Time Traveler: José Ortiz Echagüe, A Spanish visionary who focused on the past

Recently, in an inspired moment, I decided to organize my photographic files. As I sorted and labeled twenty years of negatives and prints, what I thought would be a tedious job turned out to be thoroughly engaging and revelatory. I had forgotten about my fascination with one painted Renaissance maiden, holding an eternally blooming rose in her right hand. I had erased from my visual memory the specific shade of fire-gold aspen leaves become in autumn. I had forgotten how my twenty-year-old son looked in his first basketball uniform, the red shorts drooping over his knees. As I placed the images in chronological and thematic order, I realized that without these and many other photographs, I would no longer have direct access to a great deal of my past or to the memories, revelations, or aesthetic experiences that past provided.

Click on any thumbnail to see a larger version and more information about each image.

Photos reproduced courtesy of the Foundation of the Legado Ortiz Echagüe, University of Navarra, Spain, and courtesy of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain.

Copyright © Legado Ortiz Echagüe – Universidad de Navarra

Fundación Universitaria de Navarra,All rights reserved.

Just as my pictures recorded my history for me, Spain is fortunate to have visual access to a vitally important chapter of its past, thanks to José Ortiz Echagüe. By photographically capturing the costumes, customs, settings, and landscapes of early twentieth-century Spain, his work preserved a major portion of Spain’s cultural and ethnic heritage. You might call Ortiz Echagüe a visionary with eyes in the back of his head, an artist and scientist who valued destinations and origins alike. As an engineer, he was at the forefront of the industrial age in Spain. As an artist and photographer, he safeguarded that which industrialization would ignore and, eventually, bury–Spain’s regional cultures and ways of life.

During his lifetime, Ortiz Echagüe’s photography was exhibited only twice in Spain’s national library. However, in 1999, his work was exhibited in three major Spanish art museums, including the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. Why has his work graduated from being hung as a temporary extra in a library to being showcased as a major exhibit in Spain’s largest national contemporary art museum? Because in his visual preservation of the peoples and landscapes of Spain and Northern Africa, Ortiz Echagüe created images that have all the qualities of fine art–dynamic composition, a sense of grandeur, a skillful balance of shading and tones, and technical excellence. Also, as critics and the public of Spain become better educated about the artistic range of photography, they discover that Ortiz Echagüe’s work deserves rediscovery.

True to the ancient proverb about the “prophet in his own land,” prior to 1999, Ortiz Echagüe’s creations garnered more artistic respect outside of Spain. During his lifetime, his photographs appeared in both group and individual exhibits in Los Angeles, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in Milan, Mexico City, London, France, and New Zealand, among other venues.

An Early Start

José Ortiz Echagüe was the fifth of eight children born to Antonio Ortiz, a military engineer, and his wife Dolores Echagüe. Born in 1886 in Guadalajara, he grew up in Logroño in northern Spain. Although an ear infection during his childhood left him deaf in one ear, he was able to compensate for his hearing loss and was accepted into the Spanish military at age sixteen. He enrolled in the Academy of Military Engineers, and after completing his studies, was stationed in North Africa at age twenty-two.

The camera had already become his constant companion before he entered the military. An uncle gave him his first camera when he was twelve (a Kodak box camera). The gift was intended as an ounce of prevention by well-meaning family members, since his older brother Antonio had opted for becoming a painter rather than complying with the family tradition of military service. Both his father and uncle thought that giving the young José a camera would keep him away from painting, and above all, away from that decadent city called Paris, where his older brother had moved. When Ortiz Echagüe turned fifteen, his Uncle Francisco gave him a second, more advanced camera, a 9 x 12 cm. Photosphere.

Ortiz Echagüe would have two careers between the age of sixteen and his death. He began his serious, professional pursuit of photography at the same time be began his engineering studies and excelled in both. He took his first critically acclaimed photo at age sixteen and, when he was only nineteen, he had the honor of photographing King Alfonso XIII. He graduated third in his class in the military academy. He was founder and president of CASA, Construcciones Aeronaúticas (Aeronautic Constructions) in 1923, and became president of Spain’s first–and, at that time, only–car manufacturer, SEAT (Sociedad de Automóviles) in 1950. He worked in both these companies as an executive and engineer until age eighty-one and continued with CASA until age eighty-three. Many Spanish artists and intellectuals fled during and after the Spanish Civil War. Ortiz Echagüe did not. Two of his sons died in that war, and he later remarked that his photographic work helped him go on, in spite of the grief he and his family experienced. He took his last photograph when he was eighty-two.

First Appearances

After completing his second military assignment in Northern Africa in 1916, Ortiz Echagüe began his first major conceptualized photographic work, called “Tipos y Trajes” (Peoples and Costumes). He later published five books, each of which centers on a particular theme: Spanish Heads (Cabezas Españolas) in 1929;Spain: Peoples and Landscapes (España. Pueblos y Paisajes) in 1939; Mystic Spain (España Mística) in 1943; and Spain: Castles and Fortresses (España.Castillos y Alcázares) in 1956. These “documentary” books met with unprecedented success, selling more than 200,000 copies in luxury editions, something unheard of for photographic books in Spain during that time. His work was first published in the United States in 1936 in National Geographic.

Ortiz Echagüe’s success, however, did not come without criticism. Much of that criticism originated from his Spanish contemporaries. He was accused by some of failing as a documentary photographer because his work was overly “pictorial” or artistic. Others felt that he was trying to make his photographs “imitate” paintings. Toward the end of his career, in spite of his status as a photography pioneer in Spain, he was virtually ignored, because his subject matter was not “avant-garde enough.”

In a 1962 interview, a reporter asked Ortíz Echagüe if he was trying to imitate painting, to which the photographer replied, “Let’s not exaggerate. Let photography remain in the modest station it occupies.” Some forty years earlier, Ortiz Echagüe told the Spanish press, “Nothing could be farther from my thoughts than to turn a photograph into a drawing, something I see as a fundamental error. I strive for my carbon prints to have a totally photographic appearance.” Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that the “modest” art of photography, in the hands of Ortíz Echagüe, resulted in magnificent images that do, indeed, offer a painterly photography, or, if you prefer, a photographic painting.

How did he do it?

Mysterious Technique

Ortíz Echagüe used the carbon Fresson process for many of his images. The key to the process is the photographic paper itself, invented by Frenchman Théodore Henri Fresson at the turn of the century. In an article in the New Pictorialist, author and photographer Dr. S. Carl King described the Fresson process: “A study of the early literature suggests that Fresson paper was manufactured by coating a sized paper with several layers of pigmented colloid, varying in pigment density from very pale to almost opaque. For the process to work, each of the colloid layers needs to be of a different sensitivity than its neighbor, with the most sensitive (and palest) coating on the bottom and the least sensitive (and most opaque) on the top. The theory behind this coating procedure is identical to that employed in the production of multiple-layer gum prints, the only exception being that in fresson all of the layers were applied at once, and only one printing and developing were required.”

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “colloid” means a suspension of particles in a continuous medium. Some photographers also refer to this colloid as pigmented gum or gel. The paper used in carbon-direct printing has a black or very dark top coating, while the layers beneath the top coating have progressively lighter pigmentation, and at least one layer may have no pigmentation at all. The paper usually has four layers of coating. Each pigmented layer hardens to its own degree, according to the amount of light it receives. Then, the print is put in a water-and-sawdust solution. The abrasive action of the sawdust removes the pigment that does not harden. (Photo Techniques, October 1997) In the case of Ortiz Echagüe’s work, the gel contained watercolor pigment. He sensitized the paper a few hours before developing by submersing it in a bichromate solution.

The paper’s multilayer emulsion is quite sensitive and doesn’t last long on the shelf, limiting its practicality for commercial distribution. For this reason, the Fresson family stopped public distribution of their paper in 1966. However, they provided the information that Ortiz Echagüe needed in order to manufacture his own paper for carbon-direct printing. He referred to his own photographic paper as “carbondir.” Carbon prints, like their gum-bichromate cousins, are as permanent an image as one can achieve with a photograph.

Although some photographers who have used this process say that you can or should print only once with carbon direct printing, there is evidence that Ortiz Echagüe ignored this maxim. A friend of the photographer, Gerardo Vielba told King that virtually all of Ortiz Echagüe’s cloud images were the result of combination prints. Madrid photographer Adam Lubroth, a specialist in gum-bichromate process, observed that a number of Ortiz Echagüe’s prints look as though they were moved during the printing process, leading Lubroth to conclude that this visual effect is the result of either a double exposure or, as Vielba indicated, of double printing. We may never know just exactly how this builder of cars and airplanes used his engineering and chemical knowledge to push the limits of the process. Shortly before his death, Ortíz Echagüe sold his fresson paper-making equipment to Canadian photography scholar Luis Nadeau.

Ortiz Echagüe produced all one hundred fifty prints shown in the recent Reina Sofía exhibit using the carbon Fresson printing process. Each image looks as handmade or as hand-touched as a charcoal drawing or a realistic watercolor, while at the same time it displays all the detail and accuracy of a documentary photograph.

Means to an End

It would be a mistake, however, in any study of the photographer, to place top priority on Ortiz Echagüe’s printing techniques, as accomplished and cutting-edge as they were. They were an important means to a much more important end. He, himself, made his photographic priority clear when he wrote, “I don’t understand why photographic artists have such a marked tendency to speak mainly of the methods they use, instead of the emotions they are able to communicate through their negatives.”

Ortiz Echagüe’s work demonstrates an intense emotional range and quality. His printing techniques enhance this emotional effect, but his primary passion and goal are what fuel it. His lifelong desire to preserve the past and the origins of his photographic subjects is as much a part of these photographs as are the subjects and places themselves. His work is sometimes compared to that of Edward Curtis who published twenty volumes of photographs of North American Indians. There are some important differences between the two photographers’ work, however. The most important one is that Curtis was not a North American Indian himself, and Ortiz Echagüe certainly was a Spaniard. His own Spanish /Basque ancestry and his exposure to Arab culture in Northern Africa (a culture which exerted a major influence on Spanish civilization) made him an integral part of the cultural landscape he sought to capture.

In fact, Ortiz Echagüe is being credited more and more with not only documenting the origins of present-day Spanish culture, but also preserving Spain’s primordial archetypes. This is because in many of his images, Ortiz Echagüe photographs more than the person, illustrating an entire people symbolized by and represented in the stance, costume, or countenance of his subject. The strong angles of the stern Basque oarsman (“Remero Vasco II”) hint of the Viking, sea-faring ancestry of the Basque people. The woman elected mayoress (“Alcaldesa of Zamarramala”) for the day in the village of Zamarramala, stands dressed in her costume, ready to perform the Jota de la Alcaldesa, a dance that represents hundreds of years of Segovian tradition. Wrapped in his heavy white cloak, the “Sorian Shepherd” appears as part of the earth, a small mountain rising, a signal to be sighted on a distant hill, a part of nature, yet apart from it.

In his day, the persons Ortiz Echagüe photographed were the last of their kind. As this century comes to a close, only on certain regional holidays will we glimpse what remains of their costumes, their artisanship, and their hard, complex, yet meaningful way of life. Nor will the dry plains of Castilla ever reproduce the same soul-bending, soul-making solitude Ortiz Echagüe captured in his images of Spain’s high heartland. The cars and airborne engines he helped design changed that solitude forever, even in the most remote villages.

Far-reaching Legacy

The current rediscovery of Ortiz Echagüe has been made possible by yet another act of preservation, this one initiated by the photographer’s family. During the 1980s, the Ortiz family donated 28,000 of his negatives and 1200 of his original carbon Fresson (or carbon-direct) photographs to the University of Navarra, which has also conserved the photographer’s laboratory.

As a visual historian of a changing nation, Ortiz Echagüe left a master’s portrait of what writer Christian Peterson called “that confusing Spanish world.” As a photographic artist, he left an outstanding example of all that photography can both do and be, as an artistic expression and as a documentary medium. As documents, Ortiz Echagüe’s photographs preserve, record, and recall a world that deserves and needs not to be forgotten, a distinct universe that contained origins, traditions, and unique ways of living in the world. As works of art, his photographs stand entirely on their own as skilled expressions of beauty. These images offer the viewer much more than a view. They offer a vision, a unique interpretation of a time, a place, and the humanity that occupied them both. They also offer us, as does every good photograph, the vision of the man who created them, who with his camera in his hands, converted that which might have disappeared into something that will always remain.



A look at what was being photographed in other parts of the Western world during the same time period when Ortiz Echagüe worked on his series “Peoples and Costumes” helps one see just how different rural Spain was at this time. Here, a cover photograph from a French magazine (Courtesy Tara MacGinnis at www. costumes.org and author of the Costume Manifesto), and the photo of “La Montehermoseña Sentada” by Ortiz Echagüe, photographed just three years earlier in 1931.

by Ysabel de la Rosa

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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