A Different Suitcase

Another photographer whose work deserves to be better known is the Catalan photographer Agustí Centelles (1909-85), one of the earliest to use a Leica, and whose work on the Spanish Civil War has perhaps unfortunately been eclipsed by the fairly small body of work – and one image in particular – by Robert Capa.

Capa’s negatives from that era, lost for decades after he left them in Paris in 1939, were discovered some years ago in Mexico City, and the three cardboard boxes containing his work along with that of Gerda Taro and Chim (David Seymour) and a couple of rolls by Fred Stein, together known as ‘The Mexican Suitcase‘, were finally handed over to the ICP archive in 2007. Many of the more interesting images from them were already known through their reproduction in magazines of the time, but having the negatives obviously allows these to be seen in their context.

Centelles began an apprenticeship to a photographer in Barcelona where he grew up in 1924 and ten years later became a freelance photojournalist. In 1936 he photographed events in Barcelona after the July military upraising and was then sent to the Aragon front as an official photographer. In 1939 he fled to France as Barcelona fell to the Nationalists, taking with his cameras and his 4000 most important negatives in a suitcase. The rest of his work was seized by Franco’s troops along with other Catalan government material and stored in what became the Spanish Civil War Archive in Salamanca.

In various internment camps in France he managed to continue with his photography, managing to get a French press card and later a job in a photography studio, and was soon taking pictures for forged ID cards for the French Resistance. In 1944 several members of his group were arrested and he left his negatives behind in Carcassonne, fearing that if he took them back to Spain they would compromise many of the , fleeing back to Spain where he spent two years in hiding before giving himself up to the Spanish authrorities in Barcelona. After his trial he was released on parole and became a successful advertising and industrial photographer.

It was only in 1976 following the death of Franco when his press card was restored that he felt able to go back to collect his negatives from France and he spent the rest of his life restoring and cataloguing these images. In 1984, the year before he died, Centelles was awarded the Premio Nacional de Fotografía from the Spanish Ministry of Culture for his work. Since his death his work has been promoted by his sons, who were determined to keep his archive together, and it was acquired by the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 2009 for 700,000 Euros to be held in the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica de Salamanca.

Looking through his images there were a few that were familiar to me, though I had not remembered the name of the photographer. In 2001, Magali Jauffret reviewing a show of Spanish Civil War photographs for the French newspaper l’Humanité, recognised the immense value of his work in her piece published under the headline ‘Agusti Centelles aussi grand que Capa‘. As a record of the Spanish Civil War his pictures are I think rather more valuable, although Capa certainly took the best-known image from the conflict and of course went on to do much else.

An exhibition with forty of the Spanish Civil War Photographs of Agustí Centelles (The French Suitcase) was shown at New York University in Oct-Dec last year, and you can watch a video with some of his pictures from that show, Centelles in_edit_oh!

There are a couple of other YouTube video’s I’ve also found worth watching (though depending on your musical tastes as often with such things you may like to be ready to mute the sound on either or both of them), Agustí Centelles – Spanish Civil War  and Agustí Centelles, fotógrafo de la historia.

A feature on the Times Quotidian, Three Suitcases: Walter Benjamin; Agusti Centelles; and the Hypothetical Suitcase of Baltasar Garzon – Part One by Janet Sternburg, adds some interesting detail about Centelles, and suggests that his work only became internationally known to the photography world after the first French showing of his work at the Jeu de  Paume in 2009. A comment on the article points out that “the first exhibition of Centelles work in France was in 2004, in Carcassone” and that it was shown in New York in 1986. The Paris show mentioned above in which at least for one reviewer he was a star was at the Hôtel de Sully in June-Sept 2001. But I make no claims about it being the first.

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