The French photographer Robert Doisneau said that there were two types of image professionals: hunters, such as Cartier-Bresson, and fishermen. The latter are in no hurry. They are discreet. They spend the time it takes to integrate to go unnoticed and immortalize their prey in the most natural way possible. The photographer amateur Esteve Lucerón was one of them.
Armed with his 35 mm Canon, this resident of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat – born in the Pobla de Segur (Lleida), in 1950 – immortalized the last great barracks neighborhood of Barcelona for 10 years before his disappearance at the end of the 80. His images, one of the essential documentary works of the 20th century in the Catalan capital, went practically unnoticed for decades and until recently were only known in some circles of Barcelona photography.
The Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona now recovers a large part of Lucerón’s work with a complete exhibition –until May 22, free admission– where a hundred of the photographs taken by this amateur photographer who left the camera at the beginning of the 90 due to a serious ophthalmological problem.
Lucerón portrayed with respect, care and without a hint of paternalism the neighborhood of La Perona, located in the Sant Martí district, between La Sagrera and La Verneda, where there is now a large park overlooking the train tracks. Nothing indicates today that until 1989 the place was full of life, dirt, love stories, music, noise and also a rampant misery that showed the seams of the city.
“He portrayed the characters with great dignity,” says Jordi Calafell, curator of the exhibition together with Lucerón himself. “You can see in his photos that he did it because he was interested, it is clearly perceived that there is no commercial interest behind it.”
La Perona emerged in 1947 and was about two kilometers long. Until the 1960s, it was made up of some 200 barracks, but the disappearance of the shanty towns of Somorrostro (1966) and other towns in the city attracted more residents to the place. It is estimated that in the 1980s there were about 1,000 barracks where 5,000 residents were staying, most of them gypsies.
To gain their trust, Lucerón went to the neighborhood with his camera daily for two years in the early 1980s. He began by photographing the children, developing the portraits in his home laboratory, and returning with the images to give to families. Thus, gradually, he achieved privileged access to a group that distrusted anyone who came from outside, a group of neighbors tired of dealing with a double stigma: for being gypsies and for living in shacks.
The photographer – a tall, simple guy, with thick bottle-ass glasses – then began to document everything that happened in that long street of ramshackle houses, where you could see pigs and horses running loose in the open, guys with shotguns, women playing tarot cards and barefoot and ragged children.
He portrayed life on the street throughout the year. Family reunions and Christmas meals. Women and men of all ages. Patriarchs and Zascandiles. The faces and hands of the protagonists, rough and coarse, show the level of harshness of life in the settlement. Other snapshots, however, vindicate a community lifestyle that is increasingly in disuse.
Lucerón also documented the interior of these precarious houses, cold in winter, torrid in summer, where the fire of a camping gas was the only way to cook a dish. The access it had was so privileged that you can even see images of newborn children sleeping between wrinkled sheets inside these barracks.
Women play a prominent role in many of the images. Lucerón gives them a central role in the life of La Perona, while men appear as a complement, with a subordinate role that contrasts with the determining role that women seem to have in the life of this community.
A part of the photographs shows the contrast between two worlds. One that arrives –the beautiful, Olympic Barcelona, which enlightened the world by hiding many of its problems– and another that is leaving. The chaos of the barracks in front of the neatness of the new constructions that appear in the images. An old lifestyle, which could be a hundred years ago, compared to the modernity of what is coming. A practically rural setting in the middle of a large city, with large concrete blocks announcing an inexorable change.
In 1985 Lucerón had been compulsively documenting the place for five years and was known in La Perona. It was then that he was hired as a security guard at the warehouse where occupational training courses were held for the residents of the neighborhood, who were to be evicted in a short time. The City Council wanted them to enter the world of work in order to pay for the flats in which they were to be relocated.
The photographer then documented the day-to-day life of these courses, in which young adults are seen learning professions as if they were children. He also immortalized the residents of La Perona in these new flats where they were relocated. Some seem to feel out of place in them, with the contrast between the old furniture of the barracks inside a brand new apartment as a reminder of the life that was left behind.
All the work of Lucerón, a young communist militant and photography student in the 80s, focused on what happened in this neighborhood. He hung up the camera coinciding with the dismantling of La Perona and never devoted himself professionally to the image.
His work was only exhibited in 1990 in a gallery and it took 20 years for it to be shown to the public again in 2010. Due recognition came then, with an exhibition at MACBA and the acquisition of some of the images by the Museo Reina Sofía. In 2017 he bequeathed all his negatives –more than 2,000– to the Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona.
The arrival of this monographic exhibition – and the deserved institutional recognition – coincides with serious health problems for the photographer, who has not been able to attend this newspaper. “He never sought recognition from anyone,” says Calafell, the commissioner. “He has barely sold photographs during his life, most of his snapshots were given to the residents of La Perona.”
The figure of Lucerón will always remain surrounded by a certain halo of mystery. A shy, working-class guy, sparing in words and who doesn’t really know what he did for the rest of his life when he left photography. “It took us a lot for him to explain it to us,” admits the commissioner. “But the most important thing he leaves us is the sincerity of his gaze.”