Past, Present and Future of the Photo Book | Markus Hartmann | Dienstag, 21.10.2014

A Portuguese Interception

Our journey has brought us from the end of the Roman world (Cape Finisterre) over Santiago de Compostela to Portugal. In Santiago we saw an impressive and interesting group exhibition called On the Road in the restored Bishop’s Palace (Palaco de Xelmirez and Iglesia de Bonaval) next to the cathedral. An ambitious project of the Galician Tourist Board and local administration and yet another example of how contemporary art and photography can be shown in very old buildings (Romanesque architecture of the 12th century).
Otherwise, the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea made a rather depressing impression on us. It was almost devoid of visitors and its bookshop and café were closed, as was a part of the building (due to the setup of a new show). The place seems to suffer a lot from budget constraints!
Then on towards Portugal. We entered the country from the northern mountains following the regional highway (OU 540) from where we followed an old Roman road through the Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês to Braga, which provided us with our first exposure to Portuguese culture and daily life.
In Braga we encountered not only a Museu da Imagem (Museum of Photography) but also the Encontros da Imagem, the Portuguese photography festival that has taken place 24 times since 1987. Some years it was not held due to lack of funding, but the festival always returned when the time and funding was right. I like this way of organizing a festival! This year’s theme is “Hope & Faith.”
Museu da Imagem in Braga
Encontros da Imagem photography festival in Braga.
In addition to the explanation of the theme in the text by festival artistic director Angela Ferreira, this motto seemed appropriate in light of the political and social situation that Portugal (and Spain) have been in since the financial crisis of 2008. The festival presents works by 200 artists, not only in Braga but also in Porto and Lisbon, and we could only see a few of its many exhibitions. All were well presented, interesting, and described in both Portuguese and English. They even had a dedicated “PhotoBook” section and a special Photo Book Day with an open call for young Portuguese photographers to send in their books (it did not matter if they were print on demand, single edition books or real offset printed editions).
My favorite exhibition was “Black Sea of Concrete” by Rafal Milach (a photographer with whom I almost did a book and still miss the opportunity). His work and especially his books are among the best I have seen of social documentary photography in recent years. Milach produces and publishes most of his books himself together with his team, and sometimes uses a publisher to help with distribution – another creative publishing method! I also liked Antoine Bruy’s “Les Maquis” in the Torre Medieval (another fitting old building), also because we are travelling by car doing something similar to what he did, at least in part: staying in remote places and visiting the hermitages. But while we have toured the medieval ones, Bruy portrayed contemporary hermits.
The festival catalogue was both interesting and impressive. Their list of festival sponsors (see catalogue page) proves that such projects can only be realized with the right networking abilities of their organizers.
On to Porto, where we discovered the Portuguese Photo Museum, which as a building was too big to fit into one photograph:
Like most Portuguese museums, it suffers from the current budget cuts – but what a building it is. A former palace of justice and a prison, and further proof of how old buildings and contemporary art and photography can complement each other. We met the director, who explained the current situation of the state institutions, and that they depend on a rather centralized administration (sounds familiar, like in Spain and France, and a lot of other European cultural institutions). The museum was well visited by many young people while we were there. Besides at least three ongoing changing exhibitions, it also hosts the Portuguese Camera Museum and a library with photo books – most likely the most comprehensive library in Portugal.
And not to mention the free entrance – how about that? In fact, most of the public institutions in northern Spain and Portugal that we visited had this free entrance policy! I wish they could collaborate more with northern European institutions. But to do so, they need sponsors and funding so they can afford to take on travelling exhibitions.
Porto is also host to one of the most incredible bookstores, Lello e Irmão:
The place has a very special problem: too many visitors – because they come mostly for its beauty, not to buy. The bookstore has a special policy of only allowing photographs to be taken in the store from 9 to 10 a.m., as this is what most visitors come for. Every five minutes during the day, the owner and his employees yell, “No photographs!” through both levels of the Art Deco store. Nevertheless, the store is always crowded and the regulars also buy books. They have a decent art book section with some photography as well, in addition to sections for literature, travel guides, lifestyle, and scholarly books. Another great small bookstore in Porto that is dedicated to special books (as well as vinyl, films on VHS tapes, etc.) is Edicoes Inc. Despite its size, it has a great selection, thanks to the knowledge and enthusiasm of its owners.
From Porto we moved south, though we decided to not visit Lisbon on this trip, we still paid a visit to the Centro Cultural de Cascais (CCC), a place for Portuguese and international photography just outside of Lisbon. A private foundation (Fundacao Dom Louis) organizes the exhibitions there, from what we could find out. On that Friday afternoon unfortunately, everyone was busy, so we could not speak with anyone directly. Currently the CCC is staging two exhibitions: one with Portuguese artists and a solo show with photography by Bryan Adams. They need to draw visitors with bigger, more popular names. But they seem to remain dedicated to exhibiting photography on a good level, perhaps comparable to places like Fotografiska in Stockholm or Foam in Amsterdam.
After this brief encounter on the outskirts of Lisbon, we decided to head further south and research the nature resorts and forget about photo institutions and books for a few days.
It was encouraging for me to experience this vivid photography scene in Portugal, which is coping with the economic crisis creatively and still able to provide viewers with interesting exhibitions. I truly hope times will be better soon in Portugal and would encourage institutions from Central and Northern Europe to cooperate with Portuguese institutions, festivals, and galleries as much as possible. Portugal is a part of Europe and of European history and we should not forget that.