The past plays a central role in all of the Spanish photographer’s work, including this project, which he photographed with a Leica M-11. Navia’s atmospheric images arise from a journey he followed in search of traces of his childhood. In doing so, he understands and reveals the concept of “trace” in the sense given to it by Walter Benjamin: “the appearance of a nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be.”
With this series, you sought to explore “one of the magical territories of my childhood…”
Memory is a fundamental element of all my work. I take pictures to try and photographically reconstruct the past, starting from the present. It’s about discovering, in the present, a series of people, landscapes, visual elements, and so on. This may allow us to create an atmosphere which can prove evocative – for myself, as much as for those looking at my photographs.
From your perspective, what is it that makes this territory magical?
I think that we all have special memories of the places where we were happy, during our childhood. And for me, the city of Hellín as much as the road that connects it to Madrid make up this magical territory, defined by holidays spent with my grandmother – from shortly after I was born, up until I was eight years old.
What was it that fascinated you the most?
Re-encountering places and sensations that I had all but forgotten; or which, if I did remember, was due more to seeing them in old family photographs, rather than because of what I experienced directly, back then. Also, confirming that some things had been preserved, more or less as I remembered them; while many others had changed, radically. And some places I thought I did remember, even, turned out to be different in reality. It’s just one step from memory to imagination. As the Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes affirms: “Imagination is fermented memory.”
Your series is titled On the other side of the door…
I took the phrase from a novel titled The Girl with the Leica, by the German author Helena Janeczek. I had just read the book, when Matías Costa, who is responsible for the Leica Gallery, proposed the assignment to me.
There is a moment in the novel when one of the characters says: “The past needs to be kept carefully on the other side of the door; but if it knocks, there is no remedy but to let it in.” I also thought that the title was very opportune, because it was a project sponsored by Leica; and the novel speaks about Gerda Taro. She was probably one of the first women to use a Leica camera, in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, where she went in the company of Robert Capa.
What happened, when you “opened the door”?
Well, as happens so often during my work, once the subject has been freely established and the territory delineated, a thousand possibilities open up. Reality starts to present itself before my eyes, as though it wants to be photographed.
Your atmospheric pictures are quite mystical – what do you hope to evoke in the viewer?
Of course, I believe that photography, and art in general, should first and foremost be evocative, as you say. And it’s even more important when you work starting from feelings linked to the past; because then the work of the photographer not only implies a journey through space, but also through time. Christian Boltanski, the conceptual artist, used to say that true communication is established when the sender and receiver somehow share a common past. And, in a more generic sense, we can see ourselves as many people who share certain fundamental elements of the past.
Why did you photograph so few humans?
Because I was very interested in the idea of absence. The work is as much, or more, about that which is no longer here, about those who are no longer here; but, also, about that which still persists: places, certain people who continue living in the houses where they were born, and where they were already living when I used to go to Hellín as a child (and which are very important for my work), and so on. Even so, if you look at the pictures carefully, I think that human presence is a constant somehow; it’s about working not only with people, but with the traces they leave behind. In my work, I’m very interested in the idea of traces, in the sense given by the philosopher Walter Benjamin.
How would you describe your photographic approach?
I always work in colour, and in the documentary field. However, my way of understanding documentary is inseparable from poetry. I feel very close to the definition once given to us by Walker Evans: “Lyric Documentary”; or, as Allen Ginsberg taught Robert Frank one day: the simple description of something can be poetry.
What equipment did you use?
In the analogue photography era, I always worked with a Leica (M4-P, M6). My favourite type of film was Kodachrome; and, after it was no longer available, Ektachrome or Fujichrome. This project was photographed with a Leica M11, loaned to me by Leica. The experience of finding myself with an old and beloved tool was very satisfactory; it meant that I recaptured old sensations. I mainly used a 35mm lens; occasionally, a 50mm lens. I think I will continue working with a Leica; specifically, with an M10-P.
Please complete the following sentence: To me photography is …
a means with which to try and understand the world visually, and to “speak” to the eyes of others, through images. A marvellous craft that quickly turned into a way of life.
Born in Madrid in 1957, Navia graduated with a degree in Philosophy in 1980. His work as a reporter is the basis for his photographic narrative: always in colour and in the documentary field, it coexists in close relationship with the word. Selection of books and exhibitions: Pisadas sonámbulas (2001); Nóstos (2013); Miguel de Cervantes o el deseo de vivir (2015); and Territorios del Quijote (2004). Navia has been a member of Agence Vu, since 1992. Find out more about his photography on the website of Agence Vu.