—José Suárez. His life, his work

Manuel Sendón
X. L. Suárez Canal

When behind the mirror of the camera obscura
there are lively eyes that think.[1]

José Suárez is an absolutely unique photographer within historical Galician photography. His images have very defined characteristics, which can be seen throughout his extensive career as a photographer and are the result of a reflexive and very personal vision that was determined by his rich cultural knowledge. These features endow him with a clear authorship that most historical photographers lack.

His entire life was closely linked to photography. His brother Paco recalls that Suárez’s camera was like another part of his anatomy, stating ‘On the few occasions that I saw him without his camera it seemed as if a part of his body was missing.’[2]

Our aim in this text is to provide an overview of his life, which conditioned his way of taking photographs. His work contained a profoundly humanist perspective, where social and cultural themes played an important role. Because he was a solitary character who kept to himself, enigmatic even, we have based our research on the testimonies of his closest friends, who knew him well, and on those provided by members of his family, and even on his own statements, which were recorded in interviews and in his personal notes. Notwithstanding, there are many blanks to be filled in.

His open, liberal, and instructed friend, Luis Tobío, with whom he maintained a close friendship when Suárez lived in Uruguay, defined him as ‘refined, distinguished, profound, melancholic, sensitive, a poet … he was both a man of society and an introvert … human and energetic; compassionate and firm; tough, especially on himself.’[3] Although he was sociable, he also knew how to be alone and sometimes even ‘alone against everyone.’ His great personality led him to be rigorous and demanding, both with himself, regarding his work, and with others, when promoting it or using it. This, together with his strong character, was sometimes why he was not able to finish some of his projects. He was ‘a firm and resolute man beneath a thin layer of apparent shyness.’

José Suárez, known to his family and friends as Pepe, was born on 17 December 1902 in Allariz, in the heart of a liberal family. He attended the Convent school, as reported by his friend José Puga, and then received his secondary education in Ourense. When he completed his studies, his father gave him a bellows camera with which he started off in photography, taking portraits of his family. In 1919, his father’s profession of barrister led him to study Law in Salamanca so that he could continue with the family office. During his university days he participated in union actions as a member of the student organisation FUE (Federación Universitaria Escolar), while taking photos as an amateur photographer. Later, in 1921, the magazine Vida Gallega (Galician life) published a page of these images in its issue number 168. When he finished his career, he started work at the Salamanca City Council, but his interests quickly turned from Law to photography and, as he stated later, what started off as a hobby, for I was very interested in art and this was the shortest route to get there’[4] turned into an essential activity.


— The 1930s

The time he spent in Salamanca was crucial for Suárez’s intellectual development. He came across the journal Revista de Occidente and through it he discovered the avant-garde artistic ideas and the philosophy of Ortega y Gasset. Miguel de Unamuno and Ortega were determining authors for Suárez, as Luis Tobío recounts:

The thoughts of these two authors are going to lead us to reflect, to bring out the dialectics that the men of our generation possessed. For us, El Espectador and Revista de Occidente, as well as the works of Unamuno, were like our psalm books.

In addition to these authors, his personal library, which accompanied him until his final days, included the works of Pascal, Montaigne,
Kierkegaard, Azorín, Valle Inclán, Bergamín, Benjamín Jarnés, Pérez de Ayala, Pierre Loti, Aragon, Elsa Triolet, Mauriac, etc. Due to different circumstances, these authors influenced his way of thinking and of seeing life because of their concern regarding the development of man.

Miguel de Unamuno was always there. Half a century after his student days, he declared that ‘his greatest teachings were his way of life and his ethical ideal … He practiced Morality and his moral standards were irreproachable.’[5]

It was during the 1930s when he really began his activity as a photographer in an on-going manner. He started off photographing still lifes where he carefully studied the composition and the light. Many years later, his sister Luisa recalls how he sometimes got up at dawn in search of the right light, and how he carefully prepared the shots, occasionally asking her for her assistance.

During this period, his admiration for Unamuno gave way to a series of portraits of him and his family. It is worth highlighting those taken in 1934 at La Flecha and, specifically, one where Unamuno appears majestically seated on the Castilian plains, as if contemplating the vastness of the sea from the headlands. ‘Unamuno appeared half eagle, half prophet’ Eduardo Blanco Amor later wrote.[6] This extraordinary portrait which was, and still is, reproduced over and over, became
Unamuno’s emblematic image.[7] Unamuno dedicated it to Suárez with the text ‘To José Suárez, artist, from his model and grateful friend Salamanca, 28 September 1934, on the eve of turning seventy.’ He also dedicated a copy of this portrait to Eduardo Blanco Amor and to the writer and journalist Xavier Bóveda. Also worth highlighting is the portrait he took of Unamuno in the cloister of the university where he taught.

It is hardly surprising that, being Galician, he was attracted by that feeling of spatial depth in Castile. This depth, which can be seen in the La Flecha portrait, is also present in other photographs, such as Camino sin fin (Journey without end) (1934), an image based on the geometric designs created by paths and crop fields.

His interest in exploring the territory led him on more than one occasion to walk from Salamanca to Allariz, according to his sister Luisa’s recollections. But Suárez was not interested in photographic views or in the usual landscapes for amateurs; he was interested in nature, but above all in those people who inhabited it. José Núñez Búa thus expresses it in an article ‘Walking along the paths of Castile and Galicia with his feet and his soul, his sharp eye, social query, and artistic observation.’[8] In 1934, the Madrid magazine La Estampa also commented ‘He has abandoned his Salamanca, carrying his camera, walking across the provinces of Orense and Pontevedra, passing the humble people who ceaselessly suffer and toil.[9]

From these walks there resulted, among others, the aforementioned photograph, and Caminantes (Walkers), taken in Castile and published in 1935 in the magazine Atalaya (No. 2). Surprisingly, both refer to walking in their titles. His interest in walking started with the hikes he went on as a youth (such as those to Penamá and San Salvador dos Penedos, in Allariz, in the 1920s, documented with a lovely image) and continued with the strolls he took as an adult down the town’s boulevard with his friend José Puga, a scholar of the history of Allariz.

Since the beginning of the 1920s, when he arrived there to study Law, until 1936, he basically resided in Salamanca, but continued to return to Allariz now and then. During the period when he lived in Salamanca he produced reportages with a clear ethnographic character in Peña de Francia (where he came into contact with the world of snow for the first time), Villavieja de Yeltes, La Alberca, Candelario, San José del Monte, in Las Batuecas, paying close attention to their houses, their streets, but basically to the people who lived there.[10] These
images reveal his clear interest in regional dress. Also, in these lands his interest in bullfights was awakened. His nephew by marriage,
Carlos García, recalls how Suárez always said with certain irony that the person who had truly introduced him to the world of bullfights
was the famous bullfighter Belmonte, whom he was acquainted
with. He attended the tientas[11], the gathering and separation of the bulls at the Salamanca ranches, and the bullfights, accompanied by his friend, the singer Miguel Fleta, who, according to Francisco Pablos, was the one who introduced him to his future wife.

The photographs he took in the factory of the Mirat family are from a different atmosphere, but are also worth highlighting. There is a clear connection with the most interesting reportages from this period on industrial labour.

During this period, and in tune with the language of the time, he took some staged photographs, which are completely different from the rest of the photographs he made during his lifetime. He also took a series of photographs linked to the aesthetics of advertising.

In 1932 he published the book 50 fotos de Salamanca (50 photographs of Salamanca), with and edition of 100 copies, and 20 more with Roman numeration. In this book, the photographs were stuck to the pages like in a photograph album. It offers a journey through the city, focusing on monuments, streets, squares, heraldry, or nooks which bear a certain meaning because they were places he had experienced. In the prologue, Unamuno wrote ‘This is a collection meant more as a keepsake for those of us who live here than as a guide for outsiders.’ Suárez’s images in this work do not usually include people, and when they do appear, their presence is not relevant, but this is not generally the case in his work. The book ends with a homage provided by two photographs of the paper birds that Unamuno made and gave him, and which Suárez kept for his entire life.[12]

In 1935 he married Mary Santiago Mirat, whom he photographed on several occasions posing with different dresses, such as the traditional dress of the charra[13], the chulapa[14], and andaluza[15] with a Spanish mantilla, or dressed up as a femme fatale. These are photographs that hold a certain similarity to fashion photos and that at the same time reveal his interest in traditional dress. He took some liberties in changing the dresses, which is something that he did not do in the rest of his photographic work.

In Galicia, during the first half of the 1930s, he began work on a set of series of great ethnographic interest, produced with great attention to detail.[16] This work, like the one carried out during the previous decade by the North American photographer Ruth Matilda Anderson, constitutes a valuable approach to our visual heritage, with the difference that Anderson’s view is that of an anthropologist, while Suárez’s responds to that of a photographer with a strong aesthetic concern.

In the series A Malla he describes the entire process from the reaping to the manufacturing of the linen. In Os Oleiros, he provides an overview of the work from the potter’s wheel all the way to the presentation of the pots, when the production process has been completed. The very geometrical shots based on diagonal compositions, with the accumulation of roof tiles, plates and pots are particularly eye-catching. Later, in 1945, J. M. Podestá wrote in the catalogue for the exhibition held in Buenos Aires The strong and elegant rhythm offered by the clay plates are so meaningful as the sum of the human labour that the photographs express.’ To an extent, the images of series production evokes the works on industrial production from the period of the European avant-gardes, as we already put forward some years ago in the two monographic books we published on José Suárez.[17] In Beiramar, he presents a series of very attractive images where the protagonists

are sailboats and their reflections, combining general images of the boats with formally well-thought out fragmented frames.

The series Romería de San Vitorio allows us to travel in time and visit the romerias of that period. Eduardo Blanco Amor provided the texts that accompanied these images, in the article he published in 1935 in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación (7 July 1935):

There are too many people for the tiny chapel, so they fill up the atrium, which doubles as graveyard and garden… In the evening, the romeria takes on a pagan colour consisting of crazy dances and massive partying in the woods until dawn. They are druidic Celtic reminiscences, Dionysian enjoyment of the colonising Romans, Medieval magical survivals … But the main activity, that which ensues, is the eating, the drinking, and the dancing. Underneath the surly gloss of the three-cornered hats, the crabby faces of a pair of Civil Guards peek out. They are all set to enforce order with unquestionable voices that speak through the small round mouths of their muskets… which in these cases usually point towards the sky.

In this article, which José Suárez kept until his death, the final words are crossed out and he himself writes ‘don’t always point towards the sky’, which reveals his ideological position. This photograph of two Civil Guards from behind, titled Los del gorro atravesado (The ones with the bad-tempered hat), is of great interest. Other images, such as the one of the man shooting the fireworks and the one of the romeros dancing, break away from the stillness that characterises his work, and this latter one has quite a modern touch.

On the importance that handcrafts had for Suárez, his friend José Núñez Búa writes:

What he wanted to show were certain artisan trades so that he could infer what was fertile about them; what still had a seed of future; what could turn them into small but at the same time major national industries, like the Swedes did with their furniture and household items; the Danes with their butter; the Dutch with their cheeses and flowers, or the Swiss with their lace and watches. Tradition for the sake of tradition is a hindrance. Labour technology for the production of marketable objects in series, when they do not carry a germinal tradition within them, introduces into consumer society those useless things that the Germans refer to as kitsch: ‘the negation of the authentic’, a phenomenon that is invading the world through ersatz universality.

Specifically, it is necessary to refer to the image of the carpenter building a cart wheel. Its diagonal compositions that give it dynamism, along with a high angle shot, are evocative of the images of the German New Vision and of the Russian constructivists. All these images show the link with the New Objectivity in the way objects are treated, even though in Suárez’s work their relation to man is always present. The majority of these photographs are square, which leads us to think that they were taken with a 6 x 6 camera.[18]

Similarly, he produced a set of stereopticon glass slides on works performed by the shore, on trades, or on rural world daily life activities, such as the one of the man by the hearth, or the one of the old woman weaving under chiaroscuro lighting, that reminds Luis Tobío of Rembrandt.[19] About this photograph, Suárez said to him ‘See how much depth there is in time; all the mystery of our ancient lineage contained in that figure.[20] Another photograph that is noteworthy is the one of the boat fishing with dynamite, for it is not common to find images of this terrible practice which, unfortunately, was not only used during those years.

In 1934, the magazine Ahora published the articles by Ángel Pumarega titled ‘La carreta celta del aldeano gallego’ (The Galician peasant’s Celtic cart) (4 January 1934) and ‘Esplendor y muerte de la feria gallega’ (The splendour and death of the Galician fair) (26 January 1934), illustrated with photographs from this series.

Many of the images from these series were later published in Argentina in different issues of the publication Galicia Emigrante, directed by Luis Seoane, and in the magazine Galicia, published by the Centro Gallego de Buenos Aires, or in Cinegraf, also from Buenos Aires, in June 1937, with the title Cacharros [Utensils].[21]

In 1935 he exhibited at the Fine Arts Circle of Madrid. His images achieved wide circulation and gave way to thoughts in different newspapers on the nature of photography. Mundo Gráfico informed about the exhibition by reproducing an image of Suárez in the room. El Sol (24 January 1935) wrote about the exhibition:

To belittle a painting that has been meticulously made, it is customary to say: it is photographic. Well, in photography there is room for meticulous and strictly precise detail, as well as for major synthesis, like in painting.

And El Siglo Futuro, in 1935:

Those things that need to remain as characteristic of photography, which are the details and the chiaroscuro, should not be hidden under exposure, retouching, colour, or feathering.

No doubt this is why we are so pleased by this exhibition, where these characteristics are present, along with the refined taste to be found in many of these photographs taken by a true artist.

The magazine Atalaya, in its issue number 2, also mentions the exhibition and dedicates five pages to reproduce ten of Suárez’s photographs, with the title ‘Art and artists. Photographs by José Suárez.’ There we can read:
Whose standards and guidelines for his art follow his motto, which he has said to us on more than one occasion: “I never make the person next to me feel uncomfortable”… Oh! Pepe Suárez is Galician, so he did not see the sun rise until he went to Castile. This is where much of the nostalgia and yearning pessimism that we find in so many of his photographs comes from.

That same year he held an exhibition in Paris, at the Salon de l’Office National Espagnol de Tourisme. As an introduction, the brochure published for the exhibition reproduced part of the prologue for 50 fotos de Salamanca written by Unamuno, and the cover shows a photograph with a daring composition: fragmenting a human figure to give a dog more prominence.

Mariñeiros (Seamen)

While in the series Beiramar the protagonists were not people, in Mariñeiros his focus is on them, but still paying attention to the capacity for evocation that objects can have.

The series Mariñeiros is his most famous work and the most relevant in his extensive career. This series alone is enough for him to deserve an outstanding place in the history of Galician photography, even beyond the frontiers of Galicia itself. It consists of some photographs that he showed at the Paris exhibition, and many others that he took later. Many are probably previous stills from the film Mariñeiros, while others he took while he filmed. It is difficult to know to what extent it was conceived as an independent work or as part of the production process for the film. However, what we do know is that it was granted that autonomy when he later staged an exhibition of the series without making any reference to the film.

It is a very extensive series, with more than one hundred extant photographs, taken with a medium format camera (4.5 x 6), which is not adequate for snapshots. In this series Suárez takes a close look at the life of seamen through close up portraits or longer shots where the presence of the person is essential. The same can be said about the images of objects, which always refer to the seaman’s labour. He explicitly says about his interest ‘Man is always present in my photos, or at the very least, his trace.’[22]

All the images are the product of a very meticulous way of working, as can be seen by the careful framing. The strong light of the sunny days is softened by a reflective screen, the pose is closely directed, and filters are used. Nothing is left to chance. He had a very filmic way of working. In his portraits, as he had already done in the previous series and as he did throughout his life, there never appears the front-facing gaze that characterises popular photography; the faces are never parallel to the camera and the eyes look toward infinity. There is no mirth in the gaze, even though there can be tenderness; they are thoughtful faces, concerned, where the gaze suggest an uncertain future.

José Suárez frequently uses slight low angle shots in his portraits and, on occasions, very pronounced low angle shots, such as in the image of the woman with the symbolic stone granary in the background, or in the one of the sailor at the prow of a barge, with a clear epic character that he makes explicit by giving it the title of Celtic seagull. Undoubtedly, this is a way of magnifying these people who live under wretched conditions. His disagreement with this situation is clear in the script Marineros y Tiburones (Seamen and sharks), which he wrote later and which he kept for the rest of his life.

He also uses low camera angle shots to present objects, as well as shots where he fragments bodies, eliminating people’s heads to give more prominence to the objects, such as the stone and wooden bollards, the cork buoys, the sailor’s leather boots, the utterly mended trousers, all of which portray a world that is quite different from today’s. The symbolic meaning of the objects he chooses does not go unnoticed: that water jacket where he manually eliminates part of the negative and which adopts a ghostly look; those sardines that are trapped in the nets of the xeito[23], looking like they have been strangled, or those horse mackerels sliced open to be used as bait, and that look like corpses lying on the boat’s bench. Perhaps, the first of these images is the one that inspired Rafael Alberti, when in 1961 he made a colour drawing dedicated to Suárez. It provides the opportunity to suggest a parallelism between Alberti’s feelings about the life he leads in Madrid, far from Cádiz, and José Suárez’s feelings when he looks at the photos of Mariñeiros during his exile in Uruguay. This drawing includes a poem from Marinero en Tierra (Sailor on dry land) that alludes to this photographic series:

Crying out for the sea,
a little sailor on dry land
raises this lament:
Oh, for my sailor’s shirt!
Always swollen by the wind
when the jetty came into view.[24]

José Suárez uses these images of Mariñeiros in the same way that Alberti uses his poems to the sea, as an ultimate haven against the loneliness brought about by his exile.

The Argentine magazine Cinegraf published a double page with four photographs where the seamen are wrapped in the nets in such a way that they look like ‘officiators of a strange rite.’ Unfortunately, there are no extant copies or negatives of this image that is reproduced in a larger size, but we do have this photo essay as testimony.[25]

The possibilities for expression provided by the nets gave way to other snapshots, like one where they are set out to dry after being dyed with pine bark, taking on a ghostly appearance. Especially noteworthy is Procesión del mar (Sea procession), an image that was very special for Suárez and of which only an internegative made by him survives, along with some vintage prints in a size smaller than the usual one. Four photographs with this title were published in the catalogue for the exhibition held in Buenos Aires in 1945, and for it J. M. Podestá wrote:

The admirable composition of nets and men in Procesión del mar is valuable both as a silent drama and as a summary. The sombre prestige that shrouds the figures of the Civil Guards [in the photograph Los del gorro atravesado] is no less startling than the crude simplicity of their projection in space.[26]

The careful formal composition of all the images is outstanding, which gives them a certain dramatic quality. The hit angles, low angle shots, fragmentations, and diagonal compositions that he uses are typical of the formal experimentation that defined the New Vision in the 1920s and that appear frequently in the snapshots by the avant-garde
European photographers of the inter-war period. It is also necessary to mention the similarity between some of these images
— particularly the ones of groups of seamen — with those of Neorealist film from the 1950s.

In 1946, in Imágenes de España (Images of Spain), published by the General Delegation of the International Union to Aid the Children of Latin America, we can see a set of photographs from this series.[27]

When in 1955 Luis Seoane published a photograph from this series in Galicia Emigrante (No. 11, and later also in No. 13), he placed Suárez next to the Galicians whom he considered references in their approach to the sea:

The sea is present in the poetry of Manuel Antonio … as it is in the art of Serafín Avendaño, of Maside, of Souto de Torres and in this magnificent photograph by José Suárez.

The images from this series ended up becoming a symbol of the world of the sea in Galicia.[28] Thirty years after they were taken, Blanco Amor wrote:

I will not mention them. What for? They are there. They will speak with their perennial voices, if the Galician sensibility, after so much “folklore”, after so much oblivion, so much sleep, is still capable of feeling itself.[29]
In June 1936, he began filming Mariñeiros, in the peninsula of Morrazo and in Rianxo with the film studio CIFESA. It was the first of four documentary films. Núñez Búa reminds us that Suárez was ‘scriptwriter, gaffer, photographer, and cameraman, all in one,’ and the protagonists and settings were the same ones as in the series of photographs.


— Exile.
A forced journey

As a result of his liberal and democratic spirit, when in 1936 the fascist uprising took place, he was forced to go into exile.[30] On the boat journey from Lisbon to Argentina, he met the painter Manuel Colmeiro.

If exile was a terribly hard experience for everyone who had to go through it, (as Ramón Pérez de Ayala puts forward in a letter he wrote in 1953 ‘of your inability to adapt I can only be in absolute agreement with you, having gone through an awful experience myself’) for José Suárez it was particularly painful.

In the personal sphere, besides his separation from his family, friends and land that every expatriation represents, it meant the breakup of his marriage. His wife, whom he had only been married to for a year, did not wish to accompany him. This absence and the long wait—six years later he still dedicated a book to her—drowned him in deep solitude and bitterness. In his personal notes he adopts the phrase that Ortega had written in El Espectador ‘Love may shorten the days, but it is a fact that it fills them.’

Professionally, expatriation meant both the impossibility of continuing with the interesting work that he had started in Galicia, such as finishing the film Mariñeiros there. In this respect, the Argentine magazine Cinegraf wrote:

Almost a year ago, the Spanish director José Suárez made a film in the Galician port of Bueu about the life of the “mariñeiros.” Before developing the negative, the revolution broke out and it was not possible to deliver it to the laboratories, which had been torn down. He was also unable to take it out of the country. The military censorship did not know if those drums actually contained a poem about the sea or some indiscreet document. The effect of the emulsions was already at stake when the nationalist government finally authorised the drums to be taken to Lisbon, where the magnificent images that are now reproduced here were developed.

In this copy, the words ‘the nationalist government authorised’ are crossed out, which implies he considered this to be an untruth. According to his friend Ramiro Isla, the drums with the negatives were smuggled out in a merchant ship to Argentina. And, as Núñez Búa recalls years later, he finished the film with scenes shot on the beaches of the Mar del Plata, which he chose because of their resemblance to the Galician ones. After adding the soundtrack composed by Isidro Maiztegui, where the bagpipe plays an important role, it was premiered at the Teatro Avenida of Buenos Aires on 29 July 1938, and was later screened, according to Núñez Búa, in several Argentine cities and in Montevideo. In his opinion:

The film did not turn out the way its author had planned. The scenes filmed in Galicia could not be corrected and, of course, the change of setting from Galicia to Argentina affected it. The reviews, especially with regard to the photography were favourable … A beautiful early example of what Galician film can and should be, not picturesque: just real cinema.

Days after the premier of the film, the Buenos Aires publication Heraldo Cinematográfico wrote a brief review qualifying the photography as magnificent.[31] Through this review we know that the documentary describes the whole fishing process, from the preparation of the nets to the classification of the fish, and the labours out at sea. We know that the brief synchronised dialogues substitute the explanatory captions and that ‘to add drama to the matter, the birth of a child alternated with the death of another, and that it was all executed with simple emotion, even though the repetition of certain scenes took some interest away from the film. The review ends by comparing it, ‘because of the analogous theme and the filming’ with the epic Man of Aran, by Robert Flaherty (1934), even though ‘the degree of emotion does not reach that of the latter.[32]

In 1955, Galicia Emigrante (No.13) also referred to the film, giving an account of the political context and of its repercussion for cinema because it was not picturesque:

Mariñeiros, an extraordinary film, was incompetently premiered in Buenos Aires, ruined by the actual film studio that sabotaged it because of Suárez’s political posture in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. He was loyal to his land and to the Republic, in the same way as Carlos Velo was.

They captured the reality of Galicia, the truth about the life of our farmers and seamen and their mentality. They gave their work a high aesthetic form because of the quality and genuineness of the photography and of the location shots that their camera reflected.

The films made by Suárez and Velo were neither flag-wavers nor picturesque, falsely extolling Galicia. Instead, they were socially genuine. Since then, nothing else has been done in our country…

Both for Velo and for Suárez, the anonymous Galician man was the most important actor. This had been happening, and continued, in the post-revolution Soviet films, where man is the vehicle to express the new ideas linked to social relations within a new collective spirit. This series of photographs provides us with an idea of what the film must have been like as far as the image is concerned.

The film could never be shown in Galicia and today there are no
copies (or at least none that are known) of it. All that is left, besides the quoted review, is the testimony of some of the people who participated in the documentary. Thus, in the work Mariñeiros[33] —carried out by Journalism students— we can read the following testimonies:

…I was paid two pesos every time. We were summoned to the Massó factory and taken to Rianxo to film…

I played the part of the wife of a seaman. I was sewing, threading the needle… My husband’s ship arrived and I went to the quay with our son to meet him… but I don’t know, I don’t remember if I gave the man a kiss or if he had died. Then they had to tell us that the ship had wrecked…

Mr. Castilla (well-known in the town) was very happy with the gift he was given ‘the filmmakers gave me a pair of boots’ (shoes were scarce at the time). People from the town still remember those few who were in charge of the film. Besides, technology then was not like todays ‘they placed an iron plate where the sun reflected and illuminated…’

The subject of one of the photos, José Rodríguez, recalls that he had been playing in the sand and ‘this man here came and took a picture of us. We were just leaving a party, down there by the river, and we were talking about the beginning of the Civil War. It was July 19th, 1936.’[34]

The military coup did not only frustrate the end of Mariñeiros, as expected, but it also aborted the project for the filming of the documentaries Oleiros, Canteiros and Feirantes (Potters, Stoneworkers and Stallholders) that CIFESA had commissioned him. Núñez Búa wrote about those projects:

They were going to capture natural settings and the traditional labour that is good and productive, though technically backward … In those times there was plenty of crafts that were worthy of being shown in a documentary; not with any silly picturesque zeal, making the subjects wear fake theatrical costumes (pilgrims, tunos,[35] vests from regional costume, short cloaks and underskirts from choral groups).[36]

1936, meant, therefore, the coming to a standstill of a widely
interesting Galician cinema. Several decades had to pass before other filmmakers continued along the path initiated by Suárez and Velo.

Suárez’s friend, Luis Tobío, with whom he held long conversations, recalls that Suárez never lost his identification with Galicia, in spite of his exile:

Very universalist, while at the same time he was profoundly Galician and a lover of things Galician. He was a man who felt his land, and in that we agreed. He was a spirit that was truly identified with the problems of Galicia and with the development of the Galician culture. He was interested in everything that had to do with Galicia, not politically, but he was deeply connected to it.

His identification with Galicia led him to exhibit, in South America, the photographs taken in Galicia before his expatriation. Their aesthetic interest is combined with a clear documentary one. Also, as per request of Luis Tobío, he collaborated in the graphic part of Historia de Galiza (History of Galicia) (1962) by Otero Pedrayo, with over 30 images. Unfortunately, some of those negatives were lost. In 1954 he had already published some images in the third edition of the Guía de Galicia (Guide to Galicia), by the same author. Also noteworthy is his collaboration with Seoane in Galicia Emigrante. His identification can also be perceived in the use of the Galician language ‘we used to speak Galician with each other and when we wrote to each other, we wrote in Galician’, Tobío recalls. The same was true about his daily use of the language with his parents and siblings. However, in spite of his connection and friendship with many Galicianists residing in South America, and particularly with Núñez Búa, with whom he shared living quarters in Buenos Aires’ calle Brasil, he was not politically connected to Galicianism. Tobío links his spirit with that of the ‘Ourense group’ from the 1920s, with a manifest Galicianist orientation, but not connected to the nationalist affiliation. The fact that he spent the most crucial years of his education Salamanca is significant.

His rejection of Franco’s dictatorship was always clear. Years later, Luis Seoane recalled ‘with Núñez Búa, the maker of drawings
Federico Ribas, the painter M. Colmeiro, the painter Maruja Mallo, the doctors Antonio Baltar and G. Sánchez Guisande, and the photographer Xosé Suárez, all Galician expatriates, we all contributed, with experiences lived and transmitted to us by third parties, to the writing of the book La Galice sous la botte de Franc, edition by Jean Flory, 1938, which was published in Paris. All this is now part of history.’[37]

He was a man of many places; he felt like a citizen of the country where he could work with freedom,’ wrote Núñez Búa. Suárez became an Argentine national, but this did not mean he ever forgot his origins. It is symbolic that even when he travelled to Japan, he gave Tobío some photographs as a gift. He also gave him an ancient map of Galicia with the condition that he would give it back to him upon his return. His spirit is in line with that of Luis Seoane:

We did not live in an ivory tower; we wanted to soar high above it and, at the same time, excavate its foundations and discover intellectual treasures. Our efforts were scattered (probably before 1936, but each one individually underlined his work and life with those intentions). The disorder of those years enriched our lives more than any study scheme at the University, which we filled with vitality. Even though we were working in the most different conditions and in different countries, we were loyal to that spirit. We felt that we were being a part of Europe’s evolutionary process, but knowing that our deepest roots were in Galicia, in its hidden national ‘genius’. Galicia’s specific concerns did not make us disengage ourselves from the world, and we needed to be stimulated by other national and traditional ways; new ways of life that could help to correct ours. We never forgot that man seeks happiness.[38]

This personal concern for Galicia was in opposition with a more folkloric view that was rooted in the purest type of costumbrismo that the official organisations were striving to project:

La Casa de la Troya[39] revolted us. Our spirit, like our lives, was anti-Troya. We would have happily handed over to any university city all that rose-coloured picaresque that is so good for tourism.[40]

When José Suárez recalls his early life in Argentina, he says: ‘I lived off manual labour at the beginning, then there came journalism and photography’.[41] His most important activity during the early years was film. In 1938 the film Los caranchos de La Florida, was premiered, where he was responsible for shooting the locations. In 1939 he directed La mujer y el jockey and he participated in a wide number of films as locations director of photography, gaffer, assistant director or technical advisor. For the film Malambo (1942), where he was in charge of filming the exteriors, he received the Gold Condor from the Buenos Aires Film Academy, which meant his entrance into that academy. He directed films based on the works of Casona, such as Concierto de alma and 20 corderos y una noche. Even so, it is necessary to acknowledge that the work he developed in the world of film does not have, under any circumstance, the same importance as his work as a photographer. However, within that work, we would like to underline the beauty of the opening images of Malambo, which are full of mystery and which are reminiscent of the epic character of some of his photographs.


Nieve en la cordillera
(Snow on the mountain range)

José Suárez was always attracted to snow and skiing, a hobby he shared with his friend Luis Tobío, for whom ‘Snow is of such absolute purity and sincerity. One feels refreshed, not just physically, but also intellectually. One feels rejuvenated, as if returning to the beginnings of humanity.’

He skied at the winter station of El Portillo, in the Chilean Andes mountain range, where he became acquainted with the famous French skier Emile Allais, world champion in 1937 and 1938, and whose portrait he took.

At the same time, he took a large number of photographs related to the sport and of the magnificent Andean mountains covered in snow. He created images of great formal beauty that remind us of the North American landscapers.

Once he was isolated for four months because of the snow ‘at the point where the highest railroad in the world passes, the one that connects Argentina and Chile.’[42] He was impressed by the conditions under which the railroad workers had to labour, and he took photographs of them. Thirty years later, ‘after having gone around the world almost twice by land, crossing the Suez and Panama canals, when asked which people had left a strongest impression on him, he replied that the Galician seamen and the shepherds of Patagonia… Oh! And also the workers at the Andes mountain range who were building the Trans Andean railway.’[43]

In addition to putting together a personal album dedicated to his experiences in the snow, to landscapes and portraits of friends, in 1942 he published the volume Nieve en la cordillera[44] with formally meticulous photographs, many of which hold certain similarities to those taken by Pierre Boucher (a photographer belonging to the French New Objectivity) to illustrate the book Ski. Méthode Française Technique Emile Allais (1947), which Emile Allais later presented to him with a dedication. The book provides two clearly differentiated aspects: the fun side of snow, such as skiing, and a more dramatic one that is clearly seen in the texts written by Suárez to accompany the photos, such as ‘The storm builds up to cover the sky with uncertain dangers.’

In 1945, at the Buenos Aires Amigos del Arte exhibit room, he staged the exhibition Fotografías de España. El mar y el hombre en las costas de Galicia (Photographs of Spain. Sea and man on the Galician coasts), where he presented 48 photographs of Galicia accompanied by the portrait of Unamuno. In the exhibition’s catalogue, J. M. Podestá wrote:

In his landscapes, as in his subjects, and in his inanimate objects, there is the pulse of an intense affective load, alive but contained; a powerful but discreet and severe artistic concern that is always predominant.

Man, with his suffering, joys, acts of bravery, his weaknesses, has inspired every single one of these photographs. Man and the world around him. Man and the things around him; Man and his eternal labour on land and at sea.

He also took his photographs to Santiago de Chile and showed them at the Amigos del Arte exhibit room. Thirteen years after the Buenos Aires show, in 1957, it was still recalled by the Galician expatriates. Thus, issue number 30 of Galicia Emigrante (we believe this was written by Luis Seoane) recalls that exhibition with the following words:

He was the first great photographer who did not limit his view to Galicia’s landscape and monuments. Instead, through hundreds of photographs, he captured its farming and seafaring tasks, where the face of the man from our land had true meaning … José Suárez’s Galicianism remains forever documented in his work.
Tired of the film world, he left Buenos Aires and took up residence in Punta del Este, Uruguay, where he was granted a residence permit in 1946. Núñez Búa recalls ‘There he built a beautiful house designed and directed from its foundations by him.’ In that house he set up a bookstore which he named ‘El yelmo de Mambrino’ and which opened for only a short period.

Punta del Este was the summer retreat for the Porteños and it was a lively place during the summer months. It was, in Tobío’s words, ‘a very sophisticated and posturing society; very presumptuous, where he, always elegantly dressed, was the photographer in vogue; their golden boy, because he was the one who photographed the important people, especially the women, among which he had great standing.

‘In South America I became a professional’, Suárez would say years later.[45] His work was published in the magazine Mundial and by the publisher Atlántida. And later, he worked for La Prensa, all of them in Buenos Aires.

The different series he produced during his stay in South America are noteworthy, especially those of the gauchos in the Pampas, which he published under the title Figuras de nuestra tierra (Figures of our land) and Campo argentino (Argentine countryside) in 1938. These photographs deal with the world of the gauchos in a way similar to how he approached that of the seamen. They are images that are carefully staged and reminiscent of his way of doing cinema. He pays close attention to objects and to the place they inhabit, but with the constant presence of man. The portrait of the gaucho reminds us of that of the seamen: the same gaze looking out towards infinity and also a slight low angle shot that gives the image an epic air. The dynamism of the gaucho throwing the lasso is striking (it was probably also staged) and breaks the stillness that characterises his images.

In the photographs of the cotton pickers, in the argentine province of Chaco, the scene is strengthened by the presence of meaningful clouds that are the product of the use of yellow or red filters, which are not only characteristic of this series, but which he also used continuously throughout his work. It is necessary to remember that historically, white skies tended to be associated to failed photographs.

The series carried out in Santiago del Estero is also extremely
interesting. It was done during the filming of Malambo, where he includes several portraits along the lines of those mentioned earlier, similarly to the ones of the shepherds from Tierra de Fuego.

Patagonia caused a deep impression in him, ‘it strongly attracted me, because there are regions where trees have a special shape due to the strong winds that continuously blow there.’[46]

In his personal notes he writes that ‘Man turns to nature and establishes a relationship of trust.’ This trust becomes dramatic in the images of the dried up trees or that have been knocked down by the wind. They are formally meticulous and are not the product of a contemplative gaze that seeks beautiful landscapes. The trees he shows us stand up to a completely adverse nature and their expressiveness could even be suggestive of a cry of rebellion, like the photograph taken in the island of Navarino, where a twisted tree trunk is set against the sky. Here, unlike with the majority of his photographs, there is no human presence, nor any objects that refer to it; they are photographs that connect to that which is suggested by the ones of the graveyard for ships on Magdalena Island.

This drama can also be seen on the staged photograph where part of an animal’s skeleton, resembling a skull, stands in for a man’s head with a certain amount of symbolism. It is also present in the images of the skulls that he hung on a fence and which adopt a new dimension when he writes on it ‘Seoane, don’t tell me that in the South Pole there is no new art emerging.’ This text indicates that he probably reflected with Luis Seoane on the meaning of art during that time, and that he might even have considered that a work of art carried construction inside it, compared to conceptions of art based on appropriation, as can be read in his words when he was interviewed by Emilio Salcedo ‘I wouldn’t go as far as saying that photographs are art; the photographer observes and uses.’[47]

For Eduardo Blanco Amor, who besides being a great writer was also an amateur photographer with a special sensibility, these photographs did not go by unnoticed, and years later he wrote:

And with his still camera —still?— he then unravelled the lyricism of vast lands and secret races; the mountain range, the extreme and fascinating South, the high Andean plateaus, so windy, so luminous —so inscrutable— looked at by countless informative eyes that did not see.[48]

In addition to the works he did in Argentina, he also did a series in Brazil, namely in Salvador de Bahía, where next to the images that describe the activity of the port, there are others which focus on form, on the play created by the sails of the vessels, resulting in great artistic beauty. These photographs bring to mind the series Beiramar, from the 1930s in Galicia.


Journey to Japan

The “frivolousness” of the society of Punta del Este, according to Luis Tobío, is what made Suárez pack his bags and go to Japan in 1953. For Tobío, ‘his journey to Japan and the long time he spent there was, actually, an escape from solitude, to the essence of being,’ and he recalls that Suárez said to him before leaving:

I need a period of peace, of quiet, of spiritual tranquillity and a change of surroundings. I’m going to see if in the East I can find that peace and quiet and the healthy sweetness, that, shall we say, Buddhist penetration. I’m going for some time and I will also develop my professional career by taking photographs of all that and its environment.

He travelled as a correspondent for the Montevideo newspaper Día and there he met the Portuguese writer Armando Martins Janeiro, who, because he spoke Japanese, introduced him to that extremely different world.

His posture towards the Japanese culture was not of curiosity for the exotic, typical of Western tourists, but instead, he made an effort to get to know it as much as possible. That knowledge led him to understand and admire its people, and above all to value their way of feeling and relating to nature. In his personal notes we can find musings where he compares this relationship with the one that takes place in the West:

The Japanese establish a dialogue with nature: with animals, their labour companions; with the rice fields, their yoke and joy; with trees, their friends. Their pantheist religion connects them with nature and they take what they need from it, filling their need to use it with affection.

Westerners descend from nomadic, shepherd races. They fight against nature, subjecting it to every manner of torment whenever they can. They challenge the elements, revealing their impotence against such an unequal struggle. The Japanese acquiesce as equals, admitting that nature should rebel against the serfdom that they are trying to impose on it.

He was very interested in Japanese Noh theatre and in Japanese culture in general. He considered that ‘by going there one has to forget all the experiences one has had. Like Ortega said, in exotic countries it is an entirely new beginning,’ rejecting the frivolous or simplistic approaches that were so common in the West.[49]

The two years he spent in Japan had a decisive influence in his way of seeing life. He came into contact with a foreign culture, becoming interested in its literature, history, mythology, and philosophy of life and in the different religions, and also studied the language. Noh theatre is one of the artistic manifestations that most moved him. Its simplification, stylization, and symbolism are at the heart of this theatre and make it, in the words of Ezra Pound ‘one of the great arts of the world.’ It is an art that largely corresponded to Suárez’s way of understanding photography, with regard to the simplification of the elements it uses, and the staging of life itself.

For him, art in Japan goes beyond theatre, literature, and painting, which fascinated him, as we can read from his personal notes:

…it becomes diluted in life itself. It is revealed in their behaviour, in their dress. In every utensil, no matter how modest, the utmost concern is clearly the aesthetic purpose. The practical purpose comes later. Not even the culinary art is free from this concern. It is said that our cuisine is prepared for our palate, that the Chinese is prepared for the stomach, and that the Japanese is prepared to be taken in with the eyes.

More than a discovery, Japan was an encounter with an atmosphere of sensitivity, of seclusion, and with an extremely refined landscape. He was concerned by indiscriminate growth and the overflowing import of objects and traditions from the West. As we can see from the photos he took in Galicia, he was always interested in tradition and in the world of crafts in general. In Japan, he reflected on the threat that industrial development could represent for the Japanese:

But also —over there and in a very evident way— he saw the two faces; the two poles between which our life stretches. The calm, the peace from the paper houses, so silent and secluded, and the huge blocks full of little boxes, like the ant hills of the industrial world.[50]

However, in spite of this industrialised world, which in his opinion was a threat to the Japanese millenary culture, he was pleased to see that there was also a nature where ‘an immediate communion could quickly be established with the landscape that so deeply influenced the art of the Japanese creators’, and he admired the spirit with which the Japanese relate to nature.[51]

In spite of the distance, yearning for his land is always present. In Japan, his contact with nature reminded him of Galicia, and he recorded in his notes:

Wenceslau de Moraes recounted that during a gathering of friends, when he was asked which thing in this exotic country most reminded him of the spirit of his land, he replied: The crow of the rooster.

Let me say, fist of all that I still haven’t heard the crow of the Japanese rooster, but if we were asked the same question, we would surely answer without hesitating: “the murmuring sound of the water.”

And he went on to add:

‘The place where I felt closest to Galicia was in Japan, on the day I saw a little girl running down a path that resembled a corredoira.’[52]

He said farewell to Japan by going on a pilgrimage, as due, to the peak of the Fujiyama in September 1954. It was an ascent that was full of symbolism and that is reflected in a photograph taken at the top. He refers to it as follows:

During my last days of coexisting with the Japanese, I wanted to say farewell to their land of enchantment, from the peak of Mount Fuji, the sacred mountain of the Shinto gods. I began the ascent with the same mountaineering spirit that had taken me up other peaks. I had only climbed a few metres when my pole became a pilgrim’s staff, directing my steps towards a monumental encounter that, at all times, brushes our senses when we live in close contact with the children of the Sun. This is, to my judgement, the state of mind with which Westerners should approach the rich and millenary culture of Japan.[53]

This mood became patent some days later, when he finally left Japan and headed towards South America, with feelings similar to those he had in 1936, when he was forced to leave Galicia as an expatriate. In his personal notes, under the heading Emigrantes [Emigrants], he wrote the following words:

Two black eyes were the only ones filled with tears. What did it represent for this young eighteen year old girl who, shyly standing by herself, could not hide her grief for being separated from her homeland?

As for everything else, if we did not know how much can be concealed behind the smile of a Japanese person, one would say, judging from my attitude, that I was the only one that was leaving behind a beloved land.

His experiences in Japan left a deep mark, as he himself wrote, ‘I have been told that I take photographs like a Japanese person. And today I believe that I am Japanese and that perhaps I am going through a period of karma for having mistreated some Westerner.’[54]

This influence lasted his entire lifetime, going as far as transforming his habits and even turning his house in Punta del Este into a house that emulates the Japanese ones. Luis Tobío recalls:

To find peace, one has to have a house like theirs, he told me. And that is how he lived, like an Oriental philosopher, as if encapsulated, distanced, calm, and joyous, surrounded by the beautiful things in life that are the natural and simplest ones.

In 1955 when he returned, he staged the exhibition Vislumbre de El Japón (A glimpse of Japan) at the Montevideo Amigos del Arte exhibition room, where he offered his view of the country through 156 photographs. In the text by Lafcadio Hearn which he chose for the heading of the exhibition catalogue, and with which he fully identifies, he makes clear his admiration for Japan and his interest in its civilisation:

…This is how this Old Japan civilisation, infinitely more ancient (than the Hellenic), achieves a degree of cultural and moral aesthetics that are worthy of our full admiration and praise. Only a superficial, an extremely superficial spirit, would label this culture as inferior…

Simultaneously to the show, he gave a conference on Japanese culture, illustrated with slides made by him and of which an account was given by the Montevideo newspaper País (13 June 1955). Later, in 1956, he gave another conference, also accompanied by a slide show, at the auditorium of the University of Montevideo. There he offered an overview of Japanese historical theatre, concluding with the reading of the Noh play Kantan by the artists who were members of the Theatre Club. He also delivered a series of lectures on Japanese culture that ended with a conference on painting, where he emphasised the importance that Japanese artists place on observing nature, where time does not count.

In 1957 he showed these photographs in the Van Riel Gallery of Buenos Aires, an event which was shared in Galicia Emigrante (No. 30). The article reproduced four photographs and declared:

With his version on Japan, José Suárez achieves a spontaneity and purity, especially with the light, that renders many of today’s similar endeavours anachronous and superficially picturesque … revealing, in addition to his certainty and profound insight, his unquestionable technical skill.

In 1967 he published in the magazine Grial (No. 2) a text titled “El Noh, teatro clásico japonés” (Noh, Japanese classic theatre), illustrated with his own photographs.[55]

In some of these images he used black and white and colour, but the black and white ones taken with the 6 x 6 camera and 35mm film, which are the ones he included in the exhibition, are more meticulous and more interesting from a photographic point of view. However, one should play close attention to the sequence of slides of the pearl seekers, who seem to be performing a water dance. His assessment of colour photographs leads us to think that the colour slides were made with the only purpose of illustrating his conferences. He clearly expressed this in the interview by Emilio Salcedo, mentioned earlier:

Colour relates to the poster. Everything disappears from the composition. Colour is what provides the perspective. It is more interesting for the photographer to translate colour into chiaroscuro. Sometimes a distant term can nullify the main one.

The black and white photographs he took in Japan present features that are different from those of the rest of his work. They resemble those taken by photojournalists and that were in vogue during that period, when illustrated magazines were at their peak, and Cartier-Bresson was the standard. Photographs from this series bring to mind some of the images by Werner Bischof during the same period. In these, Suárez keeps his distance from the photographic scene, without intervening, simply framing, and selecting the moment that interests him, without establishing a rapport with the subjects being photographed. This contrasts with his previous images, more elaborate, where the relationship with the subjects was clear. In those snapshots, the fact that the subjects do not look at the camera was not the product of spontaneity, but of the meticulous construction of the photograph, following a process very similar to filmmaking. An exception are the photographs where there is some relationship with the subject, as in the case of the woman with the shadow of a fan on her forehead, or the one of the two women in the garden; in both the photographer intervened in the staging.



During these years he came into contact with and photographed writers such as Ramón Pérez de Ayala, Rafael Alberti, Alejandro Casona, José Bergamín, and artists like Manuel Colmeiro or Laxeiro, who were also exiled in South America. Their dedicated portraits remain as memories. Rafael Alberti dedicated the sonnet “A la Gracia” (To Grace) to him in 1946. He highly valued these portraits as very important and placed them next to the images that he most treasured. So, when towards the end of his life, a journalist asked him which photographs he valued most, he replied: ‘Besides the portraits of Unamuno, Pérez de Ayala, Alberti, Casona, the ones that reflect the world of the South, or the lives of the seamen, or the exoticism of the Far East.’[56] The portraits of Casona, Ayala and Bergamín, taken on the beaches of Punta del Este or in the ship graveyards, are highly interesting. In these, as in the ones of the seamen, gauchos, and all the anonymous people, nobody looks at the camera. The only one who looks at it is the dog, which seems to be accompanying Bergamín, who wrote ‘Mine [photograph], and my dog’s, at the infinitely melancholic beach of Carrasco.’[57] Besides the fact that it is not as easy to direct the posture of a dog, this reminds us of how important dogs were for Suárez, particularly his own dog, Mambrino, which he photographed on several occasions and with which, like Bergamín, he posed in self portraits, as if he were a dear family relative. This is obvious from the sequence of 15 photographs which he took of his dog in a swimming race against one of his friends. Obviously, Mambrino won. His friend Tobío recalls Suárez saying: ‘I get along with him like an eight-year old boy.’ When he left for Japan, to mitigate his two-year separation from his dog, he made a kakemono with his image, which accompanied him during his whole life.


— His return

Núñez Búa, when speaking of José Suárez’s return to Galicia, cites Rilke:

Rilke, a poet without boundaries, wisely said that one can feel like one is the citizen of many nations, of the whole world even; but ‘one is in fact from the country of their childhood.’ This is why when his natural hypochondria became stronger, he went to Galicia to await his ‘actual death’, specifically to the Ourense of his childhood and teenage years. There he spent his final exhausted days, alone, fleeing even from his own memories. That is how he waited to rejoin the mother-land, like in Cernuda’s poem, ‘the body, which is made from soil, cries out for its land.’

In 1959 he decided to return from his exile, but, although the regime had lightened its repression, the dictatorship continued denying all types of freedom, and the cultural atmosphere was very different to the one he experienced during his exile. Luis Tobío thought he had ‘made a mistake by returning ahead of time. He sank into a depression, for his spirit was not in tune with the Spain of that period.’ It is also necessary to acknowledge that his poor health was a contributing factor, and this was worsened by his hypochondriac nature, according to doctor Núñez Puerta, the son of Unamuno’s physician. When he returned, he had a brief encounter with his wife, Mary, but their immediate disagreement was determining. At first he lived with his sister Luisa and with his brother Benito, in Allariz, where he set up a small photography laboratory, but he soon moved to the south, to Mojácar, and Ibiza, in search of the warm weather that he needed for his back pains.

Soon, in 1960, he travelled once again to Japan, where he interviewed Kurosawa and made a reportage of the film that the director was working on at the time: The Bad Sleep Well. This encounter is recorded in his personal notes as follows:

To watch a director immersed in his work saves any kind of interrogation, especially when are already familiar with the atmosphere of a film studio. So familiar that, suddenly, we become aware of our mission and try to go unnoticed. Who would have thought, in the midst of the most chaotic medium…?

This time he stayed in Japan for a shorter period than the previous one, and he took photographs using mainly a 35 mm camera, which is the one he used most since his return. It is true that this work did not raise the same interest as the one carried out during the previous decade, which is the one shown in this exhibition. During the first half of the 1960s, he did the series on La Mancha, which is defined by its vastness and depth, and which together with the series Mariñeiros, represents one of his most important works.[58] Through landscapes, streets, architectural elements, objects, and above all, photographs of the people who inhabit those areas and places, he approaches a space that was always present in his mind through Don Quixote. It is meaningful that he named his bookstore at Punta del Este El yelmo de Mambrino (Mambrino’s helmet) and named his dog and faithful companion Mambrino. Luis Tobío reminds us that he was annoyed by the poverty ‘and the negligence’ that he found when he returned from travelling through these locations, and that ‘the sentimental aspect that we find in the Quixote of setting off in search of Dulcinea we also find in Pepe, who had to leave without his wife, so he was immersed in loneliness.’ From his brothers we have learned that he set off in search of Don Quixote and only found “Sancho Panzas” finding that the poverty he had left behind before the Civil War had not changed, and it worried him.

Blanco Amor expertly described this work:

Never, to my knowledge, have whites exuded such calmness and self-absorption, while at the same producing such tender and expressive declamation, nor the blacks a content so pathetic and sober. (And its Great Master, who also left once, “taking the song with him” keeps walking, without adventure, around the “there” of those photographs: wearing no helmet, bearing no lance, not even the sad countenance, but alive. He pushes forward through these men and women created out of gouge strokes of light and shadow; in those sweet supportive beasts of burden, in the cherished, permanent shape of the objects: the crockery, the tools, the limiting

nature of the fences, the harmonious joining of the eaves, the wind mills that were considered giants and sometimes were: Castile).[59]

The people wearing black clothes in the white empty spaces take on a ghostly appearance, strengthened by the dramatic effect of the clouds that he achieved through the use of filters. These effects can also be clearly seen in the landscapes of careful composition based on the geometry of the crop fields, or in the snapshot of the peasants accompanying the animals with their loads, which is reminiscent of the images of refugees fleeing. On this occasion, the dog is of course also present, appearing next to the wind mills, just like in other photographs of people, except this time, again, the dog looks at the camera. This series contains descriptive images that could be defined as costumbrista, along the lines of the ones he took in Japan. But there are also others that are very suggestive, where the emptiness evokes solitude, sadness and desolation, clearly mirroring his mood, and his view of this society.

Unlike the series Mariñeiros, and like the one on Japan, most of the people are photographed without their complicity being perceived, as is usually the case with photojournalism reportages. However, it is worth paying close attention to some images, like the one of the peasant, where the complicity is present, and is reminiscent of the ones of the seamen. In this photograph, the man does not look directly at the camera and his thoughtful expression only reveals concern, which is customary in Suárez’s portraits. Here, however, he used the 35 mm camera that was common at the time for photojournalistic reportages.

The series started with the idea of publishing a book. His brothers spoke of a text by Rafael Alberti or Laín Entralgo, a friend of his brother Marcial, to accompany it, but the project never materialised.

This work became a presentation, through the prestigious Hispanist and BBC journalist, Nina Epton, to get in touch with the London publishing house Cassell and Company, who in 1966 commissioned him to work on a book on bullfighting. It was published in 1967 with the title The Life & Death of the Fighting Bull. The following year it was published in the USA with a design typical of the period, using different formats for the photographs to give them dynamism and make the images stand out.[60] The quality of the print, however, was quite poor, which is why Suárez was not satisfied with the result. The design of the cover may also have influenced, for it did not correspond to the draft which he kept in his archive, possibly made by him.

This work is characterised by the use of distance, and his focus is on the gaze of the protagonists of the capea[61]:, of the banderilleros, or of the bullfighters of the period. He also explores the expressive possibilities of shadows and the isolated elements, which he highlights when he crops negatives, in both cases showing the tension that accompanies those moments. The photograph of the two people against the white wall brings to mind the series La Mancha because of its formal composition and the feeling of emptiness that it generates.

In the 1960s he also produced two series on Ibiza and Mojácar because he lived in both towns. These works show strong similarities with the series on La Mancha; the white buildings also produce formally meticulous images where the satisfactory technical resolution is noteworthy, in spite of the strong light. There are costumbrista images of Mojácar through which he takes a look at daily life in places such as those, such as the ones which portray donkeys, or women hanging laundry. But there are others, like the one of the woman holding a broom, which go beyond costumbrismo because of the loneliness they transmit through the contrast between the blacks and whites. In Ibiza he took photographs of salt mines, also with formally meticulous images, where human labour is once again present, along with the elements that are suggestive of it. Noteworthy are the two images portraying a woman fully dressed in black, creating a ghostly presence similar to those of La Mancha, or the images of the crosses with the shadow of the tree, not exempt of symbolism.

Another series worth mentioning is the one he did in 1966 in Glyndebourne, in the south of England, where an important opera festival is held. The photographs, taken without the subjects perceiving his presence, are characterised by an expressive spontaneity that defines the life style of a particular English social class. The contrast between the clothes worn by the subjects and the fact that they are having a picnic, is striking. The context is completely different from the one he had recently photographed in Spain. On the other hand, these photographs are reminiscent of Cartier Bresson and, more specifically, of the deceased Tony Ray-Jones, who at the time was introducing a new way of photographing English society. According to his friend Saturnino Rego, with regard to this series, Suárez ‘was sorry that it had not been exhibited anywhere. When we said farewell, he gave it to me saying it was the last work he had developed.’[62]

During this period he worked as a correspondent for the Argentine newspaper La Prensa. Between 1960 and 1971 he published more than fifty reportages on Spanish and European cities, such as those on the Alfama in Lisbon, or the Acropolis in Greece. He also produced reportages on artists such El Greco and Salzillo, or on the houses of Virginia Woolf and Kipling. Moreover, he published other reportages with photographs from earlier periods, such as those related to Japan and Latin America. References to Unamuno and Don Quixote, or to Galicia could not fail to be included: ‘Galician shellfish’, ‘Galician towns’, ‘The stone granary’, ‘Galician itinerary’, ‘On the Galician coast’, and ‘Shellfish gathering in Galicia’s rias’.

Most of these reportages were published on a full page, with photographs in different sizes, following the guidelines of the illustrated magazines of the period. In some cases they were accompanied by texts by different authors, or written by Suárez himself, and in others there was no text at all. Some of these reportages are visually very attractive, such as the one on rice farming in Japan, or those of Santiago del Estero, Tierra de Fuego, cotton picking in the province of Chaco, Argentina, or the one on the Galician women shellfish gatherers. As was the custom in the journalism world, it was the editor who decided, so the photographs were cropped based on the design of the page.

Many of the images he took during that decade were the classic ones of photojournalistic reportages, without any special interest, although there are some noteworthy ones, such as the one he dedicated to Salzillo. In this latter photograph, the sculptures adopt a dynamism that endows them with extraordinary life. This led Juan José Torres, director of the museum, to write, ‘Surprise is putting it mildly and magnificence does not even begin to define his work. It is a highly outstanding page in the interpretation of Salzillo; I would almost go so far as saying that it is unique.’

To carry out these reportages he had to travel continuously, like he had previously done in South America, using all means of transportation, from horses to airplanes, or riding in the lorries that carried yarn through Chile and Argentina ‘but for long journeys I prefer to sail … one can rest quietly. My ship went adrift at the Strait of Magellan for nine hours and I was happy.’[63] At the end of his life he stated that ‘the perfect traveller is close to my ideal of man.’[64] But his journeys, and the one to Japan, specifically, do not only seem to respond to a professional duty or to a longing to discover different societies. There is also an attempt to escape, coming from a vital despondency, probably the result of the breakup that expatriation represented for him.

During the previous decades he had published in the mentioned Spanish and Latin American magazines, and in others such as US Camera (September 1952) and, in a later interview, he said he had published in Life.[65]

During those years he also took photographs in Galicia, returning to the fairs, which —mainly using the 35 mm camera— he documented without going into the staging of the images.[66] He also encountered the world of the sea again. Although this work lacks the intensity of the one he did in the 1930s, it contains interesting images that respond to the same aesthetics, such as the one of the octopi hanging out to dry. He also executed a long reportage on shellfish gathering in the Rías Baixas, and the images of the seaman photographed from behind or even the one of the nets are both noteworthy, even though they lack the expressive power of the former ones.

It is also necessary to mention the photographs of Santiago de Compostela, specifically the one of the hat shop’s display window, and the one of the priest with the chains, which had a clear symbolism for Suárez, and which he defined as the representation of the national-Catholicism of the time.

In all the photographs he is loyal to the maxim he repeated throughout his life: ‘Man continues to be present, or at least his trace.’ When the journalist F. Álvarez Alonso asked him if he would have liked to travel to the Moon, Suárez answered, ‘that must be very monotonous, with very depressing landscapes and, especially, no human life, which is what I have always tried to reflect, in one way or another.’[67]

For Suárez, photography was ‘an artistic need to express himself.’[68] As Tobío recalls, he considered that photographs have to have a soul. They cannot simply be a search for a formal composition … even though for him it was also very important, because it was a way of giving the images of the seamen, gauchos, shepherds, bullfighters, etc., more life.

After residing in the south, he returned to Galicia in 1967 and was in contact with nature ‘I’m scared of falling into that pit [Ourense]. I think I might feel better in Xugueiros [village near Allariz], when I’m near the rocks,’ he told his brother Marcial in a letter written in Galician in 1967. In this letter he conveys that he does not have a laboratory to work in and expresses his discouragement at his relationship with publishing companies. He was probably referring to the contacts he was establishing in order to publish the work on La Mancha, which was never printed.

That year he showed the series Mariñeiros at the Caja de Ahorros de Vigo exhibit room, with the catalogue’s text written by Blanco Amor, who was undoubtedly the Galician who best understood his photographs. Later, in 1971, the exhibition travelled to the Museum of Archaeology of Ourense, with the same text by Blanco Amor. In the words of Carlos Casares, a great friend of his, it ‘had an unexpected success.’[69] The previous year, the local newspaper La Región had interviewed him and dedicated three pages on different days. And on that same year it published photographs of him to illustrate the covers of the Sunday supplement. During the period when he lived in Ourense, he took part in the colloquium held at the Hotel Miño, which was also attended, among others, by José Luis Outeiriño, director of La Región, Pastor Fábrega, Luis Mariño, Blanco Amor, José Sueiro, Ramón Muñiz, or Carlos Casares, who said that to convince Suárez to exhibit at the Museum of Archaeology he had to call him “cascarrabias” (“grouch”).[70] In these colloquiums, that had an important intellectual content, José Suárez also related his experiences, and Pastor Fábrega recalls that ‘we were amazed.’

His financial situation since he returned to Ourense was very uncertain. His only income came from his collaboration with La Prensa. He was forced to sell some of his personal objects in order to make end meet. The values assigned to the paintings by Laxeiro, to sculptures, ceramic, tables, etc. appeared written behind one of his photographs. As of 1967 he stopped travelling abroad, with the exception of Portugal, and ended up boarding first at the Hotel Barcelona and then at the El Miño, in an interior room, because it was all he could afford. This situation, together with the lack of recognition he considered his work received, increased his depression. Núñez Búa recalls that when he met him in 1968, he found that ‘his spirit had been defeated by a damaged psyche; he told me he didn’t know and didn’t care what became of it [his archive]’.[71]

In spite of the depressive state he was in, he felt a certain enthusiasm when he was asked to work as an advisor in the project for the Cabeza de Manzaneda station. In 1972 he travelled with other colleagues to the Candanchú ski station to consider the possibilities for the future Galician ski station. Suárez himself gave an account of this journey in an article published in La Región (26 February 1972). In the early seventies in Manzaneda, his fondness for skiing led him to become acquainted with Saturnino Rego, who, in spite of their age difference, became one of his best friends.

Regardless of this exceptional event, his bitterness and despondency were absolute; he was fed up with life. His friends recall that loneliness weighed him down, which caused him to live an extremely sad life, but his posture was always against Franco’s regime. In spite of everything, and acknowledging his bad temper, Pastor Fábrega also remembers that ‘he was a gentleman, a man from another age. He never allowed anyone to speak ill of someone who was not present, but insisted on the idea of nobleness and extreme courtesy, and he had a very high ethical concept.’

He began to sell off his photography material in order to survive, including his cameras; the medium format Mamiya and the Canon, which Saturnino had bought for him, and he eventually stopped engaging in photograpjy altogether.

In December 1973, when his friend José Núñez Búa passed through Ourense, he saw that the end was approaching. ‘He went to get me at the hotel where I was staying. He didn’t find me. He left me a short and polite letter. Through that letter I realised, to my great sorrow, that my friend would soon be leaving us.’[72]

On that month of December 1973 he took Saturnino Rego to José Sueiro’s house, where he kept all his things:

And he started to separate photos, books, and his personal album that he treasured, and he gave them to me. When he gave me the album on the snow I knew what was going to happen. We hugged each other and it was a miracle that we didn’t burst into tears. He knew I understood him. I had no arguments to tell him to stay. The reality of his life had run out. He didn’t have the smallest reason to continue living … He also gave me the record of Fauré’s Requiem, asking me to listen to it after he had gone.[73]

On January 5th he committed suicide in a boarding house in A Guarda, after having attempted it previously. He had with him the manuscript of the prologue that Unamuno had written for his first book and the following letter:[74]

To everyone who in a way may be affected by the trouble my death may cause; above all, forgive me for troubling you.

I beg to be buried in the cemetery of the city or town of my death, in the most modest possible way, and not accompanied by any type of prayers or rites from any religion. A wooden, unpainted casket and a common grave is all I want.

Some friend, when hearing of my death, might listen to
FAURÉ’S REQUIEM to remember me by.

A long time ago I became best friends with death, and I am sure that I will greet it without bitterness. Anywhere in the world.

But his work has lasted forever and we hope that one day the wish he made in 1971 will come true, ‘that one day my photographic archive will help to set up the photographic library that needs to be.[75]


[1]                 Bergamín, José (1977). “José Suárez,” catalogue for the exhibition at the Casa de Brasil in Madrid.

[2]                 Suárez, Francisco (1981). “Recordo do meu irmán,” in Suárez Canal, Xosé Luis, José Suárez. Galicia. Terra, mar e xentes, Edicións Xerais,Vigo, p. 11.

[3]                 Suárez Canal, X.L. (1995, March) Interview Luis Tobío, Madrid. Because this interview will be referred to on several occasions, for the sake of avoiding unnecessary repetitions, it is understood that the testimonies by Luis Tobío are from this interview, unless a different source is specifically indicated.

[4]                 Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 3) Interview: “D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero II”, La Región, Ourense.

[5]                 Ibidem.

[6]                 Blanco Amor, Eduardo, catalogue for the exhibition Mariñeiros, shown at the art room of Caja de Ahorros de Vigo (Vigo, 1967) and at Museum of Archaeology of Ourense (1971).

[7]                 Both to illustrate the Complete Works of Editorial Aguilar from the 1950s as well as studies on his work, or for other purposes, such as the one more recently published on the ONCE lottery tickets on 29 September 2014.

[8]                 Núñez Búa, José (1974, December 29). “Cuando José Suárez retornó a Galicia”, La Prensa, Buenos Aires. Because we shall be citing this article on numerous occasions, it is understood that we are referring to it when quoting Núñez Búa, unless a different source is indicated.

[9]                 “Las penas y los trabajos de las mujeres gallegas”,
La Estampa (No. 320), Madrid, 1934.

[10]               Some of these photographs were reproduced in the magazine Mundial, in January 1936.

[11]                [TN] Testing the bull’s fierceness.

[12]               When Unamuno died, his daughter gave him his tie pin, and a pair of her father’s glasses, which gives us an idea of the affection he felt for Suárez.

[13]                [TN] Woman from Salamanca.

[14]               [TN] Woman from Madrid.

[15]               [TN] Woman from Andalusia.

[16]               In 1987, X. Enrique Acuña was curator for the exhibition Impressions de Galice dans les années 30. Photographies José Suárez, in Dounenez (France). Ouest France published a catalogue with several images from these series.

[17]               José Suárez, Concello de Vigo, 1988, and Álbum José Suárez, Centro de Estudos Fotográficos, Vigo, 1993.

[18]               Before departing for Venezuela, his brother Manolo bequeathed a large set of small sized photographs to the Museum of Pontevedra, in the 1940s. This suggests that they were probably studio prints.

[19]               These stereopticon slides were recently brought over by the son of his brother Manolo, who had taken them to Venezuela to give them to his brother, but they never saw each other in South America.

[20]               During the presentation of the book José Suárez. Galicia. Terra, mar e xentes, at Galería Sargadelos in Madrid, in 1981, Tobío mentioned what Suárez said to him when he gave him this photograph.

[21]               In issue number 15 (1955) Oleiros; in number 18 (1956) A Malla and in number 11 (1955) Romería de san Vitoiro.

[22]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 3). Interview: “José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero II”, La Región, Ourense.

[23]               [TN] Type of large net used in Galicia for fishing sardines and other fish.

[24]               Alberti, Rafael (1966). Marinero en Tierra, Ed. Losada, Buenos Aires, 3rd edition, p. 85.

[25]               He kept this double page, mounted on hardboard, until his final days, when he gave it to Luis Carballo, who in turn, gave it to X. L. Suárez Canal.

[26]               Catalogue for the exhibition held in 1945 at the Buenos Aires Amigos del Arte exhibit room.

[27]               Delegación de la Unión Internacional de Socorro a los Niños de América Latina, Buenos Aires (1946). Imágenes de España. Includes 11 photographs from this series and another, used for the cover, portraying three children crying in front of a flaking wall. The caption to this photograph reads “Galicia: on the wall are the marks made by the bullets that did away with the father’s life”, but we cannot be sure that this image belongs to this series because the negative is classified in the file Niños (Children). We also cannot be sure whether the caption is correct, because he went into exile in December 1936.

[28]               In 1982, Manuel Vilariño held an exhibition at the gallery Cuartoscuro of Ferrol, of a selection of photographs from this series, and in 1984 Joan Fontcuberta included a selection in the project Idas e caos. From this moment on, they were included in numerous exhibitions dealing with the Spanish photography from this period.

[29]               Blanco Amor, Eduardo, op. cit.

[30]               According to the testimony of several of his siblings, he refused to accept the fascist’s proposal to photograph Madrid from the sky.

[31]               Heraldo Cinematográfico (1938, August 3). Buenos Aires.

[32]    Ibidem.

[33]               Mariñeiros. Works produced by the students Cris Dorrío Feijoo, Susi Raposo Guillán, Andrés Juan Rial González and Rita Romero García, in 1995, as part of the subject taught by Xosé Luis Suárez Canal at the Faculty of Journalism of the University of Santiago de Compostela.

[34]               Ibidem.

[35]               [TN] University student ‘troubadours’.

[36]               Núñez Búa, José (1974, March 13). “Unha grande perda. José Suárez”, La Región, Ourense.

[37]               Seoane, Luis (1977). Prologue to Carantoñas e outros dibuxos, Edicións Cuco-Rei, A Coruña.

[38]               Seoane, Luis (1991). “Notas autobiográficas”, in Luis Seoane. Textos inéditos, University of Santiago de Compostela. Cited in Luis Seoane. 1910-1979 (1994). Edicións Xerais, Vigo.

[39]               [TN] Student residence in Santiago and best-selling novel by Alejandro Pérez Lujín, published in 1915.

[40]               Ibidem.

[41]               Salcedo, E. (1964, September 27). Interview: “José Suárez, vuelto a su raíz salmantina”, La Gaceta Regional, Salamanca.

[42]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 1). Interview: “D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero I”, La Región, Ourense.

[43]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 4). Interview: “D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero y III”, La Región, Ourense.

[44]               Published by Editores Domingo Viau y Cía.
de Buenos Aires.

[45]               Salcedo, E. (1964, September 27). Interview: “José Suárez, vuelto a su raíz salmantina”, La Gaceta Regional, Salamanca.

[46]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 3). Interview: “D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero II”, La Región, Ourense.

[47]               Salcedo, E. (1964, September 27). Interview: “José Suárez, vuelto a su raíz salmantina”, La Gaceta Regional, Salamanca.

[48]               Blanco Amor, Eduardo, op. cit.

[49]               Salcedo, E. (1964, September 27). Interview: “José Suárez, vuelto a su raíz salmantina”, La Gaceta Regional, Salamanca.

[50]               Tobío, Luis, El hombre. Text read out loud in the Sargadelos Gallery of Madrid on the occasion of the presentation of the book José Suárez. Galicia. Terra, mar e xentes, Edicións Xerais,Vigo, 1981.

[51]               Personal notes.

[52]               [TN] Galician term for a narrow, rural path in between low stone walls.

[53]               Suárez, José (1963). “O Noh. Teatro clásico xaponés”, Grial (No. 2), Vigo, p. 120.

[54]               Salcedo, E. (1964, September 27). Interview: “José Suárez, vuelto a su raíz salmantina”, La Gaceta Regional, Salamanca.

[55]               Years later, in 1979, Liliane Brusq staged an exhibition at the P.A.C. of Brest with a wide selection of photographs from this series, and a catalogue was published.

[56]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 4). Interview: “D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero y III”, La Región, Ourense.

[57]               Catalogue of the exhibition held at Madrid’s Casa de Brasil in 1977.

[58]               In 2005 Xosé Luis Suárez Canal curated the exhibition La Mancha at the Instituto Cervantes of Lisbon, which later travelled to Porto. A catalogue with 80 photographs from this series was published.

[59]               Blanco Amor, Eduardo, op. cit.

[60]               The edition from 1967 is by Casell and the one from 1968 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Both editions are the same and include a text by John Marks.

[61]               [TN] A bullfight with novice bulls.

[62]               Interview by Xosé Luis Suárez Canal in 2015.

[63]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 4). Interview: “D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero y III”, La Región, Ourense.

[64]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 3). Interview: “D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero II”, La Región, Ourense.

[65]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 1). Interview: “D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero I”, La Región, Ourense.

[66]               Xosé Luis Suárez Canal published José Suárez. Galicia. Terra, mar e xentes, Edicións Xerais de Galicia, Vigo, 1981, which contains these works, as well as the series Mariñeiros, from the 1930s.

[67]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 3). Interview: “D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero II”, La Región.

[68]               Salcedo, E. (1964, September 27). Interview: “José Suárez, vuelto a su raíz salmantina”, La Gaceta Regional, Salamanca.

[69]               Casares, Carlos, (1974, January 8) “Pepe Suárez”, La Voz de Galicia, A Coruña.

[70]               Ibidem.

[71]               Núñez Búa, José. (1974, March 13). “Unha grande perda. José Suárez”, La Región, Ourense.

[72]               Ibidem.

[73]               Interview with Saturnino Rego.

[74]               His brother Paco later bequeathed this manuscript, together with Unamuno’s glasses, to the Unamuno House-Museum.

[75]               Álvarez Alonso, F. (1970, December 4). Interview: ”D. José Suárez, gran fotógrafo y gran viajero y III”, La Región, Ourense.