EXHIBITIONS / After Franco, everything just clicked: Spain is not best known for its photographers. 'Cuatro Direcciones', a new show of Iberian images, aims to put the record straight. Bruce Bernard finds much to admire

THE WORDS 'Spanish' and 'Photography' together evoke barely a single image in most British minds. One might think for a moment of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, but he was Mexican. Only photographs taken of Spain (particularly during the Civil War) come readily to mind - unless you count stills from Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. There were artist-photographers during the Thirties, but they were either killed in the war or forced into exile, and they left nothing of much significance behind them. The Franco regime seemed to consider photography as more potentially subversive than art, so while Dali and Miro were left unmolested, the government kept a beady eye on photographers. It even censored pictures which innocently emphasised contrasting regional characteristics in the country. But a few years ago there was a small, very lively show of Spanish photographs at the Special Photographers Company, memorable for introducing a woman photographer of highly contrived and deliberately rebarbative images, who unforgettably calls herself Ouka Lele. Now she and some of those who showed with her are exhibiting more than 200 pictures at the Photographers Gallery. The show is called 'Cuatro Direcciones' (Four Directions), and its four sections are certainly worth a look. The first, 'Documentary Tradition', speaks for itself; 'Process as Medium' is composed of manipulated pictures, some of whose photographic origins or content are barely apparent; 'Dream and Suggestion' also contains manipulated photographs, but only those with clear Surrealist affinities; while 'Reflection and Concept' combines very cool and objective portraits and landscapes, some of which would make perfect sense to Eugene Atget, the great recorder of Parisian streets, or Werner Mantz, the superlative Thirties photographer of architecture from Cologne. This last section combines its subjects with a Surrealism arising only from the selection and juxtaposition of objects, rather than from interference with printing and processing.

If you ask whether a photograph can be devious or pretentious, I would say that it could, but the first thing that strikes one about nearly all the images in this show is their candour. Nobody seems to be trying to tell you how clever or particularly sensitive they are: they have simply had an idea or made an observation that they then communicate. Even the nonsense is no-nonsense nonsense. Photographers can be pretty subtle about the ways they ask for admiration, but one gets no sense of that sort of thing here. They just seem to hope they've done well. If that means that there are no photographers who are unquestionably of the first rank, then so be it. It's a relief to feel you're not being asked to think they're better than they are.

While some exhibits may make political and religious allusions which will be missed by people outside Spain, such allusions are probably not important where they cannot be perceived. But the refreshing aspect of the show is that it shows freedom being positively enjoyed, rather than creating problems and encouraging affectations.

The 'Documentary Tradition' section contains several thoroughly sound photographs, and a few that are better than that. Cristina Garcia Rodero, perhaps the best-known photographer outside Spain, looks dispassionately at Catholic and folk customs, while showing a nice appreciation of the people involved. Vari Carames has a subtle talent for black and white, but sometimes I found the placing of shadows and silhouettes a bit too neat. This is surely a misuse of skill with a camera - the 'composition' robbing the shadows of their own curious, natural life. The colour documentary shots include some attractive and well-made photographs, the boldest being close-ups of human anatomy on a beach by Carlos Perez-Siquier. Apparently deliberately unerotic, the most interesting is a study of varicose veins. It would be fair to say that Spanish photography alludes to sex often enough, but never seems sexy.

It is the colour in the set-up or manipulated pictures that is most essentially Spanish. Reminiscent of the deliberately brash tints of Pedro Almodovar's films, it is often pleasantly shameless and aggressively kitsch. A particularly enjoyable example is Antonio Bueno's quartet of shots entitled Bodegon Espanol, each featuring the same table and background, but with different props and nuances of form. There is also a reckless, crude but somehow enjoyable series by Ciuco Gutierrez called Twelve Murders and One Suicide.

There are, though, exhibits that I would not have allowed in a photography show, however attractive one or two of them may be. Some are collages, made by sticking cut-outs from reproductions in art books on to photographs. Others are heavily distressed and painted photographic prints which seek to create new parameters. If these are photographs, then Robert Rauschenberg will have to call himself a photographer (not a bad idea perhaps). But all this does emphasise the painterly and graphic bias of much of the work in the exhibition, which may or may not remain central to Spanish photography.

In the meantime, we must wish Spanish photography well, in the confident hope that it will build on its present vitality, and that no EU regulation about the proportions of magenta and unnatural green in a photographic image will replace the tyranny of General Franco.

Photographers' Gallery, WC2 (071-831 1772), to 5 May. Tim Hilton returns next week.

(Photographs omitted)

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