Cristóbal Hara – Spanish Colour 1985 – 2020

Most photobooks say something about something. Perhaps it is a photobook’s completeness that is the precursor to this; a chance to put forward a thought, mould it, emphasise it, reiterate it and refine it until it feels undeniably right. But what if a photobook didn’t do this? What if a photobook didn’t try to say, persuade or convince? This sentiment, of a book that doesn’t try to coax or assert, sums up most of how I feel about Cristóbal Hara’s Spanish Colour 1985 2020, published by Plague Press and distributed by Setanta Books. I wrote the following with this idea in my head, which has resonated louder with each reading of Hara’s book.

Hara has the same humanist impulse as Cartier-Bresson, but he doesn’t strive to achieve the internal correctness that Cartier-Bresson does. Hara’s photographs are less harmonious, less poised. Heads are truncated. Limbs are split by the frame. Objects and people are garishly lit in the dark. What appears to be the subject of the photograph is bluntly obscured by something else. Whilst Cartier-Bresson, who Hara acknowledges in the accompanying text, sought to organise forms with exactness, Hara seems content in doing the opposite — happy for them to teeter and tumble. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, Hara’s imperfections give way to a palpable honesty (and at times humour) as well as an intensity of experience.

In one photograph, a matador moves towards a bull as it stumbles, barbed banderillas hanging from its shoulders and a sword thrust into its nape. It’s a morbid, affecting photograph; an image so wrought with death that it feels almost posthumous. What makes this photograph so abrupt, however, and what makes this photograph Hara’s, is the umbrella that protrudes into the frame. It covers a third of the image, if not more, photographed so that we are looking at both its underside and top simultaneously, whilst its edge meets the matador’s face just enough to erase it. It is a bizarre intrusion, concealing the expression we expect and yearn to see with an object so prosaic it is almost witty. Whilst we are left with half a spectacle, the photograph somehow feels no less poignant — perhaps even more so. This distortion, this interjection, is what makes the photographs in Spanish Colour feel at times inescapably surrealist and yet corporeal at the same time. A kind of uncanny, visceral world driven not by rationale and order but chance and compulsion.

Spanish Colour is made of these off-kilter, seemingly existential photographs. Macabre and phallic motifs parade, and its iconography is a feverish mix of Catholicism, masculinity, and nationalistic ritual. But for all the glimmer of such an underpinning, Spanish Colour feels plainly and irrefutably personal. These are not searching photographs. Freudian, most likely, but not vitriolic; a window without polemic or praise. Hara doesn’t try and persuade us of some feigned objectivity, they are openly his, and there is nothing to unearth — only photographs, sensitively printed and bound simply.

What makes me even more sure of this is the book’s treatment of time. Whilst its title lends itself to chronology, its structure says otherwise. The photographs do not move forward in linear fashion. Instead, they leap and step, forwards and backwards, elegantly melding time in a way that is barely perceptible. To add to this, the date and place of each photograph is withheld until just before the end of the book. This may seem a trivial gesture, but in doing so Hara positions these details as a postface to consider after, meant only to anchor the work in the real rather than let it drift into allegory. If Spanish Colour wanted to convince us of something, I doubt Hara and those at Plague Press would have created the book they have. Spanish Colour’s title too has the same quotidian, passive tone as the likes of Shore’s American Surfaces or Evans’ American Photographs; books that, like Hara’s, seem to eschew a singular meaning or claim. All of this makes me convinced that Spanish Colour is not a book about Spain but of Spain. There is, I think, a difference albeit slight, and one which Hara photographs with affinity and simplicity. Its lack of complexity, however, isn’t a flaw, and neither does it dilute its effect. Instead, its modesty — paired with its modest structure and pacing — engenders a depth to its reading that would be lost amongst something more elaborate.

Whilst Spanish Colour is a book of photographs in the most literal sense, it would feel remiss not to mention the accompanying text, redacted from an interview between Hara and the artist Gonzalo Golpe. In it, Hara traverses considerable distance, from the value of texture in images to the influence of Cézanne. But what’s most felt with every sentence is Hara’s frankness about his life and work, expressed with lucidity and tenderness. At times, his words verge on the self-effacing, but always without pretence. Reading the text is an enriching experience, and (importantly) the book doesn’t hinge on it; doesn’t rely on it to grasp Hara’s way of moving through the world. It adds to Spanish Colour and takes nothing away.

Early in the text, Hara talks about how it was accidents that made his photographs “good”; the chance happenings of a man walking and pressing the shutter. There may be some truth in this, but if they are accidents, they are the accidents of a man who has looked through the camera for a lifetime. Spanish Colour is a book of these mishaps, full of feeling.