2023-10-23 • 2024-02-11
A New World to See
The museum has welcomed a donation of 110 photographs from the prestigious Ordóñez-Falcón Collection, one of the most important private photography and video creation collections in Europe. The donation spans a timeline from 1850 until 2010 and represents a roster of sixty-three artists—some of them with more than one work—along with fourteen anonymous works.
The donation includes not only photographs but also Katamalo (2010), the work comprised of twelve charcoal drawings by the Bilbao-based artist Alain Urrutia.
Stemming from the San Sebastián-based couple Enrique Ordóñez and Isabel Falcón’s interest in visual culture and passion for collecting, they started the collection in the late 1970s with the purpose of having it publicly displayed. They managed to bring together almost 2,000 images—the vast majority of them period originals—which comprise an outstanding compendium of the history of photography and a catalogue of the most diverse subjects, styles and photographic techniques.
Since 2020, more than 1,000 of their pieces have belonged to the Tenerife Espacio de las Artes (TEA), where they were deposited in 2009 and later donated. The Ordóñez-Falcón Collection has deposited its works in other museums and art centres as well, like the Valencian Institute of Modern Art (IVAM), the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA), Artium Museoa of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the Galician Centre of Contemporary Art in A Coruña (CGAC) and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. The origin of the current donation to the Bilbao museum is the collection’s relationship with the institution since 2007, when it signed over a deposit of sixty-one photographs that were shared in a 2008 exhibition and a book. In 2009, a second deposit of forty-seven works was also displayed in the museum and compiled in a similar publication.
Fortunately, many of the works from both deposits have now been donated to the museum in another generous gesture by Enrique Ordóñez and Isabel Falcón. They are joined by a set of images that adds value to historical photography, extends the end date to 2010 and includes Basque and Latin American photographers in the repertoire.
The donation includes an initial group of images that represents the evolution of photography during the nineteenth century and sheds light on the efforts made by the photographers who pursued the technical development of the discipline—albumin paper, dry plate, cyanotype, daguerreotype—and its status as an artistic language.
This corpus also documents the burgeoning importance of photography in bourgeois society in the second half of the century, its development as a professional industry and amateur hobby, and its crucial role as an instrument for perceiving the world and serving as a repository of memory.
The wide variety of subjects—landscapes, city views, portraits, nudes, still lifes, costumbrist and documentary scenes, scientific images and snapshots of travel and monuments—shows the broad utility of this invention since its inception, while also revealing the continuity of the genres throughout its development.
Invaluable images showcasing the landscape, like those by Count Olympe Aguado, Eugène Cuvelier and Peter Henry Emerson, represent the first attempts to forge a unique style.
The pictures by Southworth & Hawes, Roger Fenton and Léon Crémièr are a good example of photography’s potential applied to portraiture, as in the now-classic pictures of the writers Victor Hugo and George Sand taken at the Atelier Nadar.
Constant Alexandre Famin, Robert Burrows and Adolphe Braun, in turn, are represented with beautiful studies of flowers and still lifes influenced by pictorialism, which can also be seen in the still life by Henry Bailey. One exceptional series is the beautiful botanical cyanotypes in blue textures by an anonymous photographer, while Auguste Belloc, Vicenzo Galdi and Gaudenzio Marconi represent the female nude while also connecting with the genre tradition in painting.
The images of views and folk archetypes by Charles Clifford and Jean Laurent show different tests with collodion negatives copied on albumin paper, a procedure that Pau Audouard also used in his famous album on the port of Barcelona.
Also from this period are the first proto-touristic images of views of cities like Venice, Cordoba and Brest taken by Jean Laurent and Charles Furne. Others—such as those by Félix Bonfils in Jerusalem, Luigi Fiorillo in Egypt and Eugène Atget in Paris—attest to the efforts of the great travellers of that period. The donation also includes unique images of nineteenth-century technical and scientific experimentation, like the surprising astronomical shots by Paul Pierre and Prosper Henry, the visual records of electricity by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, the studies of the human body in motion by Eadweard Muybridge—which intrigued the painter Francis Bacon—and Adrien Tournachon’s application of photography to neurological medicine.
The pictures by Édouard-Denis Baldus and Charles Clifford, who were often working under the orders of engineers, reveal a kind of urban and industrial photography that reflects the epic quality of the new metal constructions, machines and the urban transformations. In this context, the development of collective transport encouraged travel, and thus naturalists, geographers and tourists wanted images to document it. The works of the pioneers of archaeological photography like Maxime du Camp, Désiré Charnay and Francis Frith fit within this context, along with those showing the mountain-climbing feats captured by the Bisson brothers.
An anonymous post-mortem portrait and the photograph of the author of The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, also stand out for their rare beauty.
A considerable sample of early graphic reporting in Europe made in Vienna by Emil Mayer, the fashion photographs of Baron Adolph de Meyer, the erotic portraits from Ernest James Bellocq’s celebrated album made in a New Orleans bordello, the similar one by Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden in Taormina (Italy) and the portrait of an emigrant woman by Lewis Wickes Hine all date from turn of the century.
And the collection also includes twentieth-century works such as those by prominent Latin American photographers like the Cubans Venancio Díaz and Osvaldo Salas and two invaluable anonymous Mexican photographs. The Catalan ‘New Avant-Garde’—Joan Colom—and contemporary Basque artists like also represented by Isabel Azkarate, one of the first woman photojournalists in Spain; Xabier Alkorta, with three pictures from his ‘Soldiers’ series; José Ramón Amondarain;and Aritz Loiola.
In short, this show seeks to pay tribute to the collectors Enrique Ordóñez and Isabel Falcón and to leave proof of the importance of photography as an instrument of perception and memory of the world through the select set of pictures they have donated.
A New World to See
Photography dates back to the first camera obscuras, which were familiar to painters like Leonardo back in the fifteenth century. The images captured by those devices were recorded via drawing and painting. However, a technique that allowed light to be mechanically fixed was not developed until the nineteenth century. The discovery of that technique—both physical and chemical—along with the development of the lens—including the aperture and focus—is what we call photography today. The discovery (Niépce, 1826) and its subsequent technological and industrial development (Daguerre, 1839; and Talbot, Blanquart-Evrard, 1850, respectively) arrived at the same time as other inventions that were transforming Western societies: the railway (1825), the telegraph (1844), industrial architecture (1851), the modern city (1860), the telephone (1871), the radio (1894) and the automobile (1894). Photography is a technique and an art that was part of that new world we call modernity which was taking shape in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Precise images, increasingly short exposure times and the industrial production of images helped photography to spread quickly and through all social strata. The new images had an impact on traditional art, specifically in the ways objects are represented and therefore seen. Photography records the changes that take place before its lens while simultaneously generating transformations itself.
The images presented in A New World to See reveal how those first photographers admired the world portrayed via the camera like it never had been before, which therefore seemed ‘new’. Looking through the machine and focusing on what it captures was tantamount to forging a new relationship with reality. The gaze is defined and becomes newly aware of itself. It helps to build an active image in many artists who are aware of at what and how they looked. Not only did the machine allow stars and planets to be photographed, but it was also able to record Egyptian hieroglyphics and the remains of ancient architecture. The world was radically upended by a new optical awareness revealed by photography. Thanks to the many images from the Ordóñez-Falcón Collection that the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum has received as a donation, along with several contemporary works, we now have the opportunity to see how the first nineteenth-century photographers looked at the world before their cameras and what that world was like, as it was both vanishing and being born. The collection, whose donation is part of a larger corpus, was started in the 1970s by the San Sebastián-based designer and publicist Enrique Ordóñez and his wife Isabel Falcón based on their personal interest in the images. To organise these scientific and artistic works, the museum has brought together a constellation of images that illustrate that world in transformation, drawing from three main themes in art: Science and nature; Architecture and city; and Portraits and people. What makes these works so exceptional is that they are a record of that first encounter between human beings, machines and the world.
- Gilermo Zuaznabar
Design and Architecture Curator