Snapshots of Barcelona's Barrio Chino

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:21

    Barcelona! The word has long had the power to make my breath go shallow. The pedestrian pulse of its tight, teeming streets; the unexpected sweep of nouveau facades lifting off like birds' wings; the myriad youthful faces, embarrassingly pretty in their Old World sophistication; the dry African winds pulling into this tidy, voluptuous corner of the Mediterranean; the elegant Romanesque and gothic structures, silent witnesses to the city's changing fortunes. Joy and celebration. War and famine. This is a city that has learned the ups and downs of history like a Catholic penitent the litany.

    Barcelona was once the seat of a vast Catalan empire that reached across the sea and included Mallorca, Menorca, Sardinia and a large chunk of France. Fortunes in textiles and Cuban and Philippine tobacco built much of modern Barcelona in the late 1800s. The Civil War and its aftermath, catching Barcelona largely on the wrong side of bitchy events, brought with it iron rule from then-fascist Madrid and years of economic recession. In the post-Franco era, political autonomy arrived and with it a measure of self-determination of which the city's citizens are justly proud. Since that time, Barcelona has set itself on a headlong, sometimes reckless course toward renewal, building here, tearing down there, confecting a city that is, like no other, the darling of architects and city planners the world over.

    Starting in 1986, the year the Olympic committee announced Barcelona as its choice to host the 1992 games, Barcelona's potentates set down a regimen of construction unparalleled by any other city on the continent. Up went the sprawling Olympic Village and the Maremagnum, a vast shopping complex and IMAX theater, of the sort found in towns like Orlando and San Diego. Down went the chiringuitos, a rabbit-hutch of popular seafood restaurants that had grown up around the beach for some 50 years (if they were not too unsanitary for German and British tourists, they were, I suppose, too unsanitary-looking), and the perennially down-at-the-heel, endlessly fascinating Barrio Chino, a dark gap opened in Barcelona's old quarter by poor immigrants from southern Spain into which waves of the poor, the dispossessed and the antisocial have rushed for more than a century.

    The Barrio Chino, so called for the exoticism and mystery it inspires (and not for being home to immigrant Chinese, which it has never been), is Barcelona's Pigalle, its Saint Pauli, its 42nd St. It is a place filled less with history than with stories; sad, miserable tales, which cannot help but touch us in their full humanity and disappointment. A famous murder took place at a now-empty corner of Calle Arc del Teatre, beneath the shadow of a noucentista palace. The arcade between Sant Pablo and Sant Sadurni marks the spot where a legendary African pimp met his match in the person of a much smaller but wily Gypsy. A street innocently named after Sant Ramon houses two ancient watering holes, the Marsella and the Kentucky Bar, old haunts from well before American sailors regularly tore up the joint. Both are still given over to the consumption of absinthe, a wicked, toxic beverage long outlawed in most of the rest of Europe.

    Jean Genet once lived in the Barrio Chino, and chronicled his days and nights there in the aptly titled Diary of a Thief. From my time in the Chino, I recall stumbling junkies, impossibly overweight whores, North African men in djellabas, countless schemers out for an easy con, and the sort of elegant wastage that leads one back to an old phrase popularized by Hemingway: Spain is the country where every man is a nobleman. In my time it was, despite the heavy louche element, certainly possible to feel that way in one's very bones. The shafts of Giotto-like light tearing through the medieval streets told one so. So did the crowds of old men gathered aimlessly on street corners, lolling about with the ease of landed barons. At times it was possible to feel a solid bond with the place, a species of membership in a confederation of thieves and bottom-dwellers. Recent demolition of the largely 18th-century neighborhood has made things associated with the Chino, like these memories, mostly a thing of the past.

    It was with the greatest pleasure, therefore, that on a recent afternoon I discovered a familiar image of a hip-cocked whore staring out at me from the window of a bookseller's. The poster advertised an exhibition of the photographs of Joan Colom. Minutes later, after a quick taxi ride, I found myself in Barcelona's Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, an imposingly ugly neo-baroque structure perched staggeringly atop Montjuic. Colom's photographs, which are being exhibited there this month, have finally received the attention they deserve. Set next to Irata Isozaki's Palau Sant Jordi sports complex, Colom's images of weepy drunks and walleyed children now command the most dominant views of the city.

    Colom is, without parallel, the most faithful chronicler of the seedy Chino and, on the strength of that work, one of the most affecting photographers to have emerged anywhere this century. His collection of "decisive moments" captures revelatory photographic instants with an even more aggressive fidelity than Henri Cartier-Bresson, the man who coined this mantra of photojournalism. Colom's photographic career, though, was brief beyond compare. Having begun taking photographs in early 1957, he seemingly quit all photographic activity in 1964. There is, in the manner of all things concerning the Chino, a story in this, too.

    Colom came to photography late, at the age of 36. An accountant by profession, a married man and a father of two girls, he was an unlikely candidate to spend every weekend evening between the years 1958 and 1960 reconnoitering Barcelona's bas-fonds, collecting images of prostitution, psychic malaise and general wretchedness. Colom, an intensely nondescript fellow (like most accountants), got down the place's misery by blending seamlessly into his surroundings, tucking his camera surreptitiously into his armpit and shooting without hardly ever putting his eye to the viewfinder. In two years Colom, a self-professed "Sunday photographer," amassed a group of photographs powerful enough to compare with anything produced by more celebrated chroniclers of the urban condition, like Eugene Smith, Atget or Brassai. "I make the street," Colom declared breathlessly, knowing full well such a sentence connected him intimately to the street work of his hooker subjects. "With these photographs," he added, "I become a notary of my time."

    The Museu Nacional has lovingly recreated Colom's exhibition of 1961 (the only one of his career), by hanging the photographer's original works in exactly the same all-over, salon-style sequence established for their display nearly three decades ago. There are first the children, mature beyond their years, defiant and cagey in their rags and straps-for-shoes. Then there are the misfits: the pinheaded woman, the congenital idiot, the pre-penicillin crowd that, like Diane Arbus' stagy freaks, turns simultaneously amazing and repellent in an instant. Next come the plump, exploding protrusions of womanly flesh. Squeezed into tube skirts and stretchy jumpers, shot close and cropped tight to emphasize mass and heft, Colom's putas wave the red flag of their corpulence and lead men into shadowy doorways. Colom then presents a trio of photographs of a Chino queen, pirouetting and primping for an anonymous audience with an abandon that can only be described as suicidal. He then unloads his pent-up rage in two final photographs: The first, a picture of a tomato smashed all over the street, is the Chino's guts on open, vibrant display. The second, the snap of a mutt defecating, is a biting scatological commentary. Paying zero heed to established wisdom, the Chino eats and shits in the same place: where it bloody well lives.

    Called "El Carrer," "the street" in Barcelona's insistent Catalan, the exhibition also includes a picture of the woman who later sued for defamation of character Colom and his collaborator on a book about the Chino, Spanish Nobel Prize winner Camilo Jose Cela. A hardened pro, she absented herself from the proceedings when court time came around. By then, though, things had already gone too far. The scandal was all over the papers. It was enough for Joan Colom, husband, father, accountant and good neighbor, to wish he had never, ever picked up a camera in his life (which he never did again until last year). What remains is his singular portrait of the Chino?a hardened, dead-honest, gut-wrenching view of life on the margins, so close yet so despairingly far from the ideal of peaceful order, modernity, civilization.

    "El Carrer: Joan Colom at the Aixelà Gallery, 1961," through June 27, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Montjuic Park, Barcelona.