Humberto Rivas


This exhibition of the work of Humberto Rivas, which can be visited from September 21, 2018 through January 5, 2019 at the Bárbara de Braganza exhibition hall in Madrid, aims to become yet another landmark event, helping people know an artist who is essential for understanding what photography was going through in 1970s Spain, as well as his contribution to its modernization.

Despite the years gone by since the invention of photography in the 19th century, neither the teaching nor the research undertaken nowadays reach desirable levels here. Indeed, development of this creative documenting tool lags far behind that in other European countries. We can affirm that a major part of the research in the field of photography has been undertaken here outside the public education system, sponsored by private institutions or under the auspices of various festivals or events focused on this discipline. The scant interest in photography in the university world, as well as the way in which this creative art form was marginalized until the mid- 1990s, led to the photographers themselves venturing to cover those facets ignored by professionals from the various fields of public research.

Thus, photographers took on the role of critics, curators, gallery owners and researchers. A large part of our photographic heritage is known today thanks to the endeavors of various photographers who furthered knowledge of its existence. This is the case of Lee Fontanella, Joan Fontcuberta, Cristina Zelich, Publio López Mondéjar, Pep Benlloch, Josep Vicent Monzó, Valentín Vallhonrat, Rafael Levenfeld, Juan Naranjo, Manuel Sendón, Jose Luis Suárez, Alejandro Castellote, Paco Salinas and the Photomuseum of Zarautz, among others. In addition, they contributed to the incorporation of relevant artists into the history of photography in Spain.

Another sector which has been doing important research work in the field of Spanish photography in recent years is that of the private collectors. From certain areas of this sector, and with all the risks this entails, some collectors have chosen to contribute their experience and know-how of certain periods and their photographic procedures, such as in the case of the daguerreotypes – officially introduced in 1839 – which they collect in a rigorous fashion. They not only help with their conservation, but also to fill in the gaps of our photographic past.

But this task, undertaken from the private sector, should be continued and further developed in our universities. The commitment to this artistic medium shown by some theorists and artists for many years enabled a minimal interest in research to be maintained. Subsequently, particularly through a range of publications, this provided an impetus that bore remarkable fruits and led to an apparent normalization process.

This exhibition, dedicated to the work of Humberto Rivas, covers the artist’s work over his entire career from the sixties through to 2005. Rivas was truly fundamental to the development of photography in Spain from the first half of the 1970s, when he arrived in Barcelona from Argentina, bringing with him a revitalization of photography, which warranted its entry into the field of artistic practices.

The exhibition chronologically displays much of his production, drawn from the Humberto Rivas Archive (Barcelona), as well as from our principal collections and museums: MNAC-National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona; IVAM-Valencian Institute of Modern Art, Valencia; MNCARSMuseo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Fundación Foto Colectania, Barcelona; Colección Per Amor a l’Art, Valencia and Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid.

The eye of the beholder is ever-present in his images, which always offer the possibility of a dialog

The selection features original copies of period photos taken by the artist and the fact is that, given his work process, we can intuit that Humberto Rivas always adopted a forward-looking approach to his work: each time he selected one of the photographs taken with his camera, he had the habit of immediately printing several copies. In Buenos Aires, the influence of the photographer Anatole Saderman led him to search for links between static images and movies; in 1971 he decided to open a publicity photo workshop and a cooperative for his creative projects. It was also in the early 1970s that he traveled to Europe, where he had the chance to see the great works of art of all time in person, and he visited Barcelona with América Sánchez. Subsequently, in 1976, the military coup took place in Argentina and state terrorism took hold there. As a pacifist who could not tolerate violence, Rivas moved to Barcelona with his family, able to count on the support of the artist América Sánchez who already lived there. His arrival from Buenos Aires in 1976 was significant for the cultural circles in Barcelona, and his work, which caused a huge impact, provided a major boost for a group of artists wishing to highlight the creative side of photography, which was still marginalized at that time with respect to other artistic disciplines. In 1982 he participated actively in the launch of the first edition of the Primavera Fotogràfica a Barcelona, a pioneering event in Spain that was of vital importance for the recognition of photography as a medium for artistic creation.

For Rivas, a photography maestro was the exact opposite of those “capturing the moment”. His work had nothing to do with chance, not even with the false audacity of voyeurism; rather, he constructed images. He worked essentially in the studio with a plate camera and, outdoors, he was always thinking globally about his whole oeuvre. With his work, Spanish photography opened up to a new way of documenting, based on a quest for the imprint of time, culture and collective memory. The eye of the beholder is ever-present in his images, which always offer the possibility of a dialog. His portraits are set against backgrounds that are barely distinguishable; the subject of the image is the only significant thing. Rivas builds an extremely descriptive picture which, at the same time, is profoundly analytical and, nonetheless, most mysterious. In his work, there is no place for the anecdote or incident.

The photographic oeuvre of Humberto Rivas could fit into different “photographic genres”, depending on the historical period chosen. However, he never wished to classify his work and this is the basic premise marking his contribution to the resurgence of Spanish photography. Just like the cityscapes, his characters, as he liked to say, “choose to be recorded by his camera” and fulfill one particular contradiction: they are landscapes without people or people without a landscape; either one or the other, but never together in the same image. When shown his work, we are the ones who insert one in the other, given that this union he strives to separate seems inescapable. For this reason, the exhibition displays a summary of his conceptual ideas regarding individuals and the city, within a continuum that is more like what we perceive as we wander through life. For Rivas, poetry was the art form closest to photography. Thus, his work is imbued with a certain feeling of solitude and proves disconcerting, yet seduces the viewer. In his images of the city, he depicts it more as a structure than as the theater of human life, focusing on the spaces inhabited by shadows; these are clearly his favorite, with these presumed absences very much present in his particular dissection of the city.

Portraits is not due exclusively to the aesthetic change they entailed, but rather mainly due to the sensitivity each one of them exudes

In the same fashion, he took the art of portraiture to new limits. The obsession with certain characters who appeared as models for his work, some completely unknown, led him to approach them in a practically compulsive fashion in order to complete his portrait, his photograph, in the manner in which he had previously imagined it. As a result, we also find a cumulative period of time in his portraits – there is no decisive moment. The artistic dimension of his portraits is not due exclusively to the aesthetic change they entailed, but rather mainly due to the sensitivity each one of them exudes. This can be attributed to the special treatment afforded to each of the characters, playing out their own role in their life’s play, with the photographer yielding an exceptional, precise, rigorous testimony.

All of the photographs by Humberto Rivas are filtered through his incisive scrutiny: his portraits, objects, buildings or rooms are radically isolated or reduced to lines, surfaces or façades, taking on a personality and life of their own. His images invite us to contemplate and analyze their content: painstaking in their detail, each element they contain helps us comprehend the reason why the artist decided to take the picture, and interpret that person or landscape.