Mar 3rd, 2016, 09:17 PM

Review: Photographer Fernell Franco's Cali Clair-Obscur Show

By Alice Preat
Image Credit: Fernell Franco
The current Fernell Franco photography show at the Fondation Cartier offers us a series in colorless contrasts.

On the downstairs level of the Fondation Cartier, as you enter the grey and blue painted room dedicated to Fernell Franco’s show, Cali Clair-Obscur, the salsa music instantly evokes Franco’s world in his native Colombia. It was an ever-changing world filled with violence and destruction that left an enormous impression on Franco during his childhood. Later on his world became one of arts and culture: dance, cinema, theater and music. A world of reinvention: a country, city, its people. 

Cali Clair-Obscur, the first European retrospective of Franco’s work, presents us with some of the ten series he created: DemolicionesAmarradosPacíficoInterioresBillaresProstitutasBicicletasGalladasRetratos De Ciudad, and Color Popular. Each is displayed strategically around the barely-lit room with names and descriptions plastered in bold on the wall next to the corresponding photos. Thus these series flow together to create an understanding of Cali and the cultural context of their time. But also of Franco's own life. Born in 1942, he spent most of his life in Cali where he began as a street photographer. Inspired by what he had seen as a child growing up during the country’s civil war from 1948 to 1958, Franco soon became a photojournalist for Colombian newspapers. In the 1970s, he started producing his own work and organized his first exhibit in 1972. He created photographic series on varying themes until the 2000s. He died in Cali in 2006 at age 64.

Image Credit: Fondation Cartier

As you walk through the exhibit, the blue painted walls become pink while you contemplate photographs of aquatic spaces (Pacífico), destruction (Demoliciones), a colorful capture of what used to be Colombian traditions (Color Popular), pool bars (Billares), architecture (Interiores), packages (Amarrados), and prostitutes (Prostitutas). After reading the introductory description on the exhibit wall, you soon understand what is meant by an “experimental approach to the photographic process.” Indeed, Franco was an avant-gardist photographer who took multiple creative steps to make his photos more emotional and personal but also efficient. He drew and painted on his film photos, played with under and over exposure, and even made collages. These techniques are present throughout the show, making each space and theme that much more inviting and substantial. From scenes of great negative impressions, such as Demoliciones and Pacífico, to others of nostalgic happiness and honest smiles such as color popular and Prostitutas, the Cali Clair-Obscur exhibit showcases a variety of Franco’s emotions and life experiences, and more importantly, many different sides of Colombia.

Image Credit: Youtube/Fondation Cartier

I was personally touched by the post-development work Franco did in the series Billares. In photos depicting billiard rooms and groups of strange men standing around or playing pool, he painted the pool table green and left everything else black and white. This evoked a particular emotion for me that Franco himself later confirmed in a documentary shown at the exhibit: the table was the only real aspect of these scenes. These men were lonely, sad, and ultimately alone together. The only truly colorful and real thing was these pool tables.

In Interiores, his use of collages added to the already beautiful abandoned architecture of Cali. Here Franco created symmetry, continuity, and harmony in these spaces by modifying them. I could feel that he did that to give these spaces life, to show that there were still things to be done with them rather than to simply leave them behind for newer, fancier buildings — as he explained people were doing in Cali at the time, during its renovation. Color Popular, the only series in color of the exhibit, was a true breath of fresh air. With its slight blur and nostalgic feel, the series portrayed what remained of a colorful lifestyle of people in Colombia: an empty bar, people sitting inside a restaurant, and a poster of a dancing woman with a man sitting next to it. 

Image Credit: Fernell Franco

In Prostitutas, my last favorite series of this exhibit, Franco uses mirror effects and plays with exposure to portray women — sometimes in a group, and sometimes alone — that are an integral part of Colombia’s culture and societal context, but that are also misunderstood and represented in a negative light. Speaking of light, Franco manipulated it to show these women as human beings — kind, laughing, smiling, but also nude human beings, that were not afraid of him, but inviting. It made me happy that this series was the first one Franco ever exhibited, because it is one that is also somewhat controversial, and that speaks to some of the societal issues in Colombia at the time.

Image Credit: Fernell Franco

At the back of the room, a wall separates a bench from the rest of the photos. On that wall, a clip of María Iovino’s 2001 documentary Otro Documento, which includes a series of interviews with Franco about Colombia, his life, and his work. I urge visitors to this show to sit and watch the entire video, as it will inspire and enlighten you on all three of these things – plus, if you are at the exhibit already, you might as well try to understand it. As a photographer in the making myself, this clip made me truly think about photography, what it means to be a photographer, and about Franco’s work. In the documentary, he does not hold back on his approach to life and photography – a very emotional one – and explains his tricks and techniques. He also talks about the evolution of his city, and why he felt that he simply had to document it in his own way. Without giving too much away, let’s just say I smiled and nodded my head at an inanimate screen during the entire clip.

As I walked out of the Fondation Cartier I felt that I knew things I did not know or even think about before. I felt inspired, curious, interested and fascinated. Cali Clair-Obscur is a contrast between before and after, between good and bad, happy and sad, with all of these contrasts containing very high color, while in fact being colorless. The show runs until June 5th. A must-see. 

Check out the Fondation Cartier's exhibit tour (in French/Spanish) here: 

Fernell Franco, Cali Clair-Obscur - Visite de l'exposition - 2016

Video Credit: Youtube/Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain