photographers to use the hand-held 35mm Leica, Centelles roamed Barcelona looking for unusual angles on unusual stories. By the time the Civil War broke out he was a sought-after graphic reporter whose work was published in major newspapers and magazines. After covering the first days of fighting in Barcelona as a freelancer, he was called up for the army, serving first as graphic war correspondent supplying the Catalan Comissariat de Propaganda and other government agencies, and later heading up the Photographic Cabinet of the Republican intelligence agency (SIM). In January 1939 he went into exile, carrying a suitcase holding thousands of negatives from his archive. He spent seven months in concentration camps at Argelès-sur-Mer and Bram, worked for the French Resistance, and returned to Spain in 1944, leaving behind his archive, which by now also contained hundreds of images from the camp. Barred by the Franco regime from journalism, Centelles worked as an industrial and advertising photographer until Franco’s death. After he was able to recuperatie his archive from France, his work began to be publicized and internationally recognized.

Jordana Mendelson is a an author and curator who serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literature at New York University. Among her publications are Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition Culture, and the Modern Nation, 1929–1939 (2005) and Revistas y Guerra 1936-1939/Magazines and War 1936-1939 (2007).

Juan Salas is a scholar of visual studies and an independent curator of photography. In 2009, he discovered With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, a long-lost Spanish Civil War film by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Herbert Kline.

Sebastiaan Faber is Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College and Chair of the Board of Governors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). He is the author of Exile and Cultural Hegemony: Spanish Intellectuals in Mexico, 1939-1975 (2002) and Anglo-American Hispanists and the Spanish Civil War: Hispanophilia, Commitment, and Discipline (2008).

José María Naharro-Calderón is an Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Maryland, where he teaches Spanish contemporary literature, culture, exile studies, and film studies. He is the author of Entre el exilio y el interior. El “Entresiglo” y Juan Ramón Jiménez (1994) and has published editions of major works by Max Aub and Celso Amieva.

Susie Linfield is director of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program and writes about culture and politics for a variety of publications. Her most recent book is The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (2010).

James D. Fernández is Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literature at New York University and Associate Chair of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. He is the author of Apology to Apostrophe: Autobiography and the Rhetoric of Self-Representation in Spain (1994) and co-curator of Facing Fascim: New York and the Spanish Civil War (2007).