IN PICS: Exquisite images of bygone Barcelona discovered by American tourist at flea market

Fiona Govan
Fiona Govan - [email protected] • 25 Jan, 2017 Updated Wed 25 Jan 2017 08:45 CEST
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An impulse purchase of some tattered old envelopes at a Barcelona flea market led to the discovery of an extraordinary treasure trove of old photographs revealing a Barcelona of a bygone era. And led to a quest to discover the identity of the unknown photographer.


Tom Sponheim was idly browsing "what looked like a lot of old junk" at Els Encants in the summer of 2001, when he came across a box of brown envelopes, each one containing a collection of negatives.

"It looked like someone had just cleared out the contents of an old apartment, but I am fascinated by old photographs so I bought the lot for the equivalent of about $3.50," he tells The Local in a Skype interview from his home in Seattle.

"To be honest I doubted that there was much of interest there, but nevertheless, it wasn’t a big outlay so I took the risk."

In fact, ever since childhood, he has been collecting old photographs, a hobby he explains developed after his great aunts died and their own archive of family photographs were lost in transit to his own home.

On his return to Seattle, he examined the negatives and as soon as he saw the first image, a photograph of a schoolgirl pausing as if to eavesdrop on two older women seated on a bench, he recognised that he had stumbled across real talent.

"I’ve been a keen amateur photographer my whole life and at a glance I knew that one shot was better than anything I had ever taken. It was great story telling captured in one image.  What were they gossiping about that stopped the girl in her tracks?"

Photo: Tom Sponheim / Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona

What Sponheim had discovered was a rare collection of images taken on the streets of Barcelona in the 1950s, capturing its residents unaware as they went about their daily life.

The images provide insight in subjects rarely captured during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, nuns strolling down the street, housewives gossiping, a child thoughtful during a ballet class.

Photo: Tom Sponheim / Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona

Sponheim, who for 30 years has volunteered and worked for Solar Cookers International, an NGO that promotes cookers powered by the sun,  printed some of his favourite images and displayed them on the wall of his dining room. But over the years, his curiosity over  their provenance grew and grew.

Who was the talented photographer  who so exquisitely captured the residents of Barcelona?

"When I heard the story of Vivian Maier, I just saw so many similarities," said Sponheim referring to the Chicago nanny hailed posthumously as one of the most talented street photographers of the 20th century, after she left behind a collection of over 100,000 images.

 "This photographer was unusual because they are not posed but show a realism that wasn’t  usual at the time," explains Sponheim. "They depict the real life of real people, sometimes revealing  aspects of poverty and despair that was really quite subversive during a dictatorship."

 Photo: Tom Sponheim / Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona

"More than ever I want to know why did this person decide to start taking pictures that were a little bit provocative for the political times? Why did that happen?  What happened to the photographer and how did the negatives end up on a stall at a flea market?" he asked.

 Photo: Tom Sponheim / Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona

In an attempt to find out more about the unknown Barcelona photographer, Sponheim turned to social media and set up a Facebook page to publicize the search for information.

Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona -  The Lost Photos of Barcelona - has more than 10,000 followers and has brought him information about where the photographs were taken and even a clue to the identity of some of the subjects.

"It’s amazing what can be achieved using social media, how much I have been able to discover from Seattle without going back to Barcelona," explained Sponheim.

Visitors to the page have commented when they recognize the location in the photograph, some think they have identified a long dead member of their family

"It has suddenly gained momentum and has people talking about it," said Sponheim, who dreams of staging an exhibition of the photographs and tracing, if not the photographer himself (or herself) then at least a relative.

But so far, the mystery remains as to the true identity of the photographer.

Tom Sponheim holding the envelopes he bought at the flea market for the equivalent of $3.50 and some of the prints on his dining room wall behind. Photo: Tom Sponheim


To see more of the images check out Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona facebook page. 



Fiona Govan 2017/01/25 08:45

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