Joel Meyerowitz, in front of the huge, colourful portrait of the Gypsy family who took him in in the 1960s.

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Joel Meyerowitz, in front of the huge, colourful portrait of the Gypsy family who took him in in the 1960s. MARILÚ BÁEZ

Picasso museum revisits a New Yorker's trip to the Malaga of the 1960s: 'It changed my life'

Joel Meyerowitz exhibits his photographs for the first time in the city where he ended up staying for six months



Friday, 21 June 2024, 12:00

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The photographer has captured a whole country and a whole era in just one image. In the centre is a blind man seated in a bar listening to the radio while looking for the ray of sunshine he can feel but cannot see. Behind him, a goat climbs the stairs to the rhythm of a Gypsy's trumpet. On the right, a couple cross the scene on Vespas and, in the foreground on the left, some children play and jump around as if they had just come out of school.

This country of contrasts and street life is what Joel Meyerowitz found when he arrived in Malaga in the 1960s on his photographic trip to Europe from the USA. And here he stayed. He parked his car, rented a house and had dinner every night at the home of the Escalonas, a Gypsy family steeped in flamenco, who became the main subjects of many of his photos. These images, together with the rest of his portraits, are being exhibited for the first time in Malaga city. The exhibition Europe 1966-1967 opened on Friday 14 June at the Picasso museum.

Joel Meyerowitz, with his camera in hand, also photographed the reporters who attended his press conference. Marilú Báez

"I was introduced to the Escalonas the first night I arrived in Malaga and this encounter was so profound that it changed my life," explained 'Pepe', as his Malaga family called him. He was to meet some of them again at the official opening of the exhibition after not having seen each other since the 1980s, when he returned to Malaga city with his children.

"The mystery of Malaga that I experienced is no longer so visible to visitors. Now it's just tourists looking at more tourists"

"I'm excited because Ana is coming," said the photographer, pointing to the face of the daughter of this Gypsy family. Now 86, he talked of the scene as though it were yesterday. Firstly, the matriarch Remedios who cooked on charcoal to feed 19 mouths and "two foreigners" - himself and his wife, Vivian. Then Antonio, the patriarch, and Pedro, who would become famous for playing the guitar and was Tomatito's first teacher.

Black and white images captured in Malaga by the New York-born photographer. Marilú Báez

"The neighbours also appear in this photo, because their house was like a bar, people would hear flamenco and come in," said Meyerowitz, who also understood the pull of the Spanish music.

Although he could not understand the lyrics, he had no problem feeling the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows of the different styles. "Flamenco taught me stuff," said the photographer, who compared what he saw and experienced with the jazz and blues of his native New York.

"The Escalonas called themselves 'the blacks' and we were the 'payos' [non-gypsies], they were proud of the difference within Spanish culture itself," said the artist. He also confessed that the 26 de Febrero district in Malaga where his hosts lived was not very different from the Bronx where he grew up and lived.

"It was a European neighbourhood of poor and working class people; my neighbours were from Sicily, Ireland, Russia, Ukraine or German Jews who also lived on the streets," recalled Joel, which left him feeling that Malaga seemed both familiar and at the same time a new experience.

"The Escalonas' living conditions were tough, but they had a wonderful philosophy that consisted of tightening their belts and making do with what they had," explained the photographer who spent a year in Europe, six months of which were spent in Malaga.

Malaga at the MoMA

On his return to New York, the 28-year-old photographer held his first solo exhibition at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) with the results of that trip. Of the 25,000 photographs he took, he exhibited 40 images showing Europe from his car window, from Ireland to Turkey, passing through the UK, France, Germany and Spain. Naturally Malaga was not left out, with an image called 'Mármoles', although in reality the title of the photo draws on artistic licence because the shot from the car was taken in Avenida de la Rosaleda, not Calle Mármoles, with the camera pointing at a solitary pedestrian walking past the retaining wall of the river, behind which the unmistakable façade of the church of Fátima appears in the background.

Churches, ferias, houses and the Malaga neighbourhood of Martiricos captured Meyerowitz's attention in the 1960s. Marilú Báez

The artist's first solo exhibition of that same trip has now been reproduced in the Museo Picasso more than half a century later. The photos of Malaga serve as a centrepiece from which the rest of the exhibition's photographs are arranged by country as if it were a "labyrinth", said Miguel López-Remiro, museum director, curator and the main promoter of this exhibition. In fact, this is the first exhibition to be set up by him as artistic director as the María Blanchard exhibition that is still running and the renovation of the permanent collection for 2024 had both been planned under his predecessor José Lebrero.

The exhibition also shows the effects of the Franco regime on the streets of Malaga. Marilú Báez

"This exhibition is a meta-journey, a journey in search of the identity of Europe that had its narrative epicentre in Malaga," said López-Remiro, who was accompanied by the Junta's delegate for Culture, Gemma del Corral. In fact, it was the image of a steering wheel in a photo by Meyerowitz that caught the attention of the current artistic director of the Picasso museum, who rescued these images five years ago for an exhibition in Valencia and has now turned them into his first personal project for his new stage at the Palacio de Buenavista.

Miguel López-Remiro, director of the Picasso Museum Málaga, next to the New York-born photographer. Marilú Báez

Street life

In total, some 200 photographs of that 30,000-kilometre journey can now be seen in Malaga, in which the city and the whole world that marked the artist play a special role. From the presence of repression in the streets, with 'the greys' (Franco's armed police, known for their grey uniform) and the Guardia Civil, to the carefree life of the people out shopping, the shopkeepers selling seafood or the children throwing stones in the street.

And the meeting of these two worlds, with some soldiers drinking a cold Malaga beer on the terrace of a bar, while a shoe-shine boy is busy polishing the boots of those in charge. Wonderful, natural images, which also show us a Malaga that has all but disappeared, going from black and white to colour. The colour switch is a symbolic metaphor of that Spain, but it was also the artist's personal determination to lend credence to colour photography, which was then rather looked down upon and seen as lacking in artistic legitimacy.

Almost 60 years later, Joel 'Pepe' Meyerowitz is back in Malaga with his camera around his neck. Taking pictures, among others, of the reporters who attended his press conference. However, the photographer does not hide the fact that the city he has visited once more is very different from the one he left, losing along the way a certain flavour and its own identity.

"It has become a very touristy city and the mystery of Malaga that I experienced is no longer so visible to visitors. Now it's tourists seeing more tourists," said the New Yorker. He did not hide his nostalgia for a time when "people looked each other in the eye, gestures were made and there was a kind of dance between people that flowed through the streets".

The mystery of that city and that time was such that Joel spent six months here and did not even know that Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, which would be unthinkable today, especially as Picasso is technically his host. So now the photographer has passed the baton to a new generation that knows how to use mobiles to capture "with poetry" the city of today.

What he has made clear is that this return trip was necessary. "I am grateful to return to the place where I discovered myself more than 50 years ago. Coming back is like coming full circle, the journey from a 28-year-old boy to the man I am."

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