Luis Baylón or simply Baylón is a Madrid-based photographer who works on the streets of Spain’s capital, sculpting images from the thousands of possibilities in front of his lens on his daily walks through the city. The images, in their minimal and contrasty monochrome palette, feature a number of different possibilities from which the photographer draws his focus. The images, produced between 1985-2017 feel older, as though they could have been made in the 50s or 60s. Part of this is the relatively close-cropping of the photographer’s frames which concentrate on details of people passing in front of his lens as well as dogs, minor pieces of building sculpture, and the heavy insistence on photographing, obliquely, sex workers and women from behind. This allows the artist to crop in and leave less chance to external imagery that might define the landscape as later than it appears. It is also the images of Spain in the 80s and 90s that recall an earlier decade by dint of economics and fashion, etc.
The square images, shot from a TLR Rolleiflex are chaotic and gritty. They remind me of the work of Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful, with a more unnatural gaze. I have likewise struggled with that particular Winogrand book. The images in Baylón’s book oscillate from playful to nefarious in their directness. There is a frank gaze on Baylón fellow madrileños. Photographs of children and youth culture play a central role and adversely to the women in the book are handled with sensitivity and kindness. The images of young punks and the occasional diapered child running down the pavement are handled masterfully and with a kind eye for paternity. I am also reminded, perhaps oddly of Harry Callahan or Ray Metzger’s city work, though much less indebted to late Bauhaus experimentation. This is in no doubt relative to the use of contact sheets and images laid out in multiple over double-page spreads.
The images of elderly citizens in the work is another kind note of humanistic tendency within and almost makes me double think the artist’s photographs of women, for a brief and fleeting moment. These particular images give space of representation to an otherwise ignored feature of urban populations. It is refreshing to see the septuagenarian and octagenarian personalities hobble in and out of Baylón’s frame. It gives a counterbalance to the young people previously mentioned and ties the native population to the city in a rewarding and kind way. There are images of some older subjects clearly down and out and it is a pity to see such a focus on their presence. On one hand, it is part of the fabric of the city and why should we sequester and hide those issues? On the other hand, it is never easy to untangle how one creates art from the abject misery of the homeless.
In like-minded thinking, the same problems occur with the images of the sex workers, who are oggled, observed, and engaged in front of Baylón’s lens. The sex workers are part of the mechanics of the city and again, like the homeless and elderly previously mentioned, should not be sequestered or hidden from our sight. To marginalize, to vanish, and to deny existence to a person is also to relegate their person as non-admissable to the weave of society on a whole. That said, I cannot but feel that there is an inordinate amount of focus on their presence which is further exacerbated by an unseemingly and consistent interest in photographing women in general, from behind, from above, from the side, rarely from the direct and shared engagement of the front. That the book is dedicated to Joan Colom, another photographer from Barcelona who shared a passion for photographing prostitutes should not be surprising. Perhaps unsurprising is that most of these images of women from the back or lustfully photographed are not included in the press pack.
The book focuses on chance as per the author’s use of contact sheets. The frames selected for the sequence are based on individual negative numbers found on the frame from various contact sheets. In selecting pairs and small runs of sequencing based on contact sheets, the author is left to exhibit more than a single perfect image. Its follow-up or preceding series of images creates an imagined quasi-narrative within the overall edit and plays with mini story building throughout, though individual frames may have been shot minutes or days apart. It is, in fairness, a brave technical and conceptual experiment that does help to uplift the previously-mentioned concerns up from the ashes. It does not however forgive the undue emphasis placed on women’s bodies.
I find myself deliberating back and forth about the book. I am hesitant to dismiss its achievements based on the use of human fodder found within the frames and the apparent and unashamed use of the artist’s male gaze. I find the idea of chance to be slightly over-compensating for the subject matter within but cannot disregard it as an interesting technical bout of honesty and intrigue. The photographer is perfectly able and when the emphasis of his images is drawn less from ethical considerations of what he chooses to photograph, you begin to see a more clear vision driven less by an oversexed and unfortunately cliche set of investigations.
When the innuendo is stripped from the work, you begin to see an artist in love with his native terrain, with the speed of its function, with photography, and with the general goodwill that he seems to exhibit towards most of his fellow citizens. I remain critical and divided about the work, but that by no means leaves it without merit. If you are interested in street photography and want to look at Spanish work that emulates an era of photography removed by its art-ification, then I think you will enjoy the work. The experimental use of contact sheets makes it worth the while if you are concerned about approaches to bookmaking in particular and its overall value fits snugly in line with a number of RM books, meaning that it is overly solid on the whole, no matter what the take away is from the images themselves, and offers something interesting and studied. For fans of Friedlander, Winogrand, possibly Larrain, and a number of other 60s and 70s street photographers.