The Temporal Mysteries of Manuel Martinez Polo’s Photographic Memoirs

(Reprinted with permission from Vie Des Arts, Montreal, Spring Issue 2017, № 246: pp. 46–47.)

Manuel Martinez Polo, “La Malvarosa Series, Valencia Spain, #1” (Knights),” toned silver gelatin print, 1985, 11" x 14"

In her book, On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag famously stated: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” There is an inevitable melancholy about photographs, only partly explained by their popular inaugural function in the 19th century as memorials to the departed and their uses as funerary emblems. Because every photographed moment has passed — is irretrievably and permanently located in the past — the aura of nostalgia will always attend this medium. This nostalgia may be subtle or nuanced, overt or discreet, but it will always be there, subtly asserting its influence like the cadences of a ticking clock.

As a young man of twenty-three, Manuel Martinez Polo travelled back to his homeland and took photographs of a Spain newly relieved of Franco’s tyranny. With a Leica M3 and a 35mm lens, he documented ancient buildings and newer Deco ones, all of them equally neglected since the 1930s. The buildings portrayed in Polo’s post-Franco photographic memoirs have decayed together for over eighty years — long enough that they have been leavened by time into equally velvet textures, their surface paint exhibiting similar mottled patinas.

You can almost feel the blasting light, looking at these photographs. Holy knights parade the untended pavements, newly reopened to sacred pageant and fanfare. A woman in an unseasonable fur coat stands out in her display amid a procession of young girls on their way to making their first Holy Communion. You nearly hear, and can imagine being buffeted by, the winds that blow down the deserted streets in other, lonelier scenes. In one image, mysterious vistas can be glimpsed between weathered buildings, beyond the towns’ outer limits. A haze of dust rises into the bleached sky. The open space beyond the buildings’ shadows suggests new perspectives and emerging possibilities. These photographs record an exhausted Spain, tentatively poised between hope and despond. As with a well-used Hollywood Old West set, the sense of Romantic despair feels familiar. But, despite the antique seductions of the silver photograph, this is in fact a sad and brutal memoir and not at all a glamorous fiction.

Manuel Martinez Polo, “La Malvarosa Series, Valencia Spain, “Fur Coat,” toned silver gelatin print, 1985, 11" x 14"

Even less of a Romantic fiction is Polo’s capture of a matador’s gracious, elegant bowing of the head toward unseen spectators in the stands. With immense gravitas and an elegant bravura, the man extends his arm to humbly include the entire audience in his victory. One can almost hear the thunderous cheers reverberating in the toned photograph. The pounding feet and uproarious applause of men, women and children are implied in the bullfighter’s ceding gesture to the crowd. High on blood lust, worshipful of raw courage and masculine grace, the weight of the audience’s expectation can be inferred in the dark-toned image.

A brooding foreshadowing of mortality imbues the frame, lurking in the dark shadows of the blurred, chiaroscuro composition. One of them will have died that day, either the man or the bull. This is certain, but the photograph documents a moment in which the outcome is not yet revealed, with no clue as to the outcome. Uncertainty and suspense lurk inside the frame. Life is precarious and fragile, even that of the invisible, enraged bovine. It seems evident that the matador is also bowing before mortality, grim Death as present in the animus of the screaming audience, surely the ultimate victor in all such contests. We can almost smell the bloodied dust of the arena, redolent like the desert in the wake of a downpour.

Manuel Martinez Polo, “The Bullfighter,” thiourea toned gelatin silver print, 1990, 16cm x 21 cm

With ‘Una in Montreal’ of 1996, Polo documented his young daughter climbing a park sculpture in the Mount Royal area. It is touching, beautiful and bittersweet at the same time. This image records a time when Polo did not see his daughter very often, captured just after a long separation had concluded. It is an elegiacal photograph in several respects. It memorializes the ephemerality of the young girl’s early childhood, so quickly disappearing in the glare of lost time, and also the last few hours of Polo’s relationship with his camera after a couple of decades of faithful, daily engagement. Needing money, Polo had advertized his Leica for sale, and was soon to hand it over to its new owner.

This photograph is the product of Polo having printed an old, forgotten roll of film after around twenty years had elapsed. Over the course of the decades, mold had invested the celluloid surfaces. Not all of the fern-like structures spangling the sky in the background of the image are the bare branches of winter trees, but are in fact the delicate tendrils of mold growth. The sepia discolorations are not only the side effects of decaying film, but also the results of intentional manipulations, toning and colorizing, during processing. Embracing the sculptural cornucopia of flowers and blooms beside chubby, stone putti, Una smiles at the photographer, her father. Time ages the background of sky behind her, but fails to touch her photographically immortalized youth.

Manuel Martinez Polo, “Una in Montreal,” thiourea toned gelatin silver print, 1996, 15cm x 23cm.

Artist’s Short Bio

Manuel Martinez Polo has over 35 years of practical and theoretical experience in photography. He has exhibited in solo and group shows, and has received a Canada Council Arts B Grant as well as BC Cultural arts grants. He works mostly with medium and large format cameras (slow photography), as well as digital photography, marrying traditional silver printing and alternatives historical processes with modern digital work-flows. With a strong foundation in the developmental history, theory and critique of photographic images, he is inspired by the views of many Art Photographers, critical thinkers, and philosophers, such as Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Maurice Merleau Ponti, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Lauren Simmonuti.

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Yvonne Owens, PhD

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.