It's a supreme collection of photography pertaining to Barcelona, and perhaps the best exploration of the relationship between photography and the city I've ever seen.
Organised thematically, and then covering most themes one could imagine, the exhibition starts with ghostly 'empty' shots of the very earliest photography - 'empty' as the city rarely stands still and early cameras lost movement - right the way through to digital camera pics updated in real time. It therefore spans nearly 200 years of Barcelona life, and the work is powerfully affecting throughout, casually taking in many great names who have pointed their cameras at Barcelona, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Martin Parr and Robert Capa, as well as numerous indigenous photographers. It runs over several floors and hundreds of images, leading up through the Museu building to a final, beautiful roof terrace display.
While it's particularly strong on aspects of cultural and social life in the city, with insightful accompanying text, the exhibition also offers a fascinating documentation of the changing form of Barcelona. The city is practically a living laboratory of urban form anyway, comprising numerous rich histories of engineered and organic regeneration, and many of the photos here attest to adaptability and evolution of this near-perfect city. Nowhere more so than the vast comparative panoramas taken by Lucien Roisin in the first decade of the 20th century, and then matched by Manel Pérez's shots from the same position, taken in the first decade of the 21st. Unlike the 'Changing New York' captured by Douglas Levere's photos, shadowing Berenice Abbott, it's striking how Barcelona has successfully preserved much of its form, whilst still progressing. I picked up a book by Joan Busquets - Barcelona: The Urban Evolution of a Compact City (published by Harvard University Graduate School of Design) - which looks like it could emerge as a classic text on such things. In his introduction, Busquets suggests that "the city continues and reproduces in the same way that seeds and plants change and adapt to similar structures in a continuity that allows mutation." This set of photographs, separated by a century, wordlessly describe this interrelationship of continuity and mutation superbly.
Yet the curators haven't glossed over a full story of the city in favour of tasteful tourist shots. In fact, there's barely a Gaudi building in sight, whilst there are many images of near-unbelievable poverty, such as Rambla del Raval, 2002, by Íñigo Bujedo Aguirre.
These photographs - all the more shocking given their recent date - are run alongside the expected examples of classic street photography, such as these Catalan wide-boys on Via Laietana, 1962, by Xavier Miserachs. These collisions avoid an easy nostalgia, and the exhibition is able to make cast iron cases for its themes as a result.
The exhibition closes with what amounts to a characteristically passionate, proud and fundamentally timely call to arms, which I've snapped below:
The Barcelona & Fotografia website has reproduced many of the key photographs and is well worth a browse even if you're not a Spanish/Catalan speaker. The exhibition runs until 31 March 2006 and the Museu D'Historia de la Ciutat is in the middle of Barcelona.
NB: If you're not in Barcelona but happen to be in London and in the mood for city photography, then you have ten days left to see the Diane Arbus exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is strong on 1960s New York and recommended. However, it's not as rewarding as the Nobuyoshi Araki show at the Barbican. Some amazing work in there, and some incredible city photography, specifically the Tokyo Nude series, Tokyo Summer Story, Tokyo Lucky Hole etc. The Araki exhibition runs until 22 January 2006.