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The photographer with his Leica M2 moved through the streets of Barcelona, as discreetly as possible. Wearing a suit and tie, he looked like an ordinary person on a stroll; the camera, hanging loosely from his wrist, was barely noticeable. The exposure time, aperture and distance had been set in advance, so that he was able to photograph quite casually, without needing to draw any attention by looking through the viewfinder. This perspective – shot from hip height – also changed the aesthetics of the pictures, making them appear spontaneous and immediate. He photographed children, merchants, and quirky characters, as he gradually approached the red-light district. There, he secretly captured images of prostitutes and, at times, their clients.

The Raval district, known today as the Barri Xino (Chinese district), was featured at the heart of his first large exhibition, El Carrer (The Street), in 1961. He knew the area well, as his parents, who had immigrated from Colombia, had a flower shop close by. Born on April 30, 1921, Colom was a self-taught photographer: until his retirement in 1986, he worked as a bookkeeper in a textile company; but photography was his ultimate passion from early on. In 1957, he joined the Photographic Association of Catalonia, where he refined his technical abilities; and, above all, benefited from the influence of photographers with whom he connected, such as Oriol Maspons, Xavier Misrachs and Ramón Masats. In 1960, Colom was one of the co-founders of the El Mussol avant-garde artists group. Even though he never made the leap to a professional career in photography, to this day he is considered one of Spain's most important 20th century photographic innovators.

Looking back, Colom spoke about his work as follows: “I didn’t know I was doing social photography at that time. I just took photographs and went after pictures I found exciting. I’ve sometimes used the term to describe my work, but to me it just means I don’t do landscapes or still lifes. I work the street. I try, through my photographs, to be a kind of notary of an age.”

The book Izas, Rabizas y Colipoterras (synonyms of the word 'prostitute') was published in 1964. The selection of Colom's photographs was accompanied by a text by Camilo José Cela, who would later receive the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. The book was a great success, but also a scandal, during the prudish years of the Franco dictatorship. As a consequence, one of the women photographed sued the photographer and the publishers. The disputes, arising from the secret picture-taking, made Colom stop his street photography for a decade. In the nineties, however, he began taking pictures again – this time in colour. At the same time, his earlier work was rediscovered and earned him much recognition and many awards, including: the Spanish Premio Nacional de Fotografia in 2000; the Gold Medal for Cultural Achievement from the City Council of Barcelona in 2003; and the National Award of Visual Arts in 2004.

In 2012, the photographer gifted his archive to the Museu Nacional d‘Art de Catalunya in Barcelona; in 2013/2014, the institution honoured him with a comprehensive exhibition of his work. He passed away at 96 years of age on September 3, 2017, in Barcelona. Colom's work, as a precise observer and sensitive chronicler, has made history. (Ulrich Rüter)
© Ignasi Marroyo, Joan Colom in the Barri Xino, 1961
© Joan Colom/Museu Nacional d‘Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, El Carrer, around 1960
© Joan Colom/Museu Nacional d‘Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, El Carrer, around 1960
© Joan Colom/Museu Nacional d‘Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, El Carrer, around 1960
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