The Real Academia Bellas Artes de San Fernando presents North Africa: Jose Ortiz Echagüe from June 5 through July 27, 2014. José Ortiz Echagüe is one of Spain’s greatest masters of photography. The North Africa exhibition revisits 79 earlier works that Ortiz Echagüe produced while in northern Morocco. It includes both his aerial photographs along with his landscapes and portraiture that detailed the traditions and lives of the Rif Berbers.
In 1908, the Rif region was turning into a conflict area. As the unrest intensified, more Spanish troops were sent to the area, including Ortiz Echagüe. There, he worked photographing aerial images as a balloon navigator in the Spanish Airborne Army’s Aerostat Unit. It was his photographic knowledge that had allowed him to serve aboard a military air balloon. He recalled, “Being the sole and permanent occupier of the basket of the Parseval balloon, which on the almost permanent windy days was something rather unpleasant.”
At the same time, Ortiz Echagüe began to photograph “local realities,” recording the life, traditions and landscapes of the region. When Ortiz Echagüe described his time in Morocco, he candidly related it to his training as a photographer. “At the time I was already hooked on photography,” he stated to the daily newspaper, Ya in 1962.
Concurrently, his documentary work embraced the sentimentalization of Pictorialsm, without the allegorical or literary evocation that is frequently linked with this movement. Pictorialism suggested the technical applications of painting, as well as representational, picturesque or sublime subjects such as family portraits and local, traditional scenes.
When Ortiz Echagüe returned to Morocco in the 1960s, he was met with an entirely different reality – the country’s development. The images from his previous visit – picturesque and idyllic exoticism – had vanished. The photographer depicted the transformation by encapsulating “rarefied environments,” people out of their setting and isolated landscapes with backdrops of dreamlike clouds. It was his reflective solution for a vanishing world. His last photograph, Sirocco in the Sahara (1965) validated his approach – texture experimentation and composition over documentation.
Ortiz Echagüe worked with a unique carbon-printing technique that depicted the textures of North African life with the delicacy of a graphite pencil drawing, in order to soften the sharp immediacy of the photographic image. Two of his Moroccan aerial views were developed on carbon, suggesting perhaps that those particular works were not truly military in their objective.
Although the Spanish photographer had always been an enthusiastic “amateur,” and although he never devoted himself to the art professionally, Ortiz Echagüe’s photographic work was renowned. He had devoted most of his time to an engineering profession, first in the aeronautical industry and then in the car industry. As a photographer, he showed his photographs in exhibitions and published four books about Spain.
“I enriched my copious archive with lots of negatives from Africa that I am thinking of dedicating a fifth book that is equal in importance to those I have already published.” The current North Africa exhibit became Ortiz Echagüe’s last photography project. It has been said that North Africa was the beginning and the conclusion that defined Ortiz Echagüe’s photographic career.
On the Spaniards initial arrival to the Rif region, he not only took photographs in a military capacity, but also recorded a life that was unfamiliar to modernism; it was disconnected and uncontaminated, yet risked the danger of disappearing. In his documented images, he completely abandoned allegories.
Unlike the photojournalist or military approach, there was a purposeful simplification in his composition in order to emphasis what was central to the picture. His North Africa photographs are striking. They retain a balance of pigment and contrast to the images and fine details. Ortiz Echagüe stated that he firmly believed that the most important element in order for a photographic artist to accomplish success “lies in the resolution to put oneself into contact with characters in their own native corners, to follow their customs, to observe and try to capture them in their own environment.”
In the book, North of Africa: José Ortiz Echagüe, it commented that the photographer was dedicated to documenting the Rif Berbers and their traditional life; yet, in contrast, “there was military activity that was leading towards the eradication of these very traditions.” North Africa placed José Ortiz Echagüe in a contradictory circumstance that would direct his entire photographic career.
By Dawn Levesque